I remember the same instinct from when J— died: if I could write it all down —the connections between the present and past, the mundane and grand, the private and public— maybe it would somehow make some sense.
We knew three hundred other students, more or less, at our small international college. A strange cohort. Over time, we saw a percentage of students who came out as gay and lesbian, the number of those who got married, a subsection of those who had kids, and later, those who divorced. At one reunion, A—, who had become a psychiatrist, told me the percentage of the population who had mental illnesses. It was perhaps something like 6% for serious cases which added up to 18 of our classmates. ‘Could it really be so high?’ I thought out loud. He laughed. ‘Definitely.’ I had to agree. We were an eccentric bunch.
Now, in our early 40s, something else is starting to add up. As an Arts major, which we joked would leave one ill-suited to most parts of life, I didn’t expect to end up understanding the difference between ‘incidence’ and ‘prevalence’ (which I learned through my work in HIV). It’s probably not the quite right set of descriptors, but I keep thinking that even if events are low each year, they add up over time.
Two friends have written already: the word ‘unbelievable’. Highlighting the gap between what we know (people die) and what we feel (how can vitality be erased so suddenly?). The other question, mine too, was ‘how?’ Though thinking back, the causes were usually unexplained. Did it really help to know the reasons for those early losses, the car accident, the two (two!) rock-climbing mishaps? Still, a terrible gift to squander, to know you’re ill and say no goodbyes. Was it denial, exhaustion, a lack of sentimentality or a cavalier ‘what does it matter’?
I don’t know if it was something you said regularly or just a few times, or only one incident, but I recall a widening of your blue eyes, the start, then popcorn burst, of a laugh in mid-register. ‘Oh, shit!’ It was surprise expressed that something was so funny, that we were so funny, and somehow you were partly responsible, if only to fuel the flames of amusement with cheer and profanity.
Last reunion, I felt something forced. You laughed too loud. I asked after your father. It was something else that I’d always remember. Those first years of coming out and wondering the consequence, you’d approached me. I hadn’t told you I was gay directly, but our friend I— told a few people after I told him. ‘My dad’s gay,’ you told me and as with R— who told me his brother was gay, it was a double offering: ‘I accept you’ and ‘you are not alone.’
Sometime after our 20 year reunion, you embraced facebook with a passion. I think we shared more friends in common, 153, than anyone else I know. You wrote comments often, posted news, were regular with status updates. There, we knew of your tenants from hell and the terrible sadness you felt losing your dogs. I wondered sometimes of your loneliness, if you were OK or if you’d lost your way. But there was something brash and open in the way that you kept up a cyber-communication between so many of us, a natural, open flow of words.
Perhaps that’s it, the disjuncture I felt. To so freely share then no farewell. So, I visited your profile page again. A handful of photos, not many, none recent. Under your info, your e-mail address, and I laughed as I did every year when I reached out to do our year’s alumni newsletter. firstname.lastname@example.org. How could you not smile, though I’d also roll my eyes at its plain silliness. And then, there it was, above the e-mail address on the information page.
About C—: In Transition
How could you not smile?
This is what I imagine. The doctors breaking the news, sending you home from the hospital. ‘Oh, shit!’ And this too, a bed at home, your family members around you, the great bright light coming, you, slowly chuckling out of this life.
Tenderness and honesty beautifully negotiated.