Tag Archives: death



When I was 17, I met Kelly at a conservatory for young artists. She was a writer and I was an actor. We were not friends: she had what I wanted. She was calm and well-liked, especially by the boys, especially the most popular one, the rich one with the chiseled jaw and the curly blonde hair. She had long, perfectly straight shiny brown hair, the kind of straight that let her have Louise Brooks bangs without worrying that they would curl. Her eyes were a true dark brown. I couldn’t fully understand her appeal over, say, Miss Teen Pennsylvania, who also had made it into the program somehow. Kelly wasn’t flamboyant or buxom. She wrote poetry, swished her long brown hair and everyone wanted to sit with her.

After the conservatory ended, at one of the reunions, Kelly and I somehow sorted out a friendship. Despite her projection of having it together, she had a hard life at home, as did I. We stayed friends – close friends, best friends – for several years. She went to Haverford; I got into Bryn Mawr. I moved to Switzerland instead of starting as a freshman, and when I got back, she went abroad. In my sophomore year, we were in the same town at the same time and, when I had the bad luck to lottery into a maid’s quarter hallway of tiny rooms, she moved over from Haverford to live with me. There were ten rooms and only three of us, so Kelly and I took over multiple rooms, smoked, fingerpainted on the walls (for which we got hauled to the dean’s office), and lived the dissolute lives of overcommitted 20-year-olds. I spent 40 hours a week at the theater and failed classes. She dated inappropriate men and smoked weed. In between, we commiserated.

We didn’t run in the same circles and when her father stopped paying for school and I was put on a forced sabbatical for a year due to poor performance, we both strayed into the wilderness for a while, losing track of each other. She lived with a guy being staked out for selling pot. Then another guy who owned a used record shop. When I went back to school, I was different. Focused, ready to be done, living off-campus. Kelly was cleaning houses, living with another man, older. She was a survivor, but even survivors can only take so much.

We lost each other in the tides of our twenties. Too many moves too quickly. No fixed address. No common friends. I assumed though, I guess, that that wouldn’t last. After all, we were best friends, had been best friends. That thread is thin but strong and I thought – I knew – we would uncover it sometime later, after our lives settled down.

Last year, I dug a little to find the thread. Google’s well and good but Kelly O’Brien is a common name and it took some looking, but I chanced on a profile with a picture at a communications firm in Manhattan and there she was. I sent her a Linked In invitation, she sent email with a a brief multi-year update, I did the same and we promised to meet in New York the next time I was there. That was April 3rd. When I went to New York in late April, I sent a note that got no response. She had been about to change jobs, so I let it lie. It’s been a complicated year for me, so I let it lie some more.

Yesterday, I pulled on the thread again and it unraveled. On April 28, 2008, Kelly had an aneurysm and died at 37, three weeks after our first communication in twelve years.

I don’t know what to take away from this besides grief. I’m horrified at her sudden, young death, terrified for myself for not being ready for either her death or my own. While we were separated only by time and distance, there was hope that I could repay her friendship, that we could come back together on an even playing field, that we could show each other what we had become and share some well-managed envy (after all, she did live in New York). I was worried to see her, I admit (as I am to see many people) – worried that I have not done enough, compared to what I hoped I’d have done by now, compared to what she had done, that I would not be able to coherently justify the time we were apart – but I loved her more and wanted to see her more than that worry. It’s hard for me to accept that that chance has passed with finality, that her own chances have passed with finality.

“Live each day as if it were your last,” has never held meaning for me. If today were my last day, I would be in a panic. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to write or do anything but mutter and weep. I get that that’s not what’s meant by the admonition, but you take my point: the pressure to complete my life would preclude meaningfully completing my life. (That circle has been an issue all my adult life.) Then how do you live in the knowledge of your death without death overshadowing your living?

“Don’t put off til tomorrow what you will regret having put off until tomorrow,” perhaps? And I don’t mean picking up the milk. Limiting regrets can be tricky, a full-time gig that gets in the way of doing the things that matter more (“I could have reached out sooner…even if I were a mess at the time and brought down by the experience,” and so on), but if it’s within your grasp and you can, now’s the time. Be brave.

What I am left with is what I was left with after the fire that killed my grandmother: see clearly, be compassionate, love R, act with courage, write.

John Updike

updike.jpgJohn Updike died this past week of lung cancer. The NYTimes published this poem from his forthcoming collection. For the record, John, I did not think you had “died a while ago” and was put out to discover your passing.

It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
“Oh, what a shame! So young, so full
Of promise — depths unplumbable!”

Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
“I thought he died a while ago.”

For life’s a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.

— John Updike

An Obituary

I discovered recently that my first serious boyfriend, a man 13 years my senior, died in 2002. He met me when I was 21 and he was my age now. He died ten years later, married and, I hope, a changed man. He was not the changing kind.

He had the whiff of death about him, from his smooth, hairless, tan, runner’s skin to his unnaturally pressed, faded cargo pants. He had worn himself out with trying and bitterness and hiding it behind a too-hearty laugh and too-carefully folded laundry. He was not a handsome man, per se. He had long, deep lines running down his face, cut there by rivers of dry tears never wept for his childhood of being beaten with a belt and a free adulthood never seized. His smile broke across these lines, forcing them crooked. It was painful and unnatural to observe, the attempted derailment of determined grief. His smile revealed his gums, too much so. His brother and sister had the same unfortunate trait, inherited from their alcoholic father, as if years of baring their teeth had left its mark.

I thought, one Christmas away from him, that perhaps he would commit suicide. I berated myself brutally, as he would have done had he known. The silent suggestion of his death, the natural conclusion of all his implications, of his steady self-abuses, his denials of the flesh, his final sinking under the unbearable weight, terrified my younger self with its probability. I believed that, as my infidelity had proven to be the agonizing long and artificial end of our unsafe world, my unspoken thoughts damned us both, him to actual death, myself to premonition and therefore guilt in the act.

He hit me once, a retaliatory slap. I did not know if I should take it as abuse. He was determined in his belief that I had given him AIDS through an unconsummated one-night stand and another, less organized infidelity. Or so he called it: we were separated at the time, at his relentless insistence. (It would have been Ross and Rachel and their break if he had had a sense of humor.) In his world, everything was dim and out of focus, unlit by possibility. I could not focus there, could not tell his extremity from the dark that surrounded it. His judgment, like a kidnapper’s to its victim, was all that mattered. His reactions were without reason, seeping from some polluted spring whose source I would never locate and staunch. I tracked it, for lack of anything better to do in the gloom, to add purpose to our wandering, to deceive myself that there was anything but more night ahead, that the shroud might tear with enough sly light and the right weight.

He believed that the suffering of the church, mortification of the flesh, might save him from the demands of his own mind and the intrusion of the sun and the days ahead. He gave up sex for Lent one year, yelled at me for my temptations. I did lure him. It was my retaliation. He was my childhood nightmare made real, the duplicitous woodsman, the dancing stepmother, the dark woods, the sneaky wolf. His world demanded immersion, isolation, a sinking in his pages, few and ill-written though they were. My worst fears were realized: the world of men, of others, was indeed dark, sadistic, hopeless. The suspected innards of another were, after all, poisoned, rotting, stinking labyrinth of collapse and demise. I was absorbed whole into another unwelcome self, assumed it was my fate. He was my punishment and mission, smothering but energizing. As it turned out, thank God, my will to thrive was stronger than his rag of chloroform.

I played chess with him in the back of a U-Haul in the rain on the afternoon of one of his frequent moves. I won. He gave me gifts I could not afford to reciprocate. He left me notes folded into my clothes, written in his thin, all-capitals handwriting. He forced me to skate up endless hills when we went Rollerblading: to him, nothing was worth anything without adversity. I abandoned friends he disapproved of; I rested my head on the wall of my first apartment and wept from exhaustion. I pretended to write and strode away, breathing, to the only things that mattered to me more than him: a lucky job on a film, a class filled with broad thoughts. He despised me for my advantages while he railed against his own misfortunes. He was the first of the men who would hate me for the same fruits he had pursued. There was no wrong that was not someone else’s fault, that did not lead him to justified paralysis: he had been forced to wear shoes that were too small for him and there was no comfortable road.

I swore at him finally, in the parking lot of a storage area on the dismal outskirts of Philadelphia, the end point of yet another move. I yelled at the top of my voice, just for the exercise of it. He was not in the end scary, is not now. I believed for a time that the river of his misery ran deep, concealed depths unrevealed by the smooth surface. As I bathed and dove there, I stumbled in unrepentant shallows and cut my feet bloody. He was petty, jealous, spitting, childish. His stones overturned, his slopes climbed and conquered, he raged and furiously scribbled new outlines for our world. His monuments to the wrongs done him, constructed painfully over years, had to stand. He obsessively sharpened their edges, caretaker of his own misery.

The miracle is that we get better. The tragedy is that not all of us are saved. We are complicit in both our resurrection and our demise: created perfect yet free to fall. Hail, one of the fallen. No great mind o’erthrown, but I hope he rests in peace just the same.