One of the last Peanuts strips Charles M. Schulz drew shows Peppermint Patty sitting on the ground in the rain after a football game. She seems characteristically unfazed, but nobody else appears to be around as she asks Charlie Brown for his next move. Finally, Marcie appears to tell her that everybody else has gone home: “We had fun, didn’t we, Marcie?” Peppermint Patty asks. “Yes, sir…we had fun,” Marcie responds as she walks away. Peppermint Patty has the final word as she sits alone: “Nobody shook hands and said, ‘good game.’”
Schulz himself did not know it as he worked on it, but this would mark the last time that Peppermint Patty and Marcie would appear in Peanuts. Soon after drawing this strip, he would be diagnosed with colon cancer and choose to retire the comic strip, passing away the night before the final strip was published two months later. This strip in question was completed before that development came to pass, but now it retroactively takes on a quality of reflecting on an entire story, and indeed an entire life, as the end draws near. We become attracted to moments or markers like this one because they provide us with a centralized and evocative image to anchor our understanding of our past and future as certain parts of our lives come to a close and blend into whatever follows next.
Knowing full well that I will soon be graduating from Cornell has granted me the opportunity to look back on this scattered, sometimes emotionally fraught four-year period of my life and sculpt it into a more coherent narrative. Yet I am honestly not sure what that narrative could or should be. As I near the end of my time here, I must admit that I occasionally find myself at a loss for what specifically to highlight, and end up feeling a similar sentiment to that expressed by Marcie and Peppermint Patty above: I know I enjoyed a good deal of it, but I cannot always pinpoint the extent of that as we flow through each other’s lives, converging in incredible and even life-changing ways before we veer off once more into an intangible ether. Perhaps I am looking at it too fatalistically, though. I realize as I begin to contemplate my experiences more, that there are indeed many memories and other things that I will cherish as I move on. Many of these events appear somewhat commonplace at first glance but seem to represent something larger: spontaneously driving with others to Syracuse or Buffalo, making art near a waterfall with a close friend one evening, discussing the nature of life and existence after death with another friend at the height of the pandemic, making PowerPoint presentations on how each friend in a certain group would act in any given weird scenario, discussing films with another friend and so many other things. Yet these only represent one facet of my larger Cornell experience: the more positive facet, which, though I believe it will eventually succeed, cannot always offset the more negative parts that creep into my consciousness.
I do not think I would change anything concerning my time at Cornell, but, as with so many other people, I sometimes cannot stop myself from wondering how things would have turned out based on certain events. Part of that may very well be of my own making. There are friends I hurt by not being around for them as much as I could have, things I should have focused on more (or less) or places I should have visited more frequently. Perhaps the alternatives would have made me feel worse, but all the same, I would be lying if I said I enjoyed my entire experience on The Cornell Daily Sun. I would be lying if I said I enjoyed my entire experience at Cornell. As much as everything else makes up for them, those sentiments still remain.
The negative facet also possesses another, more unexpected component: I have not had a typical final semester, thinking back on this era of college while looking forward to what the “real world” holds in store. Instead, one experience that has remained in my mind for much of these final months is not related to Cornell or the end of college at all. It is one I wished I never had to go through.
On March 15, my grandmother was killed in a fire. I am still uncertain of all the details, but I did hear the following: Whipped up by gusts of wind apparently traveling at over 50 miles per hour, the fire quickly spread to the entire structure. In only 30 minutes, the entire house was gone, and she was dead. It was only later that I realized that this happened four years to the day that I found out I had been accepted to Cornell.
Considering how everything happened, my mind keeps returning to the photographs of the house ablaze. Its frame still stands defiantly as it becomes engulfed in flames, the round window at the front awash with orange as the shingles and other elements of its structure begin to blacken; the plastic bars of the railings, melting and expanding from the heat, bend outwards like some horrible skeleton. Black smoke billows up into a clear, dark blue sky, the scene devoid of any sort of human presence. My family, along with my father’s two siblings and their families, had visited this house since before I was born, yet now, it was reduced to rubble that firefighters still needed to douse with water to ensure the fire was extinguished, even after all of it was torn down.
I still have barely any idea what to think. My grandmother was 92 years old and suffered from severe dementia and possibly Alzheimer’s disease; one of the last times I saw her alive was in the hospital in New Jersey, as my family started preparing ourselves for her imminent final decline and death, like that of my grandfather, also from dementia, four years prior. It seemed like it would happen sooner than later. But not like this.
Of course, everything was destroyed, the home reduced to formless rubble left at the site for days on end. It is inescapable, too: Most of the photographs of her are inside that house, serving as ghastly reminders of everything that has been lost even as they prove to be the most vivid way to celebrate her memory. To make matters worse, the Melkite Catholic faith that my family follows holds open-casket funerals, but the condition of her remains was such that the coffin remained closed, covered with a white burial shroud as we sang to her memory in English, Arabic and Greek. I was devastated, but to be frank, it was not even as if we had had the closest relationship. She was incredibly intelligent and resourceful, but quite complicated as an individual. Yet I loved her, and I knew she loved me — and maybe that additional ambivalence was my way of trying to distance myself from the grief I knew I would feel after she passed away, until I was forced to reckon with it in one of the worst ways possible.
The power people possess to affect us has loomed large in my mind as I continue to process these events combined with this final semester. She and everyone else that I am honored to count within this category have taught me something important: We carry with us some part of those who shaped our lives in any way, and I am happy to have known her, just as I am happy to know those who also shaped my life at Cornell and elsewhere. Continuing on with the people I care about and making the most of everything is the only way I can think of that is fit to ensure that her memory indeed remains eternal. More striking than anything else, though, is a sort of happiness that still manages to arise as I think about what I have experienced: to have met all the wonderful people I did, to have friends and family that, if not always pleasant, were never boring or ingenuine, the ability to be in this place at this time. It is a sensation, as uninspired as it sounds, of being alive. The best way I can describe it is through co-opting the title of a work written by C. S. Lewis, “surprised by joy.”
There were many things that did not go as planned during my time at Cornell and elsewhere — this horrible event included — but then I think back to one of my favorite quotes, from the artist Francis Bacon: “I couldn’t go on if I was satisfied.” I do not see this as a directive to keep doing as many things as possible to preserve some sense of self-worth, but rather a way to accept the inherently unfinished nature of one’s life and experiences — something that many of us forget amidst a culture that solely equates this worth with productivity and results. There is another quote I love, also from Charles M. Schulz as he reflected on his career and those he inspired before he retired: “It is amazing that they think that what I do was good. I did the best I could.” I remain in awe at the achievements and actions of my friends, but perhaps the craziest element is that so many of them somehow feel the same way about me. I have not been able to do everything I wanted to do here, but maybe, for once, that is all right. Enjoy the time you have. Enjoy the people you have. That is what I will be trying to do in the final days before graduation, for it can all be taken away so very quickly. If anything, I can say I tried my best, and hopefully that was good enough for this university and this mortal existence.
John Colie is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. He was the Sunspots Editor of the 138th editorial board, the Assistant Arts Editor of the 139th editorial board and the Arts Editor of the 140th editorial board. He can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]ell.edu.