It starts with Shel, who died of AIDS. I was the newborn baby at his funeral, the birth to his death. To a silent room, surrounded by the D.C. gay community, I was day-old pink and sound asleep.
My first real death though, I was just a kid. He was my maternal grandfather, and he died of lung cancer from smoking too many dark cigars. My mom still smokes a pack and a half of American Spirits a day and every so often I get panic attacks about her lungs and my impending adulthood. The day of his funeral — spotted with sun and startlingly warm — could be my earliest memory. I don’t remember much except that I was playing on the tombstones, trying to jump over them or trace the inscribed words with my finger, my aunt telling me to get under the tarp because it might rain. The sky was clear; I was rightfully confused, but I did what she said. We never got it together to pay for a tombstone, but I don’t think my mom cares too much. It never rained.
A few years later Shel’s partner — my cousin — got a brain tumor. I was eleven. He went into surgery and never comes out. He was 50 that year. I learned for the first time that the world doesn’t wait for you to stop crying. We went to a dinner party where all his friends wept over dessert because his favorite song came on. They told me that he loved me very much and I think they were surprised when it made me cry. Every time that Hawaiian ukulele starts unexpectedly — at the end of a movie, on the radio, from my friend’s unlearned plucking — my whole family has to cover our mouths with our hands and bite down hard. I still don’t know about God, or what happens after we die but the song feels like his ghost; he’s still here somewhere. That was the first time I prayed.
My best friend went away from home for the first time when he was thirteen. Imagine, if you will, coming back to your six-room bungalow and your life is inconceivably altered. Suddenly your week on a class trip to China transitions to a week in a hospital waiting room. She died six years ago now and he doesn’t act different in the slightest. One time I asked him how he was doing and he said “stuck in agreeable denial.” You don’t think about tuberculosis as a disease that kills people anymore, but it does. And for years after everyone who loved them has these annual bubbles on their inner arms as reminders of that shattering medical misalignment. I sometimes wonder if he will ever leave home again. I wonder if, eventually, the rains will come and he will see her strength and intelligence as his son reads out loud to him for the first time. I wonder if he will remember how he wore his mom’s beret and trench coat on the first day of high school and we all were worried and sad and wondered if he needed to talk.
Four years ago there were two boys. The first was this Baltimore white kid who went to a rich-kid summer camp. The flames in the sky rose higher and higher, forcing heat on the faces of his neighbors three blocks away. First the stairs, then the second floor caught; his sister was pushed out the window by her dad. The kid was a high school sophomore, a new fifteen, and he was lying in the hospital in critical condition. I didn’t know him, but some friends did, plus two girls from my trigonometry class. I remember them going to visit him. His death was peripheral to me, a surreal happening in the context of the pythagorean theorem and my own self-hatred.
The second was our newest neighbor — the sullen teen of a black family that had just moved into the corner house, the one with the all wood porch and brass furnishings. He heads out of his house to the blue car on the street, we hear a shot. Does that even happen in real life? Stumbling, I think that it must have been the loneliest time in his life, his mouth tasting of lemons and rust. He was going to the police station but didn’t make it, even though it was only a block away. The pool of blood in front of my childhood park, the sad and dirty stuffed animals, balloons and rosaries arranged on the signpost. Another periphery, another tragedy.
But it all got so close, following a scraggly line graph that suddenly gets straight and narrow, with a slope of 1. My grandmother died in her sleep. Immediately after my first college information session, my dad, characteristically, tells me he got a phone call and that she “might be dead.” I did not want to tell anyone that she died. I did not want to broadcast to the earth that my insides hurt, that I was smaller than usual and more vacant. I did not want the trees to hear me, to know and to still sway, like they always did, like they always will. The morning we found her she looked so little and so old in the indent of her mattress. My mom made me touch her hand to “say goodbye.” I did it, but I didn’t want to. It was rubbery and yellow, and yes, cold.
That summer we went to Maine as a family for the first time without her, and my mom goes around trying to do things right, using little butter dishes and cooking full-on lobster dinners the way she used to. I even made the blueberry pudding the way gran taught me a few summers ago, only she always called it Blueberry Gush. My mom tried to tell me that she was up there, looking down at us while my dad opened the closet door and saw the Vermeer poster she always thought looked like me and began to cry. Two years later her surviving dog forgot how to walk. The Shih Tzu passed quietly and appropriately without much pain or grief at my parents’ house.
Mr. Bronson died early this morning. Strangely to my sleeping grief, I want to shout it at the top of my lungs off the roof of my building. I want to stop people in the street and tell them about this old man. He was an ex-barber in Washington D.C. He lived through the Jim Crow era and died last night. I want them all to know that he lived in this world alongside them. He couldn’t feed himself that well but it is important that he liked to sing and talk about himself, that he came to my family holidays and lived with my best friend for a while. They should all know that he knew what the city looked like the nights it was on fire, when it was rioting. And they ought to know about the way he said goodbye. “Stay Beautiful” with a wave, and a smile, as though you’d see each other again just around the corner, or maybe never at all.
People leave a lot of stuff when they die. They leave the world to you along with all the things you never wanted. You inherit photographs, pets, furniture. You inherit their hope for you, and grown-up things like bills, even if you paid them for years now. Your siblings aren’t kids anymore and you don’t have to help host Christmas if you don’t want to. They leave you bullsh-t and questions and lots of other uncontrollably hostile feelings. Sometimes they leave you with a pool of blood or a f-cked up childhood, or the kind of despair that comes with knowing that some of your friends don’t really want to exist right here, right now. I’ve traded stories before: who do we know who got lost along the way, who do we think will lose themselves in the next year? Who is going to give up because it is too rough? There are some people who feel persistence hunted by death, and some people who just run out of power. I tell my dad, we really can’t know everyone else’s life stories: it’s too sad and it’s too secret, and most of them take it to the grave. Their absence is felt like the pressure of air in an empty room. Grandmother, number on the news — they leave you things: Objects. Stories. Something to be afraid of.