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Lessons From Olivia

By Sarah A. Rodriguez

A few days ago, I ran into the first friend I made at Harvard, a girl named Olivia (not her real name) who I hadn't seen in two years. We had met the summer before first year, in a small program for select incoming first-years. Surrounded by jocks and bratty kids, we became close friends faster than you could say, "Preserve the Union!"

Olivia and I lounged in the grass in front of Lionel Hall, for hours before and after dinner. She dragged me, practically kicking and screaming, onto the T for the first time. Her family took me in as another daughter. They drove us to Salisbury Beach, where I shivered with cold and yelled about the value of southern Texas waters as she and her brothers happily swam, polar bear-like, around me. We rented "So I Married an Axe Murderer" more times than I care to admit, and would frighten tourist groups in the Yard by reciting (loudly) all of Mike Myers' "Woman! Wo-man! Wooooooman!" speeches. I entertained her the night she took four Vivarin to write a paper. It became commonplace for us to walk out of our rooms in the morning wearing the same outfit without having planned it at all.

Olivia had always been stunningly beautiful, with a fantastic body and the face of a goddess. Boys flocked to her when we went clubbing, while I was nervously left picking at my nails. Fortunately, she was always ready to yell at me on the ride home to "shut up, you moron, because you are gorgeous and a wonderful person as well," practically smacking me up the head with her no-bullshit attitude while giving me the kind of honest, sincere praise that you can only believe from a true friend.

I was there that summer when she got the letter about the boy she met at Middlebury College. She opened it gleefully and sat back to read the articles his parents had sent her about his graduating with honors, despite fighting stomach cancer. She left me the part she didn't see--his obituary. Those were the longest seconds of my life, knowing I was about to shatter her happiness with such heartbreaking news.

She was there for me our first year, across the Yard instead of across the hall, when tension grew in my blocking group. And when my mother announced that she was getting married for a third time. And when my estranged father was killed. Her futon was another home to me and my sourcebooks. To divert ourselves from our problems, we would play "Sim City" on her computer--and destroy the cities with robots and aliens as we'd crack up with hysterical laughter.

Like I said, I ran into Olivia the other day. I hadn't seen her since we were sophomores. She still looked gorgeous. She sounded exactly the same. I asked her where she had been. She said she had taken time off to have her baby.

My first thought was one of shock. My second one was one of sympathy. My third, and the one that still sticks with me days later, is one of unbelievable pride. I couldn't imagine having a child at this age, only to return and finish school. I don't think I have the strength or the courage to do so. But looking into Olivia's eyes, I saw in her what I had always seen in her--an intensity that I had never seen in anyone else. Even if her life hadn't gone the way she wanted it to, she still had the power to shape it in a way that would make her happy. And it struck me that, throughout all of our friendship, she had spent a good deal of time and energy convincing me that this strength I saw in her could be found in me, too.

As I look towards June 10 and realize that graduation is much closer than I'd like to admit, I--like all of my class--am looking back over my college career. I laughed. I cried. I'd do it all over again, given the chance. I did many things right. But oh, the things I regret-one of the most painful being the friends I didn't keep in touch with. Like Olivia.

As Claudia Shear writes in Blown Sideways Through Life, "Everyone has at least one story that will stop your heart." We all know people like this, if we're not one of them ourselves. We all know someone who was the strongest, most resilient person we'd ever met. Unfortunately, all too often we haven't kept in touch with that person and have no idea how she or he is doing. But we'd like to know.

Get back in touch with your old friends. Keep in touch with the ones you have, seniors especially. Our lives are never going to turn out quite the way we planned for them to. We will need our friends this reading period, this summer, next year, the next fifty years. We will need them to listen to our problems, to absorb the tears that we sob, to celebrate our triumphs with us. We will need to do the same for them, for friends are people who both need us and are needed by us. We will need to remind them how incredibly strong they are and how much we love and admire them. And we will need them to remind us of our own strength as well.

We all have friends like Olivia, beautiful and stronger than we ever imagined we could be. It is up to us to remind them of their own power, and of how much they are loved; for what is clear as day to us may be impossible for them to see. And it is up to them to lightly smack us upside the head, lovingly call us morons and hold us until we realize that the strength we see in them is shining in us, too. Sarah A. Rodriguez '99 is an English concentrator in Winthrop House. This is her final column.

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