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A Life Becomes A Poem

Every day thousands of people die in the United States. Unless one of those deaths directly or tangentially impacts us, such as the death of a friend or family member, most of us rarely acknowledge the ether of mourning swirling about. It usually takes a particularly unfair, gruesome or heart-breaking death to spur us to a “Tsk, tsk, how tragic” shake of the head.

I had that moment last night. And while I am admittedly a sensitive and empathetic soul, the death of Marina Keegan was especially painful to me. You see, Marina graduated magna cum laude from Yale University just two weeks ago on May 21. Five days later, on the first day of the long Memorial Day weekend, she was killed in a single-car accident while traveling to join her parents on Cape Cod. Her boyfriend, Michael Gocksch, who had also just graduated from Yale, was driving when he lost control and their car drifted off the road, struck the guardrail, and then ricocheted across the lanes of traffic and flipped several times. Michael survived, but Marina was pronounced dead at the scene.

That in itself is tragic. After all, no parent should lose a child. A rule of Nature that humanity desperately clings to is that parents should always predecease their children. It didn’t happen in this instance, which is why the television news story caught my attention and teared-up my eyes.

But that’s not all. There is more. While I did not know Marina, at least not personally, I do KNOW her. In many ways, she and I are kindred spirits. Like myself at her age, she was a blossoming writer with big dreams. And like every writer, she wanted to make a difference and use the written work to influence change. She had the opportunity to do so by being a staff member of the Yale Daily News and writing a number of thought-provoking essays. (Click HERE to read them all.)

In one, Even Artichokes Have Doubts, Marina implored her Yale peers to pursue their true passions and fields of interest rather than be seduced into accepting high-paying jobs in the consulting and finance industry. She confided: “I’m JUST SCARED about this industry that’s taking all my friends and telling them this is the best way for them to be spending their time. Any of their time. Maybe I’m ignorant and idealistic but I just feel like that can’t possibly be true. I feel like we know that. I feel like we can do something really cool to this world. And I fear — at 23, 24, 25 — we might forget.”

This emotional and brutally honest essay inspired follow-up coverage in the New York Times.

In an op-ed piece entitled Senior Year Without Society, Marina reassured juniors not to fret if they were not tapped to join a secret society. She wrote: “The real secret about secret societies is that they’re not a big deal. They’re a fun way to get to know people. To get free food. To socialize. To think. But they’re not the only — or even best — place to do that. I’ve had plenty of deep conversations, debates and drinks with (new!) friends this year, and I didn’t have a tomb inside which I could do so. Every year, there are inevitably people who don’t end up in a society. And my only message to you is this: I’ve had a fantastic senior year without one.”

And in still yet another essay, Song for the Special, Marina laments about the societal pressures to be successful and how technology has shrunk the window of opportunity to achieve it.

“I’m so jealous. Laughable jealousies, jealousies of everyone who might get a chance to speak from the dead. I’ve zoomed out my timeline to include the apocalypse, and, religionless, I worship the potential for my own tangible trace. How presumptuous! To assume specialty in the first place. As I age, I can see the possibilities fade from the fourth-grade displays: it’s too late to be a doctor, to star in a movie, to run for president. There’s a really good chance I’ll never do anything. It’s selfish and self-centered to consider, but it scares me.”

But it was her last work, The Opposite of Loneliness, written for a special edition of the Yale Daily News distributed at her own commencement ceremony, that literally went worldwide. In it she frankly discusses her fear of leaving the safe and embracing cocoon of an academic setting for the real world. But she also looks ahead with strong hope, recognizing that change is the springboard to the future. That it is never too late to shift course to pursue a dream.

“What we have to remember is that we can still do anything. We can change our minds. We can start over. Get a post-bac or try writing for the first time. The notion that it’s too late to do anything is comical. It’s hilarious. We’re graduating college. We’re so young. We can’t, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it’s all we have.”

Marina Keegan’s life was cut short; unfairly so. I can only wonder at what heights she would have eventually reached as a journalist, playwrite and activist as her career progressed. After all, Marina had interned with The Paris Review this past spring, reviewing manuscripts. And she already had a job lined-up as an editorial assistant at The New Yorker. She was to have started this month.

Furthermore, The Independents, a musical Marina co-scripted, is set to be staged August 10 - 16 at the 16th Annual New York International Fringe Festival (aka, FringeNYC).

In 1855, in his preface to Leaves of Grass, a collection of his poetry, Walt Whitman wrote:

Love the earth and sun and animals,

Despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks,

Stand up for the stupid and crazy,

Devote your income and labor to others...

And your very flesh shall be a great poem.

Marina did just that. Her life has metamorphosed into a great and enduring poem. Now it’s our turn. Starting today, become the possibility you envision. And, as Marina wrote in her final essay, “…make something happen to this world.” §

Memorial Fund
Marina is survived by her parents, Kevin and Tracy Keegan, and two brothers, Trevor and Pierce. The family has established a special fund to benefit young writers like Marina at Yale University. Checks can be made payable to: Marina Keegan Memorial Fund, c/o Yale University, Box 2038, New Haven, CT 06521-2038.

Gifts can also be made online at Yale University. At Step One Your Gift scroll down to Special Instructions and select “In memory of” and follow the instructions.

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