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Dorm Community Issues: Death and Birth

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Initial reactions
More eulogies
More logistics; another death
Birth and revelation

The most important event for the Rinconada 1995-96 community occurred on Easter Sunday night, when Yolanda collapsed and died in the dorm. No one, including the residence staff, suspected that she was in ill health. Yolanda led a full and active student and extracurricular life and had developed a small circle of very close friends in the dorm. Her roommate knew that she took some medication, but no one knew that she'd had several operations and had poor liver function. As is the case for most American 18-year-olds, very few Rinconada residents had experienced the death of someone they knew well. Yolanda's death was all the more disturbing because she collapsed in the shower while friends awaited her and emergency resuscitation efforts were performed in the dorm before she was taken to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead of heart failure (stemming from liver failure).

On the e-mail list, Yolanda had been a total lurker, posting zero messages. Most of her close friends were lurkers, too, and they made little use of the e-mail list in the aftermath of her death. But other residents used the list both for mourning and for planning dorm memorial logistics. The list was invaluable not only for these individuals but, because of their shared expression, for the whole community.

Initial reactions

Raoul posted a very moving eulogy the night of Yolanda's death. In sorting through his feelings ("A thousand thoughts are racing through my head"), Raoul articulated what many others felt too. This heartfelt posting was one of only five messages that Raoul sent to the list all year long, and the only one categorized as critical dialogue.

I (Rich) posted a message with some immediate logistics (confirming a house gathering) and mourning options. I referred to Raoul's message in reminding people that any expression of feelings, in all media, might be valuable at this time.

The house gathering on Monday night was extremely valuable for all of us. We talked about the basic facts of Yolanda's death, discussed memorial service options, heard briefly from a few University counselors, then shared stories of Yolanda's life. Though Yolanda was not Jewish, Marvin (who came from the same small Midwestern town as Yolanda) led everyone in saying the Kaddish in transliterated Hebrew. The next day Marvin posted to the list a follow-up explanation of the group decision to wear ribbons in honor of Yolanda.

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More eulogies

Ted, who wrote only four messages classified as critical dialogue all year, and Zachary were inspired by the house gathering to post their own eulogies. Zachary quoted a Buddhist parable and courageously tried to work out his feelings: "I don't think there's any way to escape pain," and he demonstrated some self-awareness of how useful the e-mail list had been for him in particular when he wrote, "I don't know if I've helped anyone, or even made sense, but I guess self expression is therapeutic" (cf. brief discussion of Zachary in 11: "Core Group," "Regular," and "Lurker" Participation.)

Yolanda's parents and sister (an upperclass Stanford student) worked closely with her friends in the dorm and our Residence Dean to plan a very successful, moving memorial service held in Memorial Church on the Stanford quad. A number of residents participated as speakers and singers. Bing (who sang at the service), like Zachary, explored via e-mail his feelings not only about Yolanda and death but also about electronic communication: "This has just been one of those inspired trains of thought that usually expresses itself only in private thought or conversation. I guess the dorm list is just as acceptable a medium; we are all going through many of the same thoughts and experiences, and I just wanted to share mine."

More logistics; another death

Other messages posted concerned the logistics of planting a memorial tree in Yolanda's honor (e.g.,Buff) or combined logistical comments with further expressions of feeling (e.g., Betty). A number of people wrote their opinions about where to plant the tree or how to handle the plaque, tasks that offered a concrete way to express their feelings; negotiating these tasks via e-mail helped make more residents feel a part of the process.

A month later, coincidentally, another freshman student died in Junipero, one of our neighboring all-frosh dorms. Buff announced this death on the e-mail list, and that set off another round of group negotiations online (and of course offline as well) as the dorm tried to decide on a gift or gesture for the residents of Junipero (e.g., Calvert, Wanda, Duncan, and Calvert again).

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Birth and revelation

Marvin's final message to the dorm, at the end of the school year, was an amazing coda in many ways. Rinconada's spring quarter that opened with a sudden death ended with the equally-surprising announcement of a birth -- Marvin's son -- and Marvin tied these two themes together explicitly in his inspiring message.

Marvin, as previously mentioned, came from Yolanda's hometown and was friends with her. He was very active in the dorm both f2f and on the e-mail list (see 11 and 12; Marvin was the 3rd most-active contributor to the list overall and the 4th most-active contributor to critical dialogue). Despite his gregarious nature, however, Marvin had held tightly to some personal secrets all year long. Only the residence staff and eventually a few close friends were aware that Marvin had arrived for Orientation in the fall already an expectant father, that his son was born (back home) in February, and that he was diagnosed with a form of manic depression in the spring. That Marvin was inspired to share all this publicly on the e-mail list he associated explicitly with Yolanda's death: "Spring quarter and Yolanda brought down a whole new set of priority mixes. Then I truly felt like this year couldn't get any more insane. I had experienced the life cycle a little closer than I wished."

The shared trauma of Yolanda's death made a close group even closer than we imagined we could be. Most of us outside of Yolanda's small circle of close friends did not know her well, but through the process of grieving and memorializing her -- most of which, of course, occurred offline -- we felt we got to know this special person, and one another, very well. Marvin expressed and extended these widespread feelings in his message: "I sincerely feel pretty damn good about every one in this whole dorm. So, I am sharing something as a token of friendship ...." It was quite a gift he offered, and the fact that he chose the e-mail list for offering it captures some of the power this medium had in the Rinconada community of 1995-96.

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Date: 4/7/96
Subject: [no subject]
From: Raoul

Dear Rinconada,

Yolanda Yates. As I write this message, It's about 11pm on the night of her passing. A thousand thoughts are racing through my head. Why her? Why did it have to be her? Why so young? Why someone so beautiful, good, loving, and generous? Why the hell do these things happen. I mean, when she passed by me, all I saw was a gentle person, with that cute little smirk that only Yolanda could give. She was one of those people that you loved to death, that you just wanted to hug and say, "Thank God there are people like this in the world." I looked around her room, taking in her shoes, her posters, her tapes, her uneaten food, and I just felt that something was terribly wrong. Something was too empty. She was guileless. She was one of those people who seemed to overcome the odds, not with cunning and trickery, but rather with love and compassion. I think it is fitting that she passed on an Easter Sunday -- fitting for a soul as great as hers. I am only too sorry that I didn't have the time to not only know more about her, but also to learn from her from what I can only describe as her beautiful humanity. Her passing was eerily similar to the passing of my aunt last year, a soul that was so remarkably similar to Yolanda's that I ask whoever it is that controls our lives how he can take away the most wonderful specimens of humanity, those who are supposed to remind us how life should be lived. For Yolanda Yates, I can only say this. She was a joy to have as a dormmate and a friend, and I, along with the rest of this dorm, will never forget the short time I had with her.

-Raoul X_____

Date: 4/8/96
Subject: the next few days
From: Rich


I think most people are aware we've scheduled a house gathering for 10 p.m. tonight (Mon.). At this time we can touch base about Yolanda's death, both the facts and our feelings about it. The Dean of the Chapel of Memorial Church, Robert Gregg, will be joining us, along with some counselors from Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), and our Residence Dean (RD), Andy Hernandez. Please feel free to ask these folks any questions. [....]

Thank you, Raoul, for your moving and eloquent posting to the e-mail list. I think that, in addition to the private grieving that we must all go through by ourselves, it's very important to keep expressing and sharing our feelings in conversation, writing, etc. as well as by hugs and just being together with friends.

Classes, registration, jobs, paper-writing, problem sets, exams, etc. don't feel very important right now. Anyone with or without imminent academic or other deadlines who needs some time right now, you will be fully supported by your RFs, your RD, and ResEd/Student Affairs. Let us know of any situations with professors, bosses, etc. where you could use some help.


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Date: 4/9/96
Subject: the ribbons.
From: Marvin

There is one ribbon on each door for permanent basis. The other ribbons on your doors have safety pins with them and those are for around the campus. We decided that we should have the opportunity to have the symbol both on the door and the person.

later, guys.


(by the way, thanks for tonight, it meant a lot to me and to a lot of other people in the world.)

"To sleep, perchance to dream..."

See you in dreams, Yolanda.

Date: 4/8/96
Subject: [no subject]
From: Zachary

I don't know if this will help anyone. This is my first direct experience with death, and I still can't imagine what Yolanda's family and friends who knew her better than I are going through. I have experienced great loss, though, and I've tried to read stuff like this and "think" my way out of the pain, and it hasn't worked, but on some level, it does give me some relief.

-------------A woman goes to Buddha: her child is dead and she is crying and weeping, and she is a widow and she will never have another child, and the only child is dead, and that was all her love and all her attention....

But what did Buddha do? Buddha smiled and said to her, "You go into the town and just find a few mustard seeds from a house where nobody has ever died."

And the woman rushed into the town, and she went to each house. And wherever she went they said, "We can give you as many mustard seeds as you want, but the condition will not be fulfilled--because so many people have died in our house." Again and again it happened.

But she hoped, "Maybe...who knows? There may be some house somewhere that has not known death." And she went around and around the whole day. By the evening a great understanding had dawned on her: "Death is a part of life. It happens. It is not something personal, it is not a personal clamity that has happened to me." With that understanding, she went to Buddha.

He asked, "Where are the mustard seeds?"

And she smiled and she fell at his feet and she said, "Initiate me. I would like to know that which never dies. I don't ask for my child back, because even if he is given to me, he will die again. Teach me something so that I can know inside myself that which never dies."

--------------Osho, The Wisdom of the Sands, Vol. 1 pp 103-10

The greatest loss has to be Yolanda's. But she also has within her "that which never dies." I think she's doing fine. Life, like energy and matter, never goes away, it just transforms. I agree that she couldn't have passed on a more auspicious day. Everyone carries their own beliefs on this, but I think there's an analogue to the rebirth from death in every set of beliefs. However you choose to look at it, the warmth and loving energy of Yolanda has not left us.

All the universe had to arrange itself in just the way it is now, no other, for each moment to happen. Some beliefs would say that all is a unity, a whole, nothing could possibly be lacking or wrong because everything *is*. How else could everything be?

I, of course, am 19, and I can regurgitate all these nice things and think I believe them, and have faith, but they only seem to help my mind relax for a while before returning to the "reality" of my own losses and the horrible loss we've all seen here, the torment of wanting so badly to change irreversible things. I don't think there's any way to escape pain.

I don't know if I've helped anyone, or even made sense, but I guess self expression is therapeutic. Thanks.

love and light to everyone


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Date: 4/9/96
Subject: the fire of life
From: Ted


we whirl around compressed in goals and plans and stress and deadlines. and we miss a lot by bulldozing through time, because we bypass life itself. thank you, yolanda, for showing me. you never seemed to lose a sense of the preciousness of each moment. you were a human being, not a human doing. your irrepressible spunk, occasionally wicked grin, enthusiasm always overflowing... these are signs of a rich life, well-lived and well-appreciated. for me, these are lessons. i can't do it yet, weak-kneed novice that i am at living in the present. but i _will_ listen to the birds as i bike to class. i _will_ watch that squirrel coaxing open an acorn. i _will_ look at the hills and the sky and the water, teeming with movement and vigor and life. i will, yolanda. thank you.

Date: 4/10/96
Subject: Re: Rinc memorial planting
From: Buff

I am worried that a tree planted in the dirt bed by the bike racks may become subject to damage in later years. I would ask that we consider other planting locations. Also, I am unclear on where the tree will be planted; here outside the dorm, or elsewhere to provide a specific, visitable place for mourning and remembrance.

That's all.

Date: 4/11/96
Subject: Re: Rinc memorial planting
From: Betty

Just wanted to throw in my opinion about the tree... Even if it isn't by the bike racks, I feel really strongly that it be planted at Rinconada and not an arboretum because Yolanda shared our lives and was extremely happy HERE. At Rinc. We should be able to celebrate and remember her life where she lived, not some place she never visited.The tree is a living tribute to our angel -- it should be at her home, where future Rinconadans will know why Rinc is so special and where we can come back and remember Yolanda doing tae kwon do kicks in the hallways and sitting at dorm meetings in the lounge and filling these walls with her sunshine.

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Date: 4/12/96
Subject: life.
From: Bing

I don't really know why I'm writing. It's just that, since the service yesterday, I feel so much better about everything. The memories about Yolanda's life were beautiful, but I think the best tribute was just seeing how many lives Yolanda had touched, and knowing that there were many more who couldn't make it to Memorial Church.

Skeptical as I may be about religion, for some reason I have a feeling that Yolanda is somewhere good right now -- and although we all would like to have her back with us in Rinconada, wherever she is is a close second.

"Don't need no more of this world - I'll meet you in the next one,

and don't be late..." -Jimi Hendrix

Although our times may come later than hers, I'm positive that Yolanda will remember us as long as we never forget her.

I'm starting to come to grips with the fact that someone I care about is gone, and that things in general that we take for granted as constants in our lives can change overnight, leaving us confused and angry. The world isn't fair, and it doesn't make sense. Man has always tried to apply the laws of reason to the chaos of nature, only to repeatedly find that nature defies our senses of justice and order. Nature's chaos is what gives it its beauty, though. What's rational about laughter, or emotion, or even the existence of life itself?

"Don't let the days go by..." -Bush

Yolanda knew what life was about better than most of us. She knew she didn't have time to waste. She did what she wanted to do, and enjoyed every moment of it. Life isn't about problem sets. It isn't about making money. It isn't about Democrats and Republicans. The way I see it, life is about realizing that all anyone really wants is happiness. We have to use our lives to make sure we and those around us enjoy our time here, however long it lasts. I know Yolanda has done that for me, and I am sure we did it for her as well.

Wow, this has turned out longer than I meant it to be. This has just been one of those inspired trains of thought that usually expresses itself only in private thought or conversation. I guess the dorm list is just as acceptable a medium; we are all going through many of the same thoughts and experiences, and I just wanted to share mine. All I originally meant to do with this message was relate the following closing lines from the Desiderata. If you don't know what it is, you can find a full copy on Betty's door or on a link on my home page. I think it sums up my view of life pretty well.

"You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy."

-Max Ehrmann

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Date: 5/10/96
Subject: Junipero: a sister sadness
From: Buff

To my dorm,

It is my distinct displeasure to confirm that, as Zachary pointed out in his Buddha story, death is not a personal thing.

The point: William, a young man in Junipero, died Thursday; like Yolanda, he too will be dearly missed.

*In the ways each of us can, let's be there for them.* If you have a friend there, you know the drill. If you don't, but are feeling outgoing, consider paying a visit, as someone who can relate at whatever level; there is someone in their dorm who is experiencing much the same thing you were, whatever that was.

"Death Sucks Everywhere" -Zachary

Date: 5/10/96
Subject: No, It's not about Great America
From: Calvert

I hope everyone read Buff's e-mail about the unfortunate incident in Junipero. I think that we as a dorm is affected just as Junipero is.

Having said that, I am offering the following suggestion:

That we, as a dorm, gather one night and individually deliver flowers (or something) to each door in Junipero. This isn't to intrude upon their space, or to invade their dorm - it is solely for the purpose of letting Junipero know that we understand what they are going through, because we have been through it ourselves and we know how dificult it really is, and that Rinc is there for support if Junipero needs us for anything. (Run-on sentence, but bear with me. I'm almost fimished).

I think that this will really bridge the differences and the rivalries that freshman dorms have for one another, and I think that Rinc will be very courageous in doing this. So e-mail me with your comments.


Calvert X_____

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Date: 5/10/96
Subject: Re: Calvert's Idea
From: Wanda

hey guys-

i think one flower arrangement for the dorm and maybe one card we all signed would be sufficient... i feel like something for each individual might be a bit of an intrusion, and i also think junipero will want to do their own personal thing with their doors, just like we did ours.

wanda :)

>I wholly agree with Calvert, I'd like to do something for Junipero. I think that flowers for each door might be a little to cheery, maybe a bouquet of flowers for the dorm and something else for each individual. I was thinking perhaps a ribbon for each, but that brings up the issue of color, and that seemed to be a personal thing for our dorm; perhaps we could put a ribbon on each of their doors?

>Hmmm, I KNOW I like the idea of flowers, but I'm not sure at what point we might be intruding. Other people, your feelings and thoughts please.


Date: 5/11/96
Subject: Re: No, It's not about Great America
From: Duncan

I think the bouquet of flowers for the entire dorm is more appropriate in a situation like this, where a sentiment is being sent from our dorm to theirs. In terms of personal consolement, I think it is essential from close friends and people that can really support you, but I do not think that it is right for us to be going door to door. If you have close personal friends in Junipero that can use your support, this is definitely the time to go visit and talk with them, but I think it should be on an individual basis. I do definitely think that we should send a card and a bouquet of flowers, and I think that it would be quite touching and would say that we care, just as the flowers from Z's parents did when they were sent to us. That, however, seems more appropriate than a personal flower delivery.

In terms of offering support, we could mention on the card that anyone in Junipero is free to come talk to any of us and I think people would welcome them if they wanted to talk.


Date: 5/12/96
Subject: [no subject]
From: Calvert

I have some extra input on the Flowers-for-Junipero idea. I spoke to a girl in Junipero, and she said that the dorm was not taking it that "bad." Supposedly, he had stopped out and had been gone from Stanford for a number of weeks, so some of the people did not know him very well. If this is the case, then perhaps just a bouquet and a card would be more appropriate.

Well, we're taking a vote anyway on the best approach to this matter. Vote for all the ideas you want by sending an e-mail to me with just the numbers of your choice:

1. card 2. bouquet 3. individual flowers

We want to do this ASAP - possibly by tomorrow. So the sooner you vote, the faster we can decide.


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Date: 6/11/96
Subject: as promised....
From: Marvin

I have a little theory. Normally, what I am going to share I have not volunteered except to my close friends, but since next year, or really any time, if i catch any of you on the flip side, I want to make sure you know that I sincerely feel pretty damn good about every one in this whole dorm. So, I am sharing something as a token of friendship--Rinc '96 will never leave me.

This has been one amazing year. I am not sure if you guys met the person who I thought I was going to show you. Let me explain. On the third day of Frosh Orientation (remember that?) I found out that my girlfriend at home was pregnant. It basically destroyed me. Anyway, fall quarter had a sort of tinge to it of extreme personal conflict that I don't necessarily like to remember, but really can't forget. Also, I am not sure if the disturbing phone calls to my parents and Millie (the mother of my child) are any worse than the pangs of guilt that seldom leave my thoughts.

Winter quarter, once again, was full of tough times. My first son, Tyler Chadwick Nelson, was born on February 11. (that's right, he'll be four months tomorrow.) This was really the end of the illusion. I was pushing for adoption as much as I could, but Millie would have no part of it. I do not blame her, I just felt it was the best choice for everyone, mostly Tyler, but I accepted and stand by her decision to keep him. I began the first child support payment of my life. Responsibilities that I never in my life would have imagined began to pile up.

However, I had made the heart-wrenching decision that I was not ready to be a father. I know I have let down the one person in the world (or, really, the two people) who need me the most. Let me tell you, that is the worst part. I am, and always will be, immensely proud of my son, but it'll be a miracle if those feelings are going to be reciprocal. I love him very much, but I also know that I am letting him down.

Spring quarter and Yolanda brought down a whole new set of priority mixes. Then I truly felt like this year couldn't get any more insane. I had experienced the life cycle a little closer than I had wished.

I am on good terms with Millie, I believe. Anyway, we talk and I try to help as much as I can, but I know that it will never be even close to enough. It's a depressing thing. Speaking of that, I believe most of you know this, but I was reminded of it when Betty commented that I have "too much energy for one human being." There is a good chance, and I think it's almost certain, that I have some form of Manic Depressive Disorder, passed on from my mother. It is not fully expressed nor is it terribly noticeable, except to me, but its effects certainly are felt. That's just a little plug to make sure that people know that the disorder, as well as clinical depression, are out there and we must be sure not to think that no one we know will ever have it. It is real, and it is a clinical syndrome. Well, perhaps this has gone on for more than your attention span, so I am sorry. I just wanted to share, and be sure that no one is surpised if news about my son shows up on the rinc summer newsletter [...]

One more thing--- practice safe sex. don't be stupid.

Thanks to everyone here who helped me including [...] ... later guys....

-marvin "wears a skirt to CIV finals" X_______

And, finally, I just wanna say to everyone, in the immortal words of James Taylor, You got a friend, Rinc.

*****Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player

*****That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

*****And then is heard no more. It is a tale

*****Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

*****Signifying nothing.

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© Copyright 1997 by Richard Holeton and Stanford University