by Josh Zinn
A friend of mine died last month.
Truth be told, he wasn’t “mine” so much as he was tangential––one of my husband’s best friends whom, over the eight years we’d known one another, I’d grown to care for immensely.
He passed away unexpectedly, in that sudden, numbing, “should-we-cancel-tonight’s-dinner-party?” fashion where processing the shock of what’s happened feels insurmountable, so the easiest thing to do is tuck the pain away and stay on track with the day’s agenda: buy wine, make sure we get those garlic n’ herb crackers everyone likes, and try (in vain) to get all the dog hair off the couch before guests arrives. Fill the hole, rinse, repeat. It’s not that you don’t care. It’s that you care too much to accept part of your life is now bound to a path which ends in sadness.
That evening, seated amidst baguettes, brie, and the beginnings of bereavement, those of us who’d known him began asking the how’s and why’s which always come in these times. Could any of us have stopped it? Had we let him down? Was he at peace when it happened or, god forbid, was he scared? Of course, no one knew for certain––we weren’t questioning with the expectation anyone had answers––but that didn’t curb our casual speculation between bites of muenster and sips of Chablis. Like Trump, Game of Thrones, and impending summer weddings, the mystery surrounding our friend’s abrupt demise––this horrible, tragic, raw thing all of us had internalized but no one seemed prepared to deal with––became yet another topic to discuss over finger foods. As big as our collective pain was, turning him into small-talk was the best anyone could muster.
I’m no stranger to death, but death never stops feeling strange to me. Over the past decade I’ve lost my mother, grandmother, uncles, as well as several good friends––at least one a year for the past five (but who’s counting?) Some of their exits have been peaceful and expected. Others, jarring enough I’ve since become conditioned to answer every phone call I receive with trepidation, fearful the frog now permanently lodged in my throat will leap forth the moment I’m told to prepare for another season of sorrow. If we’re talking semantics, then, yes: like everyone else in this world, I know death eventually awaits me. That’s fine; it’s part of the process. What bothers me is that, in the here and now, I’ve become far too used to waiting on it.
No one told me this part about growing up––that life inevitably settles into one long, dragged-out goodbye. When I was a kid and even well into adulthood, I can recall cheerfully bragging, “I’ve never known anyone who’s died!” as if having been spared the experience of grief was proof of my own specialness. Though I’m sure, at the time, I believed I was merely hunting for facts to stand out in the crowd, in hindsight I can’t help but wonder if somehow there was a sense of what was to come: an avalanche of loss ready to bury the people I love six feet under. I can’t help but question whether the universe was trying to tell me to take stock of my life, saying, “Hey, kid. Yeah, these people may piss you off, but try to enjoy them. This ain’t gonna last.”
That’s what death does. It makes us question every moment, every interaction we’ve had with someone, leaving us asking, “Was it enough? Was I enough?” Death funnels voices into one-sided conversations––our arguments and apologies falling on the deafest of ears––where the only thing we can be resolute about is our perpetual lack of resolution. It is a destroyer, a haunter, a gatherer of memory, and, aside from being loved, it is the single most overwhelming and powerful force I have ever encountered. In the short span of ten years, death has reshaped my life, decimating my sense of security and self, then taunting me to rebuild in spite of. Have no doubt, my heart still runs. Years of goodbyes, however, have made sure it runs with a limp.
“I like cheese.” If you were to look at our friend’s Facebook profile, those are some of the first words you’d see. Sitting around the table that sad February night, stuffing faces to make up for our loss for words, I don’t think it was lost on any of us that, in our own pasteurized and aged-for-six-months way, we were paying tribute to the gem we’d lost. Like all those loved ones who’d left us along the way, we quietly wondered to ourselves how our world would go on without them. That was the rub, though: we still had our lifetimes to figure it out.
Josh Zinn is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. Currently, he is working on a collection of comedic, autobiographical stories about mental illness.