John Harvard's Journal | The Undergraduate
Volumes to Write
“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—
My roommates threw a surprise birthday party for me the week our friend Vadim checked into the hospital. We worried about him, but his parents had flown up to be with him, and we would see him the next day. Plus, he was going to be just fine. Because when it is freshman year of college and your friend checks into the hospital with fever and difficulty making much sense, you think maybe he’s gotten a weird virus or infection. People get weird viruses and infections in college, right? We had to believe he would be fine. There was nothing we could do that night. He had professionals taking care of him.
We would go visit Vadim in the hospital. Maybe we’d sneak him a milkshake. And then he’d come back to us, so we could keep being freshmen in college together, learning how to not save Ec 10 problem sets for the wee hours of the morning, figuring out how much dining-hall cereal was too much (Vadim’s definitive answer: You can never have too much), and playing guitar in the common room (OK, so Vadim was basically the only one who played guitar).
Our entryway was full of characters. The boys on the first floor had an early 15 minutes of fame as a “party room,” before they got in trouble with our proctor one too many times. Vadim lived on the third floor, the one above mine, home to a different kind of socializing. That group was very good at procrastinating on schoolwork, but in cool ways—often by listening to vinyl on the record player Vadim and his roommate Kevin had purchased. That fall, the two of them went to see the electronic trio, The xx, play live. Vadim told me that the first concert he ever went to was by Liz Phair, and that Tracy Chapman reminded him of his mom. He had, and has, impeccable taste in music and a love for variety.
Time went on. We kept visiting. Colin and Hannah, who lived on the fourth floor, made a Google sign-up for visits. We put his mom’s cell phone number in our phones. His family started a CaringBridge journal online. Our Yard dean started visiting him in the hospital, too. We took care of each other. We entry-mates memorized the M2 bus schedule, visited periodically in the afternoons, and worked hard not to overwhelm his family. I had known Vadim for a semester and a half. It was not a lifetime. It was not even high school.
The doctors at Boston Children’s Hospital figured out what it was. Vadim had something called paraneoplastic syndrome (PNS). The CT scan had revealed a seminoma, a small growth, on his thymus. The growth was benign, but it had caused everything—it had set off an autoimmune response that led to encephalitis, a devastating inflammation in his brain. It took doctors a long time, too long a time, to put out the fire in my friend’s brain. He moved back near home, to Johns Hopkins Hospital, then to Children’s in Washington, D.C. After a few failed hospital discharges, he finally made it back to his real home, with his family, and with 24-hour care.
Three years later, scans show that the inflammation in his brain has abated, but Vadim is not better. It’s hard to know what he’s thinking about, or if he’s even thinking about things at all. You can’t have a two-sided conversation with him on the phone or say something to him and know for sure that he’s hearing you. It’s difficult to describe if you haven’t seen him in a while. How is it that, years after the end of encephalitis, a brain remains unable to tell its owner to speak audibly and intelligibly or maintain a normal sleep cycle or perform simple tasks? What kind of damage still lingers, and how does one heal?
I am not a scientist or doctor. Everything I know about PNS came from Vadim’s parents or the Internet. I have known this version of my friend, the version who struggles to open both eyes simultaneously, for longer than I ever knew his more vibrant, whole self. But, when it comes to Vadim, my favorite possible reality is the one where he has really been there this whole time, listening to everything, taking everything in (even the part where I might have told his mother about the weed candy he ate that one time), even though he hasn’t been able to respond just yet.
Awhile back, on his CaringBridge page, Vadim’s parents posted a cover of the Jackson Browne song “These Days” that he had done before he got sick. They wrote, “He will have volumes to write and to say in songs about his dark journey through the wilderness of encephalitis.” When Vadim sang and played guitar with us in the dorm, he usually sang softly, like it wasn’t a performance—just his way of keeping track of where he was in the song. So when I heard Vadim singing on this cover the way he spoke so often in conversation—full of clear, composed introspection, with much less breathiness—I felt just how little of him I knew. I had never heard him sing that way.
Browne wrote the earliest version of “These Days” when he was 16 years old. The song, I think, is about the regret you sometimes feel during transitions in life. Perfect, perhaps, for graduation time.
Well I’ve been out walkin’
I don’t do that much talkin’ these days
These days I seem to think a lot
About the things I forgot to do... for you
And all the times I had the chance to...
There is a life that each of us makes with our words. Sometimes, I think I should talk more. Other times, I think I should say less and do more. Still other times, I think I should say less and do less. I feel like I’m never making the right choice about when to speak up and when to say nothing.
I didn’t talk about Vadim much at school, unless I was among my old entryway mates. It wasn’t a fun or easy thing to bring up. But I think this is a time to be loud. Because, as we celebrate the class of 2016, there is a person I would not like to let anyone forget.
I am so lucky—I have a place to write all of these words. And some of these words should be written about Vadim, my hilarious, sensitive, brilliant friend who has maintained, under harrowing circumstances, some of the best hair of anyone I’ve met in the world, and who, with the help of his incredible family, is fighting for a future.
It’s common around graduation time to talk about how the word “commencement” can have two different meanings—it can refer to the actual ceremony where students get their degrees, or it can simply mean “a beginning or start.” My friend was interrupted before he was able to get his degree. Before he could really start. But that doesn’t mean he stopped, either. Vadim and the people who take care of him—his parents and siblings and doctors and nurses—are still working on the mystery of recovery.
There is something to be said for talking about the future. There is also something to be said for using the present tense aggressively and persistently. It isn’t right, or enough, to just save a spot for him and await his return. He is a part of our lives right now, and he will continue to be a part of our lives. Maybe we are crazy, but maybe it’s just that there is something with feathers perched in our souls.