The Gifts You Gave: Learning and Loss

By: Alisa Tanaka, Guest BloggerDecember 1, 2015


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On my way home from a tutoring session, I looked down and saw that I had a missed call. My parents hadn’t left a message, so I didn’t think it was something urgent. I called back anyway. I thought it was one of those let’s-check-on-our-kid-and-how-she’s-surviving-her-first-midterm-season-of-college calls. I would call them, tell them I was fine, and hang up.

The opening question of “Did you watch the debate?” did nothing to suggest that it was not a checkup. My mother handed the phone to my father. I vividly remember answering his question of “How are you?” with “It could be better, but it could be worse.”

When my father said, “It’s going to get worse,” I didn’t see how. The thought of his next words coming out of his mouth had never crossed my mind. I was struggling with the successful transition from high school senior to college freshman.

“George just passed away.”

Those four little words numbed me.


My vivacious, funny, sarcastic, caring mentor had just died of cancer. No. He was in his thirties. He had too much to do, too many things he cared about, too people he cared about.

He could not be gone. But he was.

I cried. I didn’t cry that night, but I cried in my advisor’s office the next day as I asked for advice on how to move through midterms with this hanging over my head. I cried as I begged my parents to let me come home for his memorial.  

It has been seven years since that phone call. I remember him every day.

I learned that sometimes life isn’t fair. Sometimes beautiful, talented people are taken away from you for reasons you can’t explain.

We all wish that our loved ones could live forever to see us accomplish great things in our lives. Unfortunately, that’s just not how it works.

When you lose someone you love, whether they are a friend or a parent, that death becomes a part of you. But as hard as it is, you move on because you know that staying stagnant is not what they would have wanted for you had they lived.

A few days after my mentor passed, one of his loved ones sent me an email, which she ended with the line: “We expect something good. You were his student.”

I took this particular line to heart; for the first few years, I thought that the best way to honor him was to stay in the field that he had loved so much: the arts. But I quickly found that although I had an interest in it, being behind the camera didn’t make me happy. Neither did being in front of it.

So I stepped away from the arts completely and found jobs in other fields.

And I found that he was still with me because even when he was gone, he was teaching me an important thing: don’t try to force yourself to do what everyone else thinks you should do. Don’t do things that make you unhappy, even if they seem glamorous.

I hear his running commentary in my head every day, pushing me toward things that challenge me, discouraging me from making bad decisions; that commentary is strewn with wit, sarcasm, and (well-placed) profanity.

His voice has become my voice of reason, the invisible force that pushes me to try things, to have faith, to enjoy life. He is still my teacher, even though he is no longer physically here.

And that is a gift more beautiful than any tattoo I could have gotten to commemorate him.

The weekend he passed, I spent some time downtown, away from my university campus, processing my thoughts. I wrote a letter to him, even though I knew he would never see it.

I reflected on how he came into my life. I recalled our conversations. I thanked him for coming into my life, even if it was for such a short time.

I told him I was his student and that I would always be his student.

That hasn’t changed.

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About Alisa


Alisa Tanaka graduated from Lewis & Clark College with a B.A. in Communications in 2012. When she’s not writing her blog, she can be found reading, volunteering, dreaming of traveling the world, trying to master the 5 languages she speaks, or playing with her puppy.


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