My friend, Trevor Spencer, is dead.
I write “friend,” but when he was alive, I would have perhaps thought that was too strong a word. He was not, I might have pointed out, “really” a friend. Instead he was someone I admired, talked to around town, kissed from time to time, and whose smile I thought about.
As I write this, I don’t know how he died. This morning, I got a text message telling me it happened. Not a call. Nobody would think I knew him well enough to call me, and that’s exactly right. I didn’t.
Even though we’re meant to revere it in all cases, Death gives us different meanings.
If the person that dies is close to us or (please protect me) very close, we might walk around in a haze, not wondering what’s “next.” There isn’t a “next” because life no longer has a succession. Part of our present and our past has been severed. We’re no longer who we were, but something else in a world that has changed entirely.
When my friend Sigrid died years ago, I laughed at first. She was hit by a train and it seemed so absurd that someone could be hit by a train. I hadn’t seen her in years. I walked around for a few hours, seemingly unaffected, and then I fell down, suddenly, and started crying. I called my friend Jim, who used to be her boyfriend.
“I heard,” he said. “But she was a really terrible person. I’m not happy she’s dead, but I’m not really upset either.”
I didn’t know what he was referring to or what she’d done to him. I don’t know who she became in those years between my goodbye to her and her death. She’d driven me home after I got too high and was almost catatonic at an all-night diner; she sang to me on the way to my apartment to calm my nerves. I never saw her after that, except in a black-and-white photo in the Morning Call; black ink dots on gray newspaper.
She was twenty, I think. Or younger, maybe.
I don’t know how old Trevor was when he died. Yesterday. Last night. The last time I saw him, he looked youthful.
Does it make a difference? Does age or expectation of death calm us? My grandfather (mother’s side) and my grandmother (father’s side) died and I felt almost nothing. I breathed slowly. I thought about it for a bit. I went about my day. I didn’t write about it, I didn’t tell anyone about it, and I didn’t cry.
When my mother died, we knew it was coming. We were waiting for it for over a year. A line of cars surrounded the cemetery in procession. They blocked traffic. People stood around the rectangle of open ground, the polished wood, and the family. Me. My sister, my brother. For a year, I had a strange heavy head. I’d turn to the left or right and it felt like water was shifting from one side of my skull to the other. I was absent from life. I inherited money and spent it all in a year on nothing. I drank a lot. I slept in the afternoon.
Look around you.
Everyone in the room will die and if you know them, you’ll hear about it. And still, we’re amnesiacs about it. Death is like the seasons: they come each year, but we’re constantly surprised by their chill or heat. They’re a rhythmic surprise, a pattern we never get used to.
Everyone we know will die and we’ll see it happen, or we will die, and they’ll watch us go.
This includes not only those we’re desperately afraid for – our families, our partners, our children, our friends – but also our facebook friends, our acquaintances, the bartender, our hookups.
When I had a boyfriend, Trevor asked me out, three different times. He always forgot I had a boyfriend. I laughed each time and said no and gave him a big hug. I wonder, now, if I was unlucky or lucky to have said no. Because I said no, he never came into full focus. I might have been spared some of the pain of his passing, but I missed out on the joy of knowing him better.
I have no idea how I’ll feel when any of you die. We’re not prepared for the deaths of the people we know well. But we’re equally unprepared for the deaths of the faces we merely recognize – of those we wanted to or should have known, the people we just missed.
On Trevor’s facebook wall, people have written loving comments. This isn’t new or surprising, as far as he’s concerned – he was always bringing loving words out of us. The comments are addressed to him – “I can’t believe you’re gone,” they say. “I love you Trevor,” they say.
They’re difficult to read without wondering about yourself and how people will react. Depending on what you believe or know, Trevor will or will not experience this outpouring of love. The words may only be for us, as we embrace each other through his life and death; or maybe they’re for him too, their sentiment carried, somehow, to whatever and wherever he is now.
Death is a door or a question or an unwinnable argument or the beginning of nothing. It’s not for you and I to find out. Not for now. Until it is, we’ll give it different lives.
There’s just one photo of Trevor and I together. It’s on Castro Street and he’s holding me up, though you can’t tell he’s holding me. He’s smiling, as usual. The sun is beaming from behind him, as usual. It looks like the sky has opened up for him, or like a halo. That might seem to be only a coincidence for you, and if you didn’t know him that’s understandable. For you, that’s the right answer. For me, that light has taken meaning.
The photo might save someone from disappearing, but only when we look at it. Memory is the same way; because we only remember when we try to, and at my mother’s funeral, I implored people not to forget her.
I quoted Paul Auster: “It was. It will never be again. Remember.”
I only talk to one of my mother’s friends now. They all used to watch me when I was a child. They took me to violin lessons or played games with me or cut my hair. They were hilarious and smart women. I don’t talk to many people in my mom’s family. I don’t talk to my stepfather at all. But I remember them. I’m not sure if this is the “correct” way to live. I’m not sure if this is the “right thing.”
Sooner or later, Trevor’s facebook page will be taken down. The words will be gone.
Is that like dying? Are we like words? We’re spoken; we move; we make a sound and have meaning; but our true selves are never solid or graspable. Once the breath is finished and the word is issued, we’re gone.
The last time I saw Trevor, he kissed me in front of the vitamin shop. He was walking one way, I was walking the other. We stopped and kissed, happily, like funny, overly-eager boys do, on the sidewalk. We exchanged a few words and said our goodbyes.
We knew we’d see each other again.
When someone dies, people will ask you, “were you two close?” If such a consideration matters, and it might, I still can’t figure out why or how it does. If we don’t know how to say goodbye to our parents or grandparents, how will we say goodbye to those people we were expecting to be more alive and more real to us one day?
Those people who show up half-formed as friends, not completely developed as lovers, but not quite acquaintances, how should we say goodbye to them?
Trevor, I miss you, I love you. You were never really here in my life, and you will never really be gone.