I didn’t know it was the last time I was talking to him so I didn’t know to pay attention to everything: the view out the window, the chill in the air, the way that particular moment would come to just smell like finals week of college, the exact rhythms of his voice. Sometimes I go back there and stand next to myself. If I could I would whisper: Skip studying (you’re failing anyway), go to see Brokeback Mountain with R in the city. The phone call you make to cancel your plans is the last time you are going to talk to him. When you finally see that movie in a few weeks, you are going to be sure that his ghost is sitting right next to you. Go. Tell your friend that you love him and that you’ve missed him before he leaves forever. But instead I sit there, trapped in myself, watching the lights twinkle over the Raritan, not knowing the choice I’m making.
Every Tuesday and Friday that whole semester, I took my lunch break at the Barnes & Noble two blocks from my internship. It was a set routine: go to Whole Foods on 14th Street and then sneak a granola bar into the bookstore for the remaining half hour. There were no arm chairs like at the ones in New Jersey, so the four floors were littered with kids cutting school and an assortment of suits reading US Weekly at around one in the afternoon. I always ended up sitting in the self improvement section reading about celebrities.
Because he killed himself in the wasteland between Christmas and New Year’s, the substitute priest mispronounced his name over and over again during the service. Because it was my first wake, I did not understand what it meant to be in the same room with the body of someone who I’d only known alive. As they did his make-up and saved his face, did the morticians know that he would have never worn those shoes, that he would never get that haircut? Were they thinking of us with the stroke of the blush, as he couldn’t, and mouthing slightly: this isn’t your friend.
I drank my way through the better part of the year that followed, slurring that small Langston Hughes poem. I loved my friend, he went away from me.
There are some sadnesses that take the senses first- everything dulls into a passable numbness. The skin stiffens and turns into a straitjacket. When R died, I was jealous. I was jealous because I was so sad all the time then that I couldn’t walk down stairs without imagining falling down them head first. I was jealous because I felt like I had been alive a day longer than forever. I was jealous because I did not know that the grace of grief and of mourning is in its ugliness.
I checked my email, waiting for the confirmation. It came an hour later than I expected- the arrangements and the details. I’ve given up on asking why; there are things that I have a right to and others I don’t. Still, my stomach tried to escape my body through my mouth. The contents of A’s liver on the screen: Prozac, Tylenol, alcohol.
The digital afterlife is inexplicable: the reminders for a birthday that forget the wake, the funeral directions from the deceased’s own email address, a MySpace invitation with an avatar of that familiar face hours after the phone call, the Facebook page’s evolution into a roadside memorial. That lost presence tangible in the aether, as if all the lost friends are together in a room far off, somewhere adjacent to all the former best friends and ex-boyfriends, tagging pictures every six months to remind you that they were once there too. And everything invisible is suddenly shown: the exact size of words pixelated, couched between the minute of the every day and the latest deal. The characters don’t read in the way they should: out of order, heavily leaded, kerning askew.
It lessens, it softens, it wears into something wearable. What used to be a week becomes a day, what used to be a crowd becomes a shadow. But what no book ever tells, what no website ever lists in the symptoms: you will always expect your friend to reappear. There will be days when verbs forget their proper tenses; was will become is. There will be days when you will forget that the contents of that email or the sight of that body. On those days your friend is off somewhere, wherever friends go when they are not with you.
That Miss Clavell feeling, that something here is not right, echoed through me when I listened to the voicemail. The moderate tone, the careful lack of detail, the slow call me back when you get this. My hands were shaking by the time I returned a call to my dad. Somewhere in the middle of talking about A Prairie Home Companion and Chris Christie cutting budgets, he asked “Is everything ok? You don’t sound ok.” I told him the truth: a friend of mine called and it sounds like bad news. “Dad, I think someone’s dead.” My father said to me, is someone you know sick? I replied: Dad, I know a lot of of sick people.
Someone was dead. She jumped off a building. N was so small that when I heard how she went, I couldn’t imagine her with enough weight to hit the ground. It was her 28th birthday and then it was a closed casket; there was the email unnervingly ecstatic and then, days later, the note on where to send flowers and what not to say to the family. All the love in the world doesn’t save any thing or any body.
The week N died a blizzard hit the east coast. Inches of snow blanketed Central Park and everything slowed down. The subways were a mess, buses stuck in the streets. So I trekked downtown, across town, and then uptown to stand in front of the funeral home closed, the memorial service was rescheduled. I hadn’t thought to think that was a possibility.
The year in review: B fell out a window and onto an avenue, Y never came home from vacation.
And I hid from grief. I ate protein bars with a knife and fork two out of three meals a day. Everything measured out, scaled to proportion. It was overwhelming, so I forced manageability on it because I did not want to say is this too much, am I doing this right, where is the rubric. I did not put my arms out and embrace it for what it was; instead I packed it away for when I could better understand. Out loud I said: loss is the underbelly of love. Loving includes losing- it is an ache that proves us capable of that stretch. What I acted: when we do not have the courage to grieve, we hide from ourselves.
Every birthday after 22 felt like a surprise. When I turned 30, I found myself crushed by concurrent waves of grief and gratitude: I was older than I had meant to be. Somewhere in the last years of my twenties, things quietly shifted. Church services became beginnings rather than ends. There were baby showers, bachelorettes, weddings, and housewarmings. What a funny thing to go to parties where your friends have requested bowls and irons and diapers as gifts.
I spent most of the night crying about getting older when I turned 20. My life was over! Everything good and romantic and adventurous and worth remembering was surely supposed to happen by 19. I had not yet: graduated college, hummed the wedding march for a dear friend and her now husband in her parents’ living room in the powerless aftermath of a superstorm, known and unknown and known someone again, rocked a friend’s baby to sleep, been overseas, scrubbed the bathroom floor of my own apartment. Where I live now is just beyond the limits of my imagined city (of Lyle Lyle Crocodile, Eloise, Harriet and Sport, Claudia and Jaime, Peter and Fudge and Sheila), of what I knew to want for myself, a life bigger than I could imagine for myself from the trunk seat of my parents’ station wagon. The true marvel of allowing the years to pile on top of one another: realizing the boundaries of dreams, allowing them to expand and contract with the years.
The other night I sorted through old photos from college; R’s face was there, stuck. I wanted to reach into the negative and tell us sitting there that that we were young and that we didn’t know it, tell him that everything intolerable passes into something else, that it dissolves into wisdom. Mourning allows this, and it also allows the longing, the dream of someone(s) older. Grief is as big as love, as lovely as love, as long as love. Some days, I whisper to you(s) that you are loved and lovable and loving. I say it so many times that the words lose meaning and become a hum for you to carry. I can sing it now quietly because I’ve sung it as I’ve unpacked and sorted through the attic of myself, those secret storage rooms of everything without words.
A dozen or so Saturdays ago, I took a train down to New Brunswick for the football game. For years, I was sure that that Northeast corridor held some magic that would deliver me back to the Old Queens campus in 2005. I found myself walking the miles from the train station to the stadium, mostly because the campus had that pulsing September electricity and I wanted all of it: the smell of fall, impending somethings, the buses chanting past. It felt strange and lovely to be so glad to be there older now, to know the luck of it. How amazing to feel satisfied in finite imperfection, to sit between my father and my brother for the next few hours without saying much of anything because sitting there was enough. After it was all done, the game won, the crowds dispersed, I got back on the train and headed home to where home is now, in the city and not away from it. As the train swayed right out of the station, it occurred to me that this is what it is, the fine dust of experience and memory suddenly visible. I didn’t wake up one morning suddenly 30; it took the whole 30 years. And it didn’t look like the way I thought it ought to. All there was to do was take out the trash, lock the door, and quietly recite an Odgen Nash poem (silly girl, silver girl) to myself in the process.