It is said that the brightest candles burn out the fastest.
Early last Tuesday morning, the tragic implications of that saying became clear when LSA junior Kavya Vaidyanathan died of heart failure at the University Hospital.
She had just turned 20.
Days later, her friends spoke as though some vital brick in the foundation of their lives had been snatched away without warning, leaving them suddenly to cope as best they could.
Last Saturday, eight of those friends gathered in Vaidyanathan’s old home on Washtenaw Court. Most, like LSA juniors Connie Chang and Pooja Agrawal, had known her since she was as one of the few freshmen on their floor in the South Quad Residence Hall.
Crammed together in a sparsely furnished living room, the group’s solemnity was accentuated by the dull roar of the football tailgates, just reaching a crescendo outside. For Vaidyanathan’s friends, it was a time for a different communal experience, less festive, but many times more powerful.
Many of them knew that Vaidyanathan suffered from pulmonary hypertension, but until her death, few realized how serious the chronic heart condition was.
“I only found out after a very long time,” said Agrawal, who had roomed with Vaidyanathan for two years in South Quad and again on Washtenaw Court. “She never made it that big of a deal.”
Another of Vaidyanathan’s longtime friends, LSA junior Danny Leslie, agreed.
“She was so good at convincing us with her happiness and energy that she was totally fine, that even at the very end, none of us thought it was serious,” he said.
LSA junior Chloe Roselander-Ginn, who had met Vaidyanathan during freshman orientation, remembered visiting her in the hospital shortly before her death.
“She was consoling me,” she recalled.
Part of the reason Vaidyanathan downplayed her condition, her friends said, was her refusal to let it hinder her active and passionate lifestyle.
Vaidyanathan – valedictorian of her high school in Granger, Ind., a small town about 10 miles east of South Bend – was a member of the Honors College and the Shipman Society, which provided her a full scholarship. She was majoring in neuroscience and Spanish, and she was considering graduating early to travel to India or South America before pursuing a career as a pediatrician.
In Sanskrit, “Kavya” translates roughly to “poet,” her friends said. Appropriately, she would often scribble poems and song lyrics in her notebooks.
Her list of involvements could have belonged to an entire honors society. Somewhere between Dance Marathon, Indian cultural shows, the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program and the Michigan Independent, she would find time to tutor local children through K-grams, and support Udavum Karangal, an Indian nonprofit.
“Basically, she never slept,” Leslie said.
“No,” Chang corrected him, reminding him of Vaidyanathan’s habitual naps on the South Quad basement benches. “She very much liked to sleep.”
She was renowned for her reasoned, principled political stances and a ferocious appetite for unabashedly expressing them.
“She lived with no regrets, no embarrassment,” Roselander-Ginn said.
This attitude, she said, was stirring for those who knew her.
“There’s no way to hear all that and not be inspired to be more alive,” she said.
Vaidyanathan’s impact on those around her was clear last Thursday at Muehligs Funeral Home, where her memorial service was held. The crowd swelled to capacity within minutes, eventually overflowing to the hallways outside.
Back on Washtenaw Court, Vaidyanathan’s old roommate, LSA junior Vijya Patel, flipped through a worn copy of “Brave New World.”
A bookmark protruded about a quarter of the way through.
“Kavya loved to read,” she said. “She was probably in the middle of five or six books.”
Alone now, Patel pointed out the areas where her roommate’s presence was beginning to erode – her bed was stripped, and the wall was blank where a photo collage, now returned to her home in Granger, had hung. The room was beginning to feel oversized, too large for Patel’s modest possessions.
Still, for the most part, Vaidyanathan’s presence was as palpable as it was two weeks ago, before the downward spiral of hospital stays and respiratory complications began. On her wall, the same Smiths poster still proclaimed “Meat is Murder.” Beside it, her favorite actor, Johnny Depp, portraying Captain Jack Sparrow, still wore the same rakish smirk.
By her bed, the 2-foot-tall, dull gray oxygen tank she used to calm her breathing at night still stood.
In the living room, the conversation grew livelier, the images and memories more impassioned and vibrant. As each story concluded, the friends looked wistfully around. Their eyes became glassy and distant, brimming with bittersweet recollections: Kavya learning guitar in a week, Kavya dressed as an Oompa Loompa for Halloween. Less enthusiastically, Kavya singing.
“This girl would sing,” Chang said. “But she had no -” As she paused, the room erupted in laughter. “She was so tone-deaf,” she finished, impersonating her “drawn-out, emo” version of “Hail to the Victors.”
“They’re all happy memories,” Roselander-Ginn said. “It’s really good to have such a pure memory of someone, really.”
After an hour, it didn’t much matter who knew Vaidyanathan from where, or how, or what experiences exactly they shared. It didn’t matter who had been there the time she abandoned her psychology textbooks on the Law Quad lawn to play Frisbee or who watched her confront a fraternity doorman for his “disrespectful” attitude.
It didn’t matter which ones she had nursed through which exams, or which colds.
What mattered is that they all knew her when she was still the “go-to” ear for their problems. When she was still the vital, ecstatic hub of their social lives.
That, at least, was enough for now.
To finish the saying, the brightest candles burn the quickest, but when they are gone, everyone remembers how they lit up the room.