How to Feel When an Impossibly Promising 22-Year-Old Passes Away

I think it's safe to say that most of us would have been at least a little bit jealous of Marina Keegan before last Saturday. She was a 22-year-old recent Yale graduate about to start a job as an editorial assistant at the New Yorker in a few weeks — before then, her plan was to revise the musical she had written, set to run at the New York International Fringe Festival later this summer.

As crazy as it sounds, it's not like her future sounded that much more promising than her past. Keegan had already contributed to NPR and the New York Times; remember that piece about why so many Ivy Leaguers ditch altruistic or creative passions for well-paid jobs in finance and consulting? Yep, she wrote that. She was also president of the Yale College Democrats and involved with Occupy Wall Street. Could she seem any more perfect?

But then she died. Last Saturday, after her boyfriend lost control of his car and slammed them both into a guardrail. (He survived.) Now, her story is spreading all over the world, in part because she was incredibly promising and intelligent and beautiful, but also because so many of her Yale Daily News columns relate, somewhat eerily, to the story of her short life. Her last op-ed was all about seizing the moment:

But let us get one thing straight: the best years of our lives are not behind us. They're part of us and they are set for repetition as we grow up and move to New York and away from New York and wish we did or didn't live in New York. I plan on having parties when I'm 30. I plan on having fun when I'm old. Any notion of THE BEST years comes from clichéd "should haves..." "if I'd..." "wish I'd..."

Of course, there are things we wished we did: our readings, that boy across the hall. We're our own hardest critics and it's easy to let ourselves down. Sleeping too late. Procrastinating. Cutting corners. More than once I've looked back on my High School self and thought: how did I do that? How did I work so hard? Our private insecurities follow us and will always follow us.
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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.

She also wrote often about mortality, always with a realistic yet optimistic point of view. "In many ways, I think mortality is more manageable when we consider our eternal components; our genetics and otherwise that carry on after us. But soon enough, the books we write and the plants we grow will freeze up and rot in the darkness," she wrote in one column. "But maybe there's hope...the thing is, I think we can make it. I think we can shove ourselves into space ships before things get too cold."

In another column, Keegan wrote about the facade of permanence and her own feelings of jealousy — it seems unbelievable that someone like Keegan would be jealous, but there you have it:

The thing is, someday the sun is going to die and everything on Earth will freeze. This will happen. Even if we end global warming and clean up our radiation. The complete works of William Shakespeare, Monet's lilies, all of Hemingway, all of Milton, all of Keats, our music libraries, our library libraries, our galleries, our poetry, our letters, our names etched in desks. I used to think printing things made them permanent, but that seems so silly now. Everything will be destroyed no matter how hard we work to create it. The idea terrifies me. I want tiny permanents. I want gigantic permanents! I want what I think and who I am captured in an anthology of indulgence I can comfortingly tuck into a shelf in some labyrinthine library.

Everyone thinks they're special – my grandma for her Marlboro commercials, my parents for discos and the moon. You can be anything, they tell us. No one else is quite like you. But I searched my name on Facebook and got eight tiny pictures staring back. The Marina Keegans with their little hometowns and relationship statuses. When we die, our gravestones will match. Here Lies Marina Keegan, they will say. Numbers one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

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.

The conclusion to this post pretty much writes itself: "But Marina did assume specialty," etc. But I think the best lesson to learn from her untimely death is that 99.9% of the shit we worry about every day is meaningless, because everything we have — all that we have — can be taken away from us at any second. Being jealous is a waste of time. Appreciate everything you've got.

Keegan '12 remembered for writing, activism [Yale Daily News]

Image via Facebook.