Contradiction; On Death, Love and Family Portraits

The community garden is captured in all its bloom. The community garden is an important shared space for students in Annandale
Late summer flowers bloom in the Bard Community Garden (photo by Gaia Marcaccini)

I am writing this because last week I had to write a letter to the mother of my dead best friend. I am writing this, because it has almost been a year, and I am still trying to process life, and lack thereof, and what it means when 18 year-olds die.

I got an email in December from her aunt. It was a mass email. She sent it to remind us that the year anniversary of her niece’s death was soon approaching and we should all write a letter about her. She would gather them and give them to her parents. A sort of anniversary/memorial/remembrance/“I am so sorry that tragedies like this can even happen in the first place” gift. I am writing this because I ignored that email. The email did not ignore me. I got The Email twice a week for two months, I ignored all of those too. The Email became an important part of my life, like a countdown to the day she died, a year ago (even though, when your best friend dies, you are certain time stops). Then it was the last day before the deadline and I felt emotionally obligated. If I ignored the email plea, maybe they would think I didn’t care, and that is the worst thing the dead’s parents can think. So, I wrote a letter trying to verbalize my love for her. Trying to explain to her parents that I would do anything to bring her back. Somehow thinking that had to be explained. I was unsatisfied. It was too hard, it is difficult to explain your love for a dead girl, and maybe more difficult to explain it to her parents. So I am writing this to explain it, to try to explain it.

To start with the physical, I am back in the place I was when she died. It was my first time in Berlin, and now it is my second. We said good night and she left. I was here, I didn’t see it happen, so it was just as simple as that. When you are far away it is easy to tell yourself that people can disappear. Having an ocean between you and the dead means they aren’t dead, it means that they are gone only until you can find them again.

But what do you do when you can’t find them permanently? I went back to New York, and she wasn’t there. Her mom gave me her old pillows, her old sneakers, some of her jewelry… She wasn’t there. I went to her childhood home on some wild goose chase of the dead, and she wasn’t really there. I began to understand it better, I think. I could see all the ingredients that led to her; it was like working an equation from the answer to the problem. “Where is she?” turned into “Who is she?” I am asking the one that cannot answer to show me who she is. This being futile, I turned to other, more vocal avenues.

Her mother is an architect. She is tall and warm, and expertly designed. She can wrap herself entirely around you with her eyes, and I’ve never met anyone that can be so stern in a pair of overalls. She is a meadow of a person, completely endless, and she fosters the growth of every weed (weeds in this case being her daughter’s friends).

Her sister is a singer. Not in any choral capacity, but in the more important way: she will dance and sing through the living room with no shred of irony. She embodies song, and I have often suspected that she is the perfect human. There is nothing crafted, nothing ingenuous about her. She is too tall; she knows how to move hay.

The boy she loved is towering and silent. His hands are suited for chopping wood, but he chooses to hold pens. He has wild hair; I don’t see him smile often. There are volumes behind his silence, and I have always assumed he loves flowers.

Her home is something I’ve only seen in a magazine. Crafted to feel like it sprung up from the earth, done so well you believe it did. It contains her in multitudes. The crotched candleholders are all missing a stitch. The sink is deep and dented metal, the lavender in the Mason jar is fresh from the neighbors. The staircase is polished wood, framed by portraits of bounding blonde children.

When her mother and sister and I came together in their home, I could all at once see her and see that I did not belong there. I swam in the lake she swam in, I made sure to get all of my body wet, so that the water she touched touches me too. But, I did not belong there. My hair too dark, my legs to short. They love me, but I do not belong. This is a comforting feeling, it reminds me of our friendship. That everyday with her I was reminded that we came from different worlds neither of us would ever be able to understand no matter how much we tried. She sits in a place between Heaven and New York. A place of dreams of sunlight and blurred faces, cotton dresses and delicate fingers. Single handedly, she destroyed the country.

New York is fruitless. Now for me, it is a state of the dead. It doesn’t feel right to live in the forest of upstate New York. Small tree life is too noisy to not contain her, and I still cannot find her anywhere.

So, I ran back to Berlin, hoping that I could find her in the place where I last knew her. I am scared my 20s are turning into a chase to find her somewhere, but I cannot stop looking. I will turn over every log and walk down every Straße. I look into people’s windows. I understand the passage of days but not the passage of time, now I am 20. It is February 28th, and I have looked for her for a year.

I wonder how I can make myself stop looking, or if I should even try. Where is the line between art, grief and obsession? I wake up some mornings believing that maybe this is just what I am meant to do. Perhaps this is my purpose, to immortalize people, to create art of the dead. But then I remember, I have a life of my own, and I have to live it. If I spend my time attempting to make something so ephemeral last forever, nothing will last of me.

And maybe, this is my problem with death, and my problem with love. I become so deeply involved, I willingly drown in people. I fall until I forget that I have things to do, essays to write, a room to clean. I have places to go in no one’s name but my own. And thinking about the people that cannot travel with you will not bring them back, it will only make it harder to see what life is before you. 2014 taught me to always wait for separation, and so it has become hard to do anything when everything feels impermanent. But, yet, I am here, traveling, living, looking for things I will never find, this is the only thing left that I can do.

There is a comforting sensation of disassociation living in a city that is so much part of a person. She will always be Berlin to me. And Berlin will always be her, but she has never been here, and she never will. So, no one here has ever known her, and no one ever will. I don’t think I will ever feel part of this city, only an investigator, a hunter, an observer. Only looking for one thing yet I can never really get my hands around it. Sometimes I believe I am sitting right in her belly. That the reason I can’t find her is because I have looked so deeply that there is no where left to go, and maybe she just is this place, is this time, and maybe that is what grief is – allowing a person to become a place for as long as you need them to stay.

But, I am writing this to ask questions. To figure out what it means to stop looking without stopping loving. I’ve been told a few times throughout this process “grief is love” and I tried to believe it. I thought that the harder I looked the more I loved, but I am starting to think that can’t be true, and grief is love, yes, but grief is anger and hours in bed and grieving harder doesn’t ever mean loving better. And maybe we, all that have ever grieved need to make our own axioms, need to say, “Grief is infection, care for it, but do not cherish it”. Or “Love is independence, please keep walking no matter how stuck you feel”. Or maybe this is a time to abandon words, and remember only the physical.

I never touched more than the months after her death. I would find myself touching leaves, rubbing them between my fingers or grounding them to pulp with my thumbs. I found myself with my hands in the dirt just to feel how cold and moist it is; maybe that is what grief is. Maybe it is the attempt to reconcile with a world unfit for fairness by aligning yourself only with the inhuman, not inhumane.

There are thousands of questions to ask, and not a single person can give me the answers. I thought she was the answer, that if I could find her somewhere, I could even bear to let her go again as long as she could tell me how to stop hurting. But, in all of this looking, the one thing I have found is this: the difference between disappearance and death is a matter of permanence. It is only with death that you must learn to stop waiting for doors to swing open, for the familiar sounds of their footsteps. It is only with death that you must adopt their voice in your head, pretend it is them telling you it is okay to move on, until one day the voice sounds a lot like your own, and you can say it aloud, and you can walk down the street without turning over rocks, and you can turn your face to the sun and say, “today is for me.”

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