Four months ago, my friend Alan was still alive.
Four months ago tomorrow, he died.
The truth of his demise tore through our hearts like a tornado. For the first time in over a decade, we came together to console each other, to reconcile ourselves with the new reality that the world was now and forever without Alan.
He was only eight days away from celebrating his thirty-fourth birthday.
It was an accident, a tragedy, a stupid mistake.
It makes me angry that it can be over so easily. That despite our concrete and steel skyscrapers, despite the space station, despite our daily angst and joy, we can simply trip and be dead.
That Alan simply tripped and is dead.
I had not spoken to Alan since we graduated from high school. Because we were always arranged in alphabetical order, I sat next to Alan like I had sat next to him for the previous twelve years of public school. Once that tassel hit the other side of my mortarboard, I rushed headlong into the vague and alluring outside world. I would look back occasionally, briefly, weary of the possibility I could be drawn back.
We grew up together in a small town, Alan and me. It's the type of town people get sentimental for if they leave, resent and resign themselves to if they stay. We started our adulthood before social media was a regular fixture in our days. Faint rumors were all that tied us to the community that was once our entire world. I had heard that Alan was a commercial diver, that he was still writing music, that he was doing well. That was enough for me, to know he was doing well. I would look for him on Facebook occasionally but besides for that I did not really have a reason to reach out. He was alive and I was alive and that was enough.
I did not know he had even moved back home until I learned of his death. We could have run into each other, I could have sought him out but I thought he was under water somewhere, searching for buried treasure. Of course, even if we had run into each other, I probably wouldn't have recognized him. At the memorial service there were hundreds strangers who turned out to be old friends. They bowed their tired adult heads in prayer while I looked up at the stunningly blue sky, my adult eyes strained and swollen.
At the wake I struggled to remember names that were once regularly said by my tongue while trying to suppress the urge to keep looking for Alan. It seemed so strange that he would miss out on such a gathering, that his parents should be there instead of him, that we were eating casseroles and oysters. There was no sign of him except for the movie that kept playing, a slideshow of his life set to the loud music that he loved. I wanted to talk to Alan's sister, who used to be one of my closest friends, but once I was before her I felt suddenly awkward. How could I, a relative stranger, express my true condolences about a person I had not spoken to in over a decade? I felt hypocritical and intrusive and left as soon as I could. Her grief overwhelmed me and I no longer was the friend who could share her burden. It seemed better to vanish than to remain on the pretense of a phantom relationship.
I have come back to Alan time and time again during these past few months. I still struggle to understand why his death has made such a profound impact on my life. There were many people in his circle who must wake everyday and feel the loss of Alan like amputees feel the loss of their hands. It is possible that my grief is selfish, that I losing someone I grew up with makes me face my own mortality and frailty. Yet it is my heart, not my mind, that swells in mourning. It is a primal force, a force I respect without understanding.
The day after the memorial service I broke out in a rash that covered the left side of my face and neck, the entirety of my left hand and arm. It was embarrassing and unexplainable but eventually I came to see it as my grief manifesting itself in physical form, determined to escape the constraints of my body. Writing about Alan, taking long walks and talking to him in my head, these acts helped the healing. I thought I was better and stopped writing and walking and then the rash came back, this time on the right side of my body. So I took up my pen again and laced up my trainers.
I can still hear Alan in my head; his voice is permanent and alive. He is easier to talk to now, wiser than ever now that he doesn't have a mighty ego weighing so heavily on his mind.
Though not prone to metaphysical beliefs, I can testify that I was visited by his spirit one night before he passed on to the next realm. It was before the memorial service, around two in the morning. I was laying on the sofa, unable to sleep, when I heard his voice as distinct as if he was right beside me. He called me Tiff, making me certain it was external. I never refer to myself as Tiff; it is a nickname I left behind with everything (and everyone) I feared would anchor me to my hometown. I opened my eyes hoping to see him but there was nobody in the dark living room that night except me.
I wrote the incident down but I did not share, concerned that it would sound a little cliche and sentimental (not to mention cooky). Cliches and sentimentality, in fact, are the two things that Alan always advised me to purge from my writing. I, in turn, tried to convince him to be more sympathetic with his female characters. I am not sure either of us ever heeded the other's advice but I do think of him reading my work when I am editing. I am not yet sure if that will change as I have not written anything worth reading in the past four months.
I have decided to share his last advice to me with you now four months after his death since it is good advice. It is good advice and it is worthy of passing on especially since I am a frail mortal, prone to sentimentality. I am sharing it with you to encourage you to keep working, to keep doing the work you need to do in this life. It is important, your work, don't forget it. Don't stop working just because you might slip and hit your head. Don't stop working because your heart is broken. Don't stop working because you have lost your home, your parents, your child. Just keep working because it is your work, your true work, that matters, that makes the world spin.
Keep working, Tiff.
**Title borrowed from Andrew Bird's song, The Privateers.