“If I should wake
before I die
turn the kettle on, love,
and I’ll tell you everything.”
— “Nana’s Closing Breath,” Thomas Dean
One year, eight months, and 19 days ago, my friend died in his dorm room of lymphomatic myocarditis – a freak heart attack. He had just turned 21.
I have written nothing about it until now, and I do not know why I waited so long. It is an injustice to everyone, and myself. I am sorry.
I met the man early sophomore year at my first Writer’s Ring session. I brought in the first chapter of a short fantasy book I was writing. Coming in, I was quite tremulous and tight-throated – I’d never actually read any of my fiction aloud – and when I finished, he was the only one at that table to lend me a smidgen of useful criticism. “Needs more lore, man,” he said.
Because of him, my writing accelerated in nitrogen-laced blasts through college. Though I was his senior in age, it was him who taught me, and he probably never realized it. I would not be half the writer I am today had our paths never crossed. I felt myself a petty imitator of his prose, his every word painstakingly crafted like a man who sculpts with ink, while I was still only gathering the pieces of my shattered voice. In fact, my next workshop piece about a struggling writer incited within him some good-natured jealousy, and we solidified our pact as colleagues and comrades.
We wrote together. We learned together. We chased the same women together. Already, those memories are fading. Someday, the man will become a myth.
That’s why I’m talking.
I did not make a speech at his celebration of life ceremony. Only a week had passed since he crossed the Styx; that soon, I think I was afraid the shock would have made my words come out half-baked, my thoughts mere childish groping in the dark. It would have been incomplete, like a miscarriage of ideas. Now I know that I will never comprehend, never fully articulate the cosmic absurdity of a young genius’s untimely doom. I realize now that will express that grief forever.
Because Thom is dead, I am already a ghost. While the rest of humanity glides vaguely through the grooves of simple existence – absorbed utterly by the tastes of food, the thrill of movies, pursuits of love, or some grandiose dream to impact human history – I am always hovering two inches beside everything, observing with detachment every single vain idea and endeavor, and endlessly sighing. Some days, I can’t even get out of bed. My mind is like a balloon, tethered to my body by a little string. I am aware of my vagueness, my ignorance, the fog of being mortal, without the power to see beyond anything otherwise. I can’t step back inside myself.
When I experience something, I perceive it and continue striving deeper into it in such a way I never did before Thom died, as if there were things more to life than shallow sensations. But everything at its core, even love, is empty. I envy Thom’s old gift for simply living in the moment, sucking the marrow out of every experience, stopping the mind before it delves too deep and drowns. Or perhaps he was innocent of Death’s insane touch.
When I try to experience, I expose myself to such an assault of existential quandaries that I’m paralyzed by the cosmic futility of action and being. I am a traveler crossing a desert who, parched, lifts his water bladder to his lips, only for a bit of dust to sprinkle on his tongue. Every minute he forgets, and raises the bladder in the insane hope that water might appear, but the bladder will always be empty.
While everyone around me plays out the human drama of daily life – working jobs, blathering nonsense, drinking, laughing, bathing in petty luxuries – I am pounding my fists against the fourth wall of my own story, screaming to be let out.
Who will be the next to die? My mother? My father? My brothers? A friend? How many people must die before I cannot endure?
Will I be next?
As soon as Thom died, my dwindling-half-life faith in Heaven and Hell, in which souls are assigned whether or not they bear the badge of “being saved” in Christ, in one instant finally sloughed away like flesh cindered by napalm blasts of reality. Thom was an atheist, yet a more deeply intuitive and soulful human being than any Christian I’ve ever known. I could not ignore any longer the scandal that is the simplistic, binary oppositions of paradise and damnation, belief or unbelief. I wanted to know more.
I’ve proofread thousands of obituaries. I laugh, because they all have this ridiculous thing in common: everyone believes their loved one is “with her Lord and Loving Father.” Everyone wants to know that, wherever good old Uncle George is, he is in a good place, and they will lap up the most insane lies in order to hear it said. But what if there is no Uncle George? What if there is no Thom? What if there is no you, or me?
A conscious human being is like a radio – his body being the device, his consciousness (spirit, soul, atman) being the radio waves broadcast from a tower miles away. Were I to seize a hammer and smash that radio to bits, nobody would assume that the music no longer exists. The music is translated from the radio waves, which still pass through the air whether or not there is a radio to receive them. Likewise, even though Thom’s body has malfunctioned permanently, his psych still lingers. Even though the range and location is unknown, the timeframe of its half-life incalculable, I maintain faith that Thom’s entity – whatever remains of him beyond material aspect – is on its way to its proper place.
Theosophy teaches a complex cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Theosophy maintains that, during the final seconds of physical death, the brain recalls the person’s entire life, subconscious memories surfacing to present a complete film which the person watches objectively. “The dying brain dislodges memory with a strong supreme impulse … That impression and thought which was the strongest naturally becomes the most vivid and survives so to say all the rest which now vanish and disappear forever, to reappear but in Devachan” (Mahtama Letters 93B). After physical death the body, the etheric double, and the life energy separate from the entity. The entity falls asleep and enters its desire/emotional body like a caterpillar in a chrysalis, and gestates for a time. Then it sheds its desire/emotional body and mental body, while the purer fraction of the mental body joins the spiritual principle into Devachan, a subjective dream state where all the Ego’s yearnings are realized. Finally, the Ego forms a new mental/emotional vehicle in order to enter its next life on Earth.
Theories are my last and only source of comfort.
Every person considers death; but personally, I have not encountered anyone who goes beyond infantile musings, obstinate faith, or willing ignorance of the fact. There is someone in my life who has attended ten funerals. To her, death is as inevitable and unfortunate as taxes or moldy bread. I was baffled. Am I weak? For only one death, years ago, still has me raving.
I rarely meet someone who has been stricken by death so bleakly that their grief is not simply the egotistical loss of their precious loved one. It is the torment that all of their own animalistic pleasures and pain are catastrophically pointless. Death drugs them up like second-hand smoke, and then kicks them flying right out of themselves. Show me I’m wrong.
I want to know that others are just as confounded and daily tormented as I, but if the death of a loved one cannot shake someone from the grip of this Matrix, to turn around and stare their own death in the face, nothing will. Yet why should the earth be filled with people as miserable as I? My eyes are opened, but only to my own blindness.
Perhaps the world would stop its insane hedonism. Armies would cast down their guns. The hording of endless wealth would end. Our chattering would fall to silence, and the cries of the starving would be heard. The fantasies we make of our lives would finally disappear.
I just want to see the rest of the world consider. Consider death, and tremble. That is all.
Some men tell you to go into the light; others warn you not to. I believe the light is good. I hope Thom chose the light. I will go into the light. There we will meet, and we will pick up our old conversation where we left off.
“Do not go gentle into that good night.
“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
— Dylan Thomas
Farewell, my friend. I salute you.