So you decided to leave without telling anyone.
Looking back now, I see my own selfishness… self-centeredness. I see the arrogance of a thought that lingered in my brain (one not unique to my brain but a thought of all of us who survived what you didn’t)- that I could have done something differently. I could have been an agent of the saving change and we could be here together, still whispering over too many beers about the moment that took you to the edge of existence, but you didn’t stumble and fall and never think to return. And where are you now? The place where you can tell us who is wrong and who is right- we who defined what death would be like when our varied Lords of life meet us at the end of our painful, joyful, afflicted, blessed, long and arduous journeys. And you choked at the end, but now you can gargle through the suffocation to reveal whatever truth abides.
I cry at movies now. That seems to be the lasting effect. That seems to be your legacy. It’s a simple but haunting change. Comedies and tragedies have lost their distinct division because you laughed so often. Now Bill Murray cuts me deeply. And I’m not entirely certain whether this means that I am broken or the visceral beauty of life is finally revealed. Two men walked into a bar, I suppose. And only one came out.
Everything that we took from your room became an artifact. Shirts, shoes, hats, books, records, the sheets on your bed. Everything was of extreme value and we shared the goods. We keep them hidden in the bottoms of our dressers. And now we only bring them out on the date of your birthday and the date of your overdose. We only hold you for your beginning and your end.
Wasn’t I a good enough reason to trudge through the muck of it all? The rest of us do it. The rest of us have chosen to see how it all plays out. The day-to-day ridiculousness then the weddings and the children and the grandchildren. Then we’ll be brave when our bodies fall apart. When our backs become hunched and our knees give out and we physically struggle to get up before the sunrise. We’ll be brave. We will defy time for as long as we can. And some of us will surrender to cancer. And some of us will lose each other and ourselves in late stages of Alzheimer’s. And some of us will wrap ourselves around a telephone pole because there was ice on the roads but we needed eggs and milk and laundry detergent. And some of us will go quietly in the night. But for Christ’s sake, we’ll all be brave. No one will publicly mourn our loss with those who loved us most and then sneak into the coatroom and call us a coward. Then warm themselves, huddled close, and press out into the winter night.
Today, protests are breaking out in every major city and emboldened people are uniformly demanding acknowledgement of a fact that eluded you. Life matters.
Did you know that we refuse to drive down the street where you lived? When we have important places to go and important people to see, we don’t want to be reminded of you. New people have come into our lives and we have to explain why we take the long way. They apologize to us if we do share. They assume that they crossed a sacred line. Our wives and husbands and children are strangers to you. You didn’t hold on long enough to meet them. But they utter the apologies that you’ll never give.
We all have different memories of the times that we spent with you and when we compile them all together, it’s a good story. Like any great writer, some of the stories are better than the others. Some are more complete. Some have obvious morals and messages and some serve no purpose other than to prove that you once existed. You are a cautionary tale. You took a dozen pills and you died.
Someone quotes Tennyson. “’Tis better to have loved and lost…”
In high school our teachers always doubted the excuses for our absence whenever a moment of challenge rolled around. We didn’t complete a report or study for an exam and so we got up early and held the thermometer next to a light bulb. If it could climb over a hundred degrees, we would be freed. There was joy in the deceit and joy in the escape. So I hope that it worked as well for you now as it did then. The rest of us are left with the hurdles of life. And we bow our heads, shrug our shoulders, and finally roll our eyes at your empty chair.