fightin' words

Duval ’til I DIE

How January became my mourning season


It’s difficult to say goodbye to those who pass away too young.

When someone is older, when you can see that the body is struggling for breath, when consciousness comes and goes in some fleeting and transitory manner, you can make your peace with it.

You sort of have to, at least by the time someone is in hospice or otherwise clearly on the way out.

But it’s harder when that person is younger than you. Harder still when that person represents the promise and possibility of youth. And when that representation is gone, it solidifies an understanding that all these representations—the things we hold so dear—will be gone soon enough also.

I was thinking about my old friend Kyle, who died 14 years ago last week; a suicidal plunge off a parking garage in Pittsburgh was her final act. We lived in the same neighborhood during those years when college and driving a car felt like purest freedom.

Among my cynical group of friends when I was much younger, she was an outlier. The most innocent, pure person.

She hated to cause pain to anyone. And she fought against those dark forces of the suburban home: the grievances and the parental fights and all the shit that seems so repellant when one is 16 years old and feeling trapped like a dog in a kennel box.

She burned bright, then—as happens, at least to some of us—she couldn’t handle it anymore.

Who knows the catalyst? Someone smarter than I. Someone who stayed in touch. Maybe.

Or, as those with suicidal ideations know, perhaps no one knew the catalyst. Dark secrets, individual-sized shames, feed off our viscera like tumors until they become identity themselves.

Fourteen years on, and I still don’t know what drove her final act.

I was in what has become a familiar yearly reverie, the day after Epiphany, when I found out about the untimely death of another close friend.

She died, I was told, of a liver disease.

She knew she was going to die.

I hadn’t talked to her for 20 years; as you might imagine, being friends with me offers something of diminishing returns for people, or at least it did when I was younger and even more of an asshole than I am today.

But Jessica was—is—as vivid as those days last century, when I would drive across town and we would just go places.

The theme song for that era: “Protection” by Massive Attack. When that drum kicks in, a thousand memories do, too, a kaleidoscopic flood.

There are people who, even when you lose touch with them, continue to leave their mark. This was true in Jessica’s case.

The smartest person in most rooms. The funniest person in most rooms. One of those people—all too rare—who could make me laugh uncontrollably, who could break that deadpan shell that usually offers protection from the depredations and degradations of life itself.

Jessica and I never would have dated; she was involved with a friend of mine, and I was involved with just trying to get through a stretch of my life that included living off Tylenol PMs for a year or three. I was barely present.

I was always present when she was around; it was like a ticket to a self that hadn’t been broken.

Jessica, in what has to be considered a cosmic coincidence, died within days of the date her twin sister Beth passed away a few years earlier.

As those who have read what I write for some time know, one of the events that shaped me the most was a near-death experience when I was 12. I was riding a bike, stopped on the turn lane of a four-lane stretch of road, when a car clipped me. The bike and I went up in the air—sort of like a punt that is more vertical than horizontal.

The bike, upon coming down, became modern art. I banged my head; a concussion that never quite healed, the headaches never actually abated, yet I came out of the coma.

And since that time, I’ve wondered why. Even when I do things reasonably well (some decent journalism and, well, there must be other things), I’ve never quite understood why it was that I had to pull through.

These are the types of questions that I don’t know if others ask, but I assume they do. The existential nature of being. The suddenness of some deaths. The protracted slothian pace of others.

And at the end of the process, the inextricable feeling of loss: of knowing that, for all the pretensions of permanence, none of this lasts long at all.

Yet it hurts like it lasts forever.

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