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Find joy in change

| Friday, May 13, 2016

A lot can change in four years.

When I first arrived at Notre Dame four years ago, my dad, like many other fathers, helped me move into my new dorm. He carried boxes, lofted beds and sweated along with the rest of the class of 2016 and their parents as we began our time at Notre Dame on a sunny August Friday.

When my dad comes for graduation this weekend, he will be in a power wheelchair, completely dependent upon others to move, communicate and live.

In March of 2014, sophomore year, he was diagnosed with ALS. A lot can change in four years.

Since his diagnosis, my time at Notre Dame has been set against the backdrop of his illness, the timeline of his deterioration. When I returned to campus for junior year, he could still walk with some assistance. When I came home for fall break, he was in a wheelchair. When I left to study abroad, he could still swallow solid food. When I returned, he took all his meals through a feeding tube. A few days after we lost to Clemson, he went into the hospital with pneumonia and hasn’t really been able to speak or sit up for long periods since. A lot can change in four years.

I’ve changed a lot these past four years, too. My dad’s unfortunate and untimely confrontation with mortality has forced me to deeply examine who and what I hold close — family, friends, places, experiences. Trying to balance a full college life and time with my dad while he is still with us has presented me with choices that have caused me to grow up quickly and separate what’s actually important from the things that only seem so.

And with graduation upon us, life is about to change again. We’re all about to leave the place that has become a home for us, and the people who have become family. Many of us are moving to new places, new homes with new people who we can only hope end up as special to us as the people we found here.

I’m about to leave my home for at least the next year and a half — a summer interning in Florida followed by a year working in Ireland. And I still need to come to terms with the knowledge that the next time I come home will be for my dad’s wake and funeral.

These are all terrifying thoughts. But if these past four years — through my Notre Dame experience, my travels, my dad’s disease — have taught me anything, it’s that we can handle it. No matter what cross we bear — a move to an unfamiliar place, an uncertain career path, a dying father — we’ll make it work. No one’s suffering is easier or harder than another’s. It is just our own.

And despite what challenges may lie ahead, I also believe our shared Notre Dame experience has left us uniquely equipped to thrive wherever we go and in whatever we do. With a strong sense of human solidarity and keen concern for the common good instilled in us, it is time for our Notre Dame education to become service to justice.

Perhaps this is all youthful naivety, but the world has yet to give me a reason to be cynical. Because after four years of hard work, late nights in the library or the newsroom, successes, failures and memories, I still know that a lot can change in the next four years, too.

When he was first diagnosed, my dad promised himself and my family that his disease would not define him. In the face of tremendous personal suffering, he would remain the same father, husband, brother, and friend he has always been. He has struggled with this promise, as has my entire family. It’s hard not to let something as devastating as ALS change you.

At times, I have seen my family’s situation bring sadness and frustration, but it has not robbed us of a deeper sense of joy. This joy is a profound conviction that throughout the triumphs and travails we encounter, we are living a good life.

This joy permeates my family, and it is the same joy I hope all of you — my Notre Dame family — feel as we forge our paths forward. Things will change, as they always do, but if we remain rooted in the joy we have found here, I have no doubt the Notre Dame class of 2016 can create our own change. After all, a lot can change in four years. And we can change even more after four years at Notre Dame.

Jack Rooney is graduating with a degree in Political Science and American Studies with a minor in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy. He’ll continue his journalism career as a summer intern for the Tampa Bay Times before spending a year working for Notre Dame in Ireland. He welcomes visitors in both locations, just email him at [email protected].

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Jack Rooney

Jack is a 2016 graduate of Notre Dame, and The Observer's former managing editor. He is currently spending a year living and working for the University in Ireland, and writing columns to keep him busy. For more random thoughts and plenty of news links, follow Jack on Twitter @RooneyReports.

Contact Jack