Content Warning: This piece deals with issues of death and grief.
My phone buzzes, and I pull it out of my warm pocket to read an email notification. The screen lights up the dark street, and my fingers are freezing holding it. Before I realize what’s happening, hiccups of sobs grip my chest, my body reacting before my brain. My eyes dart across the words on the Gmail notification. From: Dean Hinkson. Subject: On the Passing of Caroline Montgomery ’18:
“Caroline Montgomery … killed along with her father … devastating mudslides … Santa Barbara, California.”
I knew her––never well enough to call her “Caro” like her close friends did, but we played on a water polo team together in high school, and, indirectly, she inspired me to go to Barnard.
The next day, I had RA training. I sat through presentations and chose my duty hours. I took breaks in the bathroom—twenty seconds of hot tears, breathe in, then go back out. I was lucky—I had friends who followed me in and waited with bear hugs when I needed them.
My mom and I called each other every few hours, constructing how it happened: The mudslides were from the wildfires; no one knew it would rain so hard; rescue teams were still searching for people.
In the days following the email, the fundamental unfathomability of the fact made me ravenous for information. I scoured the internet for news stories, explanations, any details I could find to understand how this could possibly happen.
The photos taken of the neighborhood where 21 were killed overnight appear eerily silent. Rooftops float atop mudflats. The destroyed neighborhood looks like a vacant desert town, with edges of homes peaking above the horizon—as if abandoned 60 years ago and buried slowly over decades.
One would never guess that the engulfment of the houses occurred literally overnight, that the years of sediment were only an optical trick, that in fact, time hadn’t meandered slowly enough for their inhabitants to drift away, find work elsewhere, and give up on their modest abodes.
The answer to how this could possibly happen is in some ways deceptively simple. California is famously disaster-prone. Three years ago, during the 2014 drought, when Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, I trimmed down my shower time, stopped eating almonds, and put buckets under leaky faucets. Last year, I held my breath as I watched colored splotches on fire maps of the Tubbs fire surround my aunt’s house in Santa Rosa, forcing her family of three to evacuate.
This year, as fires burned through Southern California, I monitored the path of the Thomas Fire—the largest fire in California’s history—as it destroyed an area 1.6 times the size of New York City, razing 1,000 structures and forcing the students, faculty, and staff of my Carpinteria boarding school to evacuate.
Then, just a month after the fire, on January 8th, it rained. It rained that night, hard and fast—at times as much as one inch of rain in 15 minutes, more than anyone expected. Though technically in the voluntary evacuation zone, after weeks of emergency warnings, few people heeded the warning. Even in mandatory evacuation zones, only 15 percent of residents decided to evacuate.
I looked for a scientific explanation––I wanted to understand how and why mudslides run down mountains. I discovered that mudslides occur when so much rainwater falls that the soil passes a tipping point of saturation. Water fills the spaces between grains of dirt, and the familiar viscous, rainy-day substance—mud—is formed. Mudslides are often caused by wildfire, because ash, unlike normal soil, does not have a saturation point. As the material left over from the violent conflagration of brush, foliage, trees, structures, and cars, it no longer contains the tiny pieces of organic matter that make soil rich and absorbent.
Google searches yielded videos of people being airlifted out of ash-black mud the next morning. It reminded me of learning about the fate of the people of Pompeii in elementary school-—I remember sitting at my desk staring at the plaster casts of their bodies, their fossilized expressions of surprise that the mountains had turned on them. In Pompeii, they too lived at the foot of a gorgeous mountain range.
My disbelief at the news was only heightened by my impression of Caroline. A year above me in school and captain of our water polo team, she was by far one of the most badass people I knew. Her immense power and skill as a player were often underestimated. I watched her game after game outmaneuver burly opponents to sprint down the pool and score.
At the beginning of the season my junior year, she broke her hand and played through it. She seemed entirely unstoppable, like anything in her path would just roll off her like the bullets of water off her tanned arms.
Completely undecided about where to go to college—a proxy for the more terrifying question of what to do with my life—Caroline’s decision to commit to Barnard inspired mine.
Tough, strong, badass. Hers were exactly the footsteps I wanted to follow into adulthood.
20 days after her death, Barnard held a memorial service. In a gathering that felt like walking through a strange dream, Instagram and Facebook photos of Caroline flashed on a screen as a disjointed jumble of people from high school I hadn’t seen in years, her college friends, family members, and Barnard administrators milled around the room.
My shock at the strangeness of the situation curdled into acute rage when not-yet-inaugurated president Beilock began her speech by incorrectly pronouncing Caroline’s name, calling her Caro-lyn instead of Caro-line.
Administrator after administrator came after her, peppering their mistake into erroneous, paltry speeches—either painfully off the mark, entirely inappropriate, or both. College essays, grades, timeliness of deadlines, and meaningless emails were read aloud and then used as evidence for completely-off-the-mark general statements.
One faculty member declared Caroline “someone who liked to try new things” because she took Chinese at Columbia, a language she had taken all four years of high school. President Beilock read a paragraph from her college essay about community and extrapolated that “she must have felt similarly about the Barnard community.”
An administrator referenced her grades and said “she may not have been the best student.” Another faculty member mentioned that she was several days late to the registration deadline and said she may not have been the most organized—a detail directly contradicted in speeches delivered by her friends several minutes later. The head of the psychology department read a mundane email from Caroline asking if the professor could sign her major declaration form and said that Caroline was “even accommodating.”
My heart pounded into my gut with each indignant question: “How could they mess up her name? How could they put that in a speech? What in the world could they have been working on in the interim two weeks—what answered email, filed paperwork, delivered lecture could possibly be more important than this?”
I glanced around and tried to imagine the feelings of everyone sitting around me—suitemates, friends, family, for whom the news had left a gaping hole of where Caroline used to be.
Then, Caroline’s mother, a woman who had lost her husband, daughter and home overnight, stood up. With immense grace, she thanked President Beilock and everyone who had spoken. She mentioned that she and Caroline had talked about the fragility of life often and that they both understood it. She said the point is not to wallow but to continue on, to keep on living.
After the memorial, I was aimless. I walked the length of Morningside Park. I wanted to not be on campus, not be in my dorm. The school was churning forward, Butler seats filled, meetings held, emails opened, deadlines nearing. I needed a pause.
A few weeks later, a video of a speech Caroline gave senior year circulated Facebook. Eerily, the speech began with Caroline recounting the sudden death of a friend. She said, “His sudden death caused me to reaccept the unpredictability and frailness of life.”
Exuberant and ambitious, the speech argued for the importance of life lived to the fullest, “Because life is sudden, unpredictable, and fragile.”
I remember when she gave that speech in high school. I sat there and listened, leaning against a wooden pew, colored shadows of stain glass reflected onto the floor of the chapel, surrounded by my classmates and teachers.
Sudden. Unpredictable. Fragile—I don’t think I understood it then.
A few weeks ago, as I stood waiting for the elevator in Hewitt, Ms. Gloria, a janitor I often talk to, waved me over. She had just opened a storage closet and gestured to two color photos taped to the inside of the door. “Every time I see this, it makes me sad,” she said. She explained the photos are of a Barnard student who died several years ago. After they took down her memorial in Brooks Hall, Ms. Gloria kept the photos—two taped to the inside of the door and one framed on her mantel at home.
As the elevator pulls me up to the sixth floor, I imagine gliding past the residents of hundreds of rooms, all 920 residents of the small quad. Our rooms are full of our artifacts—posters taped to walls, floors strewn with our clothes, our calendars filled with deadlines and course schedules. Our time here feels permanent, our deadlines consequential, and these rooms even seem like they are our own––but we each stay such a short period of time, cycling through in three or four years. I imagine what outlasts us, how many more memorials President Beilock will hold for students she never met, how many years that girl’s smiling picture will stay taped in Ms. Gloria’s closet next to her Barnard facilities jacket.