This Is How It Ends

Illustration: Klaas Verplancke

The night before I left Stanford, I stayed up until 3 a.m. I was with people I wanted to lose sleep for, but having packed to be away for a few weeks, I thought it prudent to get at least a couple hours of shut-eye before my 8:30 flight.

If I had known that would be my last day as an undergrad on campus, I would have pulled an all-nighter.

I love sleep. No matter the difficulties I face during the day, I find solace in wrapping myself in warm blankets and closing my eyes. I sleep long and deep. Freshman year, when my roommate had a knee injury that woke her in the middle of the night, she somehow managed to wake me up so I could find our RA—but as soon as I did, I fell right back into a slumber so powerful that I had to be informed in the morning that five paramedics had been in our room.

I’ve only stayed up all night once in my life. It was for an 18-hour puzzle hunt freshman year, a contest between FloMo, where I lived, and Roble. Our team of five drove all over the Bay Area, finding clues everywhere from the Taco Bell in Pacifica to the Pixar studio in Emeryville.

It struck me that night how lucky I was to be part of a community that made me yearn for the power to eschew sleep entirely. Everything around me—the opportunities, events, classes and, most important, people—made me resent the very essential human activity that I cherished most.

Others have described, perhaps better than I can, the process of grief that many college seniors have gone through this spring. To me, it has felt a lot like sleep deprivation—an oscillation between numbness and longing, an emotional teeter-totter that leaves me in tears more often than I’d care to admit.

Now, in lockdown at home in Wayne, Pa., I’m readjusting to my bed. I sleep more restlessly than I did at school—chalk it up to missing my cushy mattress topper, which I bought for my dorm room as a bewildered young shopper, or to the endless stream of activities at Stanford, which left me absolutely drained by the time my head hit the pillow each night.

This has left me with a lot of time to think. I have mulled over seemingly insignificant details of Stanford life that I now miss so much—the collection of succulents on my windowsill, the carefully arranged postcards and posters on my dorm wall. I have even romanticized things I used to complain about—the way the duct tape on my bike handles used to leave my hands slightly sticky after each ride, the taste of honeydew melon mingled with leftover tomato sauce on a rushed plate in the dining hall.

I have never been a morning person. This time, more than ever, I really wanted five more minutes.

Memories like these remind me that nostalgia can be dangerous. Stanford was not a perfect experience. I was not happy there all the time, or even half the time. In reflecting on my undergraduate years, I do not want to perpetuate the ideas that can make Stanford a difficult place to attend college. Duck Syndrome—the feeling that we should remain serene on the surface while paddling furiously underneath to stay afloat—is real and damaging.

But in order to make myself feel more whole—to find the solace that feels like a good night’s sleep—I find myself returning to all the fantastic things I did get to experience during my 3.66 years. I learned how to use an audio kit and interviewed a cave diver, a muralist and an entomologist. I photographed elephant seals in Año Nuevo State Park. I ate pie at the pumpkin festival in Half Moon Bay. I introduced a show live on KZSU. I rock climbed for the first time. I met a master falconer and held a red-tailed hawk. I spent the night inside Monterey Bay Aquarium on a dorm trip. I spent a quarter abroad in Italy; a three-week Overseas Seminar in South Africa; and a summer in Arizona, where I worked for the Bill Lane Center for the American West. I played intramural volleyball one quarter, badly. I attended master classes by award-winning authors Alice Walker and Neil Gaiman. I drove over the Golden Gate Bridge.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe I slept at all.

Along with my fellow members of the Class of 2020, I had a lot of dreams for my final quarter. In my imagination, it is perfect: a whirlwind of classes, parties, late nights spent talking and hugging, with traditions and ceremonies to tie it all up in a bow.

Perhaps the hardest part of leaving it behind is realizing that all those days and nights we spent staying awake, we were living a dream. And these extraordinary circumstances woke us like a blaring alarm clock, a glass of cold water to the face. Just like that, we were severed from the world we had created for ourselves, with no chance to say goodbye.

I have never been a morning person, but this time, more than ever, I really wanted five more minutes.

Melina WallingPhoto: Jenna Garden

 

Still, in replaying my memories—in stepping back and realizing how much joy and wonder I found in the time that I did have—I find myself filled with gratitude. I am grateful for the ways that our professors and administrators have recognized how painful this feels, communicated with us to learn about our diverse circumstances, and made whatever adjustments they could. I am grateful for our dining hall staff, custodians, and maintenance crews who made it possible for me to live my life the way that I have. I am grateful for the physical spaces I was lucky enough to inhabit, and that I hope I will be able to return to someday.

Most of all, I am grateful for this community—this ambitious, unfailing, insomniac community—for staying up with me.


Melina Walling, ’20, is an editorial intern at Stanford. Email her at stanford.magazine@stanford.edu.