I wore my jean jacket this morning. Neither fashionable nor flattering, it is faded and worn, broken in over decades. When I put it on, I am comfortable and maybe a bit defiant if it’s over a suit. And I am brought back to the Quad at Penn, time traveling what is these days 30 years.
It was the beginning of the 1986-87 academic year. I was an RA (Resident Advisor) thrilled to be back in the Quad and assigned to Brooks-Leidy second floor. I was quiet, social and serious, and was the exception to my friends who all lived off campus and were perplexed that I had chosen the company and responsibility of freshmen in my senior year. Most of my residents were gregarious freshman football players who towered over me.
And then there was the thoughtful, lanky rower at the end of the hall, Matthew. He had just enough external arrogance, internal humility, self-awareness, and, if you will, old-soul-ness that I was curious. We met on the first or second day of his freshman year.
That same week I met a quiet sophomore with a tiny Laura Ashley-decorated dorm room and large glasses. I soon learned that she was a literary soul and that we shared not only a first name but a love of good British tea and Virginia Woolf. Lisa had opted for the Quad and ended up assigned to this seemingly incongruous hall, surrounded by rowdy freshman football players.
Matthew was cool enough to be one of the guys, but secure enough to not have to be. Lisa was intellectual enough not to be one of the guys, but was soon enough adopted as a watchful elder sister of sorts. Matthew and Lisa could often be found talking, a seemingly unlikely friendship. Perhaps I was a common factor – I adored them both. And then of course, there was Matthew’s love of RC Cola and Lisa’s ability to ship him a case since her father was Chicago’s RC bottler. My friendships with each were different.
Matthew and I discussed ideas and principles, his rowing and love of Cape Cod, and our shared cynicism. He challenged me with principles and tough questions, pushing me, the somewhat ambivalent finance major, to look within and consider my journey. He would not accept easy answers.
Lisa and I discussed fiction, European travel and our general amusement with the freshman boys who set off fire extinguishers in the middle of the night. She challenged my writing, marking up my words with her tiny, perfect script in the margins, making a sentence just so.
Both watched me don suits that year as I tried on clothes and new roles with uncertainty, interviewing for Wall Street jobs. And both watched me return to Philly to the comfort of my jean jacket and Penn sweatshirts. Lisa would greet me with a cup of tea and a small handwritten note. Matthew with the conversation of a young freshman who didn’t need to look out into the real world yet – and we would discuss his race or fraternity, his envy of my jean jacket.
They were different souls, Matthew tough, Lisa gentle. But they were joined in compassion. Both believed in a better world and rolled up their sleeves so that the work of their hands would make it real. In the years post college, Matthew entered the Peace Corps. Lisa interned for the Cook County State’s Attorney and worked in the women’s court.
Neither lived to see the fullness of their years. Lisa’s depression was not to be overcome, nor was Matthew’s ALS. For nearly 20 years I think of Lisa in the week before Thanksgiving, marking her yahrzeit. This year, I think of Matthew too, his death raw and shocking in a different way – news I just learned this summer. I imagine conversations we would have, what each would say about our country and our world. The sadness washes over me. I put on my jean jacket. It’s soft and perfect. The sleeves are rolled up, really because of the length. But maybe those rolled-up sleeves have become a metaphor, too, for the challenges of my dear friends.