This week was supposed to be knuckle-down week, when I would finally crank out the three posts I have been worrying for too long. But instead, my posts are still drafts, because a recently-graduated member of our lab-family passed away, unexpectedly, at 23. I don’t want to eulogize Cameron, since there are plenty of people who knew him better than I did. I want to do the thing that keeps me focused during times of stress, which is to write. But I can’t write about science until I’ve written about this.
Cameron was my student. We shared the same bench every day. I taught him how to load a gel. I taught him how to flip an inverted latex glove back into shape. I taught him my paranoid brand of sterile technique, which he politely considered and then ignored.
He played practical jokes on the younger lab aides. He injured himself at parties. He kept a terrible lab notebook. He was funny and laid-back and contrary and gracious and smart and hard-working and frustrated by bench work. He listened to some of my treasured protocol superstitions, questioned them, debunked them empirically, and improved my protocols. I wrote him a reference for his medical school applications and then, before he had finished his interviews, I wrote the lab’s condolence card for his family.
After two days of tears, confusion, and laughter, I started to become aware of my brain’s reluctance to change. I couldn’t associate the vibrant and unsentimental reality of Cameron with his death. Any time I thought of him, the connections in my brain were exactly the same as they were the previous month, when I last saw him, or the previous week, when his Facebook status made me laugh. Except now I had to impose an editorial interruption that made me feel sick: “He’s dead.”
But gradually the connections in my brain are changing, as day after day of new memories are made. His funeral, his body, his siblings, his parents, his friends. Only one week later, I no longer feel nauseous when I see his initials, which pepper half the bottles on my bench. Life is settling down again, his friends are slowly returning to work and school and no-one is crying in the hallway. But our already tight-knit lab is even closer than before and seeking comfort in each others’ friendship. All we need right now is for Cameron to make an inappropriate joke. You know he would.