March 30, 2006

Trying to Make Sense of Tragedy

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In high school, basketball was my life – one that had an unhappy ending. The last gasp of my playing days ended with me on the foul line, the ball in my hands with the game at stake, needing just two free throws to clinch the win and advance the Lady Beavers to the next round of the Section VII playoffs. But, in the greatest choke performance of my life, I put up two bricks and watched the final seconds of my time on the hardcourt dribble away in defeat.

It’s a feeling like no other – a debilitating combination of failure, confusion and regret. It freezes your heart and stirs up nausea in your gut and unleashes the floodgates. And after that chilly winter night when I took off the Keene Central orange and black for the last time, it’s an emotional storm I’ll never have to endure as part of a sports team again. But that’s not to say my life since has been free of that frightening feeling.

In college, the lines are much blurrier and the rules nearly nonexistent. And that same feeling sneaks up on me every so often – like the morning I woke up alone in a friend’s attic. Or the morning after “Tequila Tuesday” that I woke up backwards in my bed and had to drunkenly stumble through the third day of classes. Even in high school – the first day of 2003, when I opened my eyes and found myself on a bare mattress in someone’s spare bedroom. Each time, I couldn’t remember what I had done or what I drunk to end up where I woke up. As the pieces came together and the night before took shape, that old familiar feeling crawled back into the pit of my stomach – how did this happen? How did I let it happen? And how can I turn back the clock, erase reality and fix it?

It’s the way things are – especially at Cornell, where the competition is fierce to work hard and play harder. We’re in college, we’re young, we want to have fun and we think we’re immortal. Objectively, we realize there could be serious consequences to our actions, but we’re too busy drinking away the nights we won’t be able to remember but will never forget and will retell in wistful, nostalgic tones to our own children decades down the road. My mother and even my dentist have told me to cut back on the drinking, but it always went in one ear and out the other like a 9:05 economics lecture.

But last Tuesday morning, I got a wake-up call – literally. My mother shook me from the midst of my Spring Break slumber to show me the local paper, which carried the AP story that reported freshman Matthew Pearlstone had been found dead in a UVA dorm. I jumped to the obvious conclusion that has since been borne out by an autopsy – alcohol poisoning was the cause of his death. That sickening feeling that something had gone terribly awry tied my stomach in knots once again.

I won’t say I’m done with drinking because of his untimely death. Chances are, I’ll be out at the bars this Friday night – I turned 21 Feb. 1 and that magic driver’s license, the ID that is blessedly absent of the siren-red letters blaring “UNDER 21” hasn’t yet lost its charm. And on Saturday, I might have a few beers while I watch the Final Four, because sports and drinking go together like Red Bull and back-to-back prelims. As tragic and devastating as Pearlstone’s death is, I can’t pretend it’s enough to make me leave behind forever the allure of the bars, frat parties, house parties, Orientation free-for-alls, and the silliness of Slope Day. And I can’t tell you to, either.

But what I can say is that maybe we can all take it as a warning, a cautionary tale that illustrates in no uncertain terms that we’re all one sloppy out-of-control night from causing our family and friends immeasurable heartbreak. And maybe Pearlstone can teach us a lesson that we won’t find detailed on a syllabus or batted around in a discussion section – that with great privilege comes great responsibility. We refuse to let parents, administrators, or the law obstruct our race for the bottle of vodka or the case of Beast. We kick and scream to be free from authority, and we call ourselves adults. So let’s start acting like it. My high school gym teacher used to say, “Don’t point a finger, because when you do, there are three pointing back at you.” Don’t blame the lack of University intervention or education and the college culture for these senseless deaths. Look in the mirror, and realize it’s up to the individual to exercise awareness and self-control, to stop pushing others to drink more when they’ve had enough, and that having fun with your friends includes looking after them when they pass out.

When you’re out this weekend, go ahead and raise a glass in memory of Matthew Pearlstone. Then think about his legacy a little longer, and remember not to raise too many.

Olivia Dwyer is the Sun Sports Editor. Forever Wild will appear every other Thursday this semester

Archived article by Olivia Dwyer