I came to Penn on the heels of a remission that I spent my remaining time here speculating about: Would I get sick again? How long did I have before another medical calamity hit? And my father — would he get better? Being a patient and being the daughter of a patient has been as much a part of my college experience as writing has.
My oeuvre at Penn has centered on writing about the big questions about mortality. The uncertainty that disease brings into my life has been the hardest part of what is already a shaky portion of adolescence; it’s made me brave, made me unafraid to take chances, but sometimes it’s made me reckless too.
I’ve lived a post-diagnosis life largely constructed out of pieces of "why not?" There was that time I joined a band, and that time I went bungee jumping, and all those essays I wrote that frightened me with their vulnerability and honesty. I did a lot of things because I was worried I soon wouldn’t be able to. At 17, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune kidney disease. At 18, I finally went into remission. I promised myself I’d live a life without regrets.
I’m leaving that mentality behind at graduation. Instead of always anticipating a “what if,” I’m going to try to focus on the “what is.”
This May, a few days before I walk across the stage, I’ll have been in remission for four years. At my last appointment, my nephrologist reduced the frequency of my labs and lengthened the time between our follow-ups. I have been his patient since I was 18, and now he would be seeing me through two separate graduations. “I have to admit,” he said. “It’s been fun for me to watch you grow up.” We shook hands before I left, and it was a much harder goodbye than I anticipated.
It was disconcerting to no longer think of myself as an active kidney patient, just as it is disconcerting to think of myself as no longer a Penn student. Labels and designations have been such a large part of my collegiate life: patient, caregiver, writer, 34th Street Editor, English major, creative writing minor, and there was even that infuriating period where I kept referring to myself as “just a girl at a bar.”
In a way, I suppose it terrifies me to be label-less. What should feel liberating feels suffocating: If I don’t have a neat label for myself, then who am I? For most of my life, I’ve had such a clear path laid out for me — concrete, discrete steps I needed to take to “succeed” in the four-year increments (high school, college) I was cocooned in. Now, the reins are in my hands. For the first time in my life, I might really fail.
Maybe that’s the crux of the issue. I’ve been rejected (many times, in many ways) but I’ve never really failed — if I had, I wouldn’t be here right now, would I? And I don’t think rejection and failure are regarded in the same way; failure connotes a sense of responsibility that rejection doesn’t always carry. You fail a test, but someone else rejects you. No wonder I find it so frightening — I’m scared I’ll make all the wrong choices.
I used to think that making the wrong choice meant giving up on my childhood dreams, that it meant compromising my “artistic integrity” for practicality. I used to think that “right” versus “wrong” was centered exclusively on what I thought would make me happy, but happiness is ineffable and dynamic. It’s hard to know what will make you happy until you go and experience it. It’s David Lewis’ “Vegemite Principle”: You can crowd source as many opinions about Vegemite as you want, but you won’t know if you like the taste until you try it.
Does it sound like I’m making excuses for myself? That I’m scaring myself out of taking the artistic risks the literary community seems to encourage: go into debt, take the leap, work odd jobs, and write in the middle of the night. I got into my dream MFA program, but I’m choosing to work full-time next year instead. I can see why some people might think I’m selling out, but I do truly believe I’ll always be a writer. Writing is a way in which I seek to understand the world, and no one can take that away from me. Growing up, however, has meant recognizing how this impending sense of mortality I carried contributed to sustaining logical fallacies. It’s not so either-or: be reckless or be regretful. I don’t think being practical and being passionate are mutually exclusive.
I can’t live my life thinking that I’ll soon die. At a certain point I’m willing to suspend disbelief: to let myself think I have the capacity to live a healthy and ordinary — maybe, even, an extraordinary — life.
I’ve had an incredible few years at Penn. To Professor Hendrickson, Buzz Bissinger and Lisa Smith, Sam Apple and Max Apple, Weike Wang, and Dr. Bloch — thank you for being the best professors and mentors I could have asked for. To Swathi, Aliki, Annabelle, Angela, Dani, Louis, and Autumn: Thank you for being an incredible support system. To Nick and Remi and the 134 board: Thanks for an amazing time on Street and for taking a chance on me as an editor!
So despite the pragmatism I’ve infused within this column, despite admitting that I went against what I thought my “dreams” were, I still think I’m making a hopeful choice. I’m suspending disbelief: I’m letting myself believe that my life is long and full of opportunities to pivot and fail and get up again. I hope all of you will do that as well.
SABRINA QIAO is a College senior from Blue Bell, Pa., studying English and journalism. She served as the Special Features Editor for 34th Street Magazine. Previously, she was an Ego beat and staff writer.
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