A physician’s ode to someone who changed his life

I think it’s fair to say a small part of all of us died along with Grace McDermott. Grace was a beautiful, talented PhD student studying in Ireland who tragically passed away in a house fire this past week. She was many things — musician, blogger, extrovert, women’s rights activist — but she was also my first girlfriend. I’m still in shock.

It’s hard to comprehend something like this. The mind shudders and reels, seeking to find meaning but failing. Something went wrong in the universe. I first heard on Tuesday when a member of the youth orchestra we both played in, The Metropolitan Youth Orchestra of New York, messaged us the horrifying news. I spent that day in a daze, breaking down that evening, crying for hours.

Grace and I met on a MYO summer musical tour of China. She was a singer; I was a horn player. She confidently walked up to me after the first rehearsal, looked me in the eye, smiled, and said “Hey! I’m Grace. I like your sandals.” As an incredibly awkward high school junior with the romancing skills of a calculator, this felt something like winning the lottery. Not quite believing my luck, I somehow managed a reply, and in a few weeks, we were dating.

We dated for about a year, breaking up as I went off to college. We didn’t stay close, but though I hadn’t spoken to her in almost ten years, I enjoyed every time she popped up on my Facebook feed. She’d like a post of mine. I’d like one of hers. We’d comment on each other’s blog. She was thriving, the world slowly but surely becoming enchanted with her passion and wit.

The memories I have of Grace are fleeting, but vivid. Around and around they swirl now, unattached to any living person. Half of a memory. I remember the way she would run and jump into my arms when she saw me. The way she would cock her head slightly when she was about to sing the first note of her aria. The way you could tell whether or not she was really laughing by an infectious, cackling glee that seemed to fully infuse itself in her body. The way she would designate something as enjoyable: “It’s — ,” followed by a dramatic pause, then, “sooooo goood.”

Grace taught me true, unbridled love. She had a clear vision of what she wanted, and she pursued it. This became immediately apparent on the plane ride from Detroit to Beijing. I had known Grace for about a week at this point, and I again couldn’t believe my luck when I realized that Grace was sitting directly next to me on the flight. We watched movies, listened to each others music, and talked about whatever it is that 16 and 17 year olds talk about. She eventually fell asleep on my shoulder. I remember looking around the airplane, surrounded by snoring American and Chinese travelers at 4:00 a.m., thinking I don’t think it gets much better than this. I later found out that Grace had engaged in a shadow campaign to figure out what seat I was on and switch seats so she could be next to me without me knowing. You can’t not fall in love with someone like that. You just can’t.

When tragedy strikes, it removes a filter I live with on a day to day basis. Gone is the delusional haze of banality that normally fogs my thinking. Oh yeahI remember. Life is fucking arbitrary and unfair. Perhaps it’s a defense mechanism, and I just can’t handle the two-faced nature of reality: potently meaningful, crushingly insignificant. But even with the filter gone, I still couldn’t understand what had happened. The only thing that made sense was a mantra from my clinic attending which I kept repeating over and over in my head: young people shouldn’t die.

The international outpouring of grief, shock, affection, and love for Grace wasn’t by accident. She had qualities that people recognized instantly as genuine. She was honest and engaging. She was funny and intelligent. She did what she felt was right. She lived with intensity.

In whatever feeble capacity I have to fight against the injustice and randomness of it all, I want to honor what Grace stood for by trying to be more like her. She taught me how to love someone. She focused on the things that mattered. She was that rare being that inspired those around her, and made things better.

Goodbye Grace, and thank you for changing my life.

Ben Gold is a physician who blogs at his self-titled site, Ben Gold, M.D.

Image credit: Ben Gold

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