Warning: This letter contains discussions of death, surgery, anatomy, grief and suicide. If you think any of these topics could be triggering in any way, or if these imagery might leave you queasy, absolutely please feel free to pass on this one.
I said we’ll see each other in two weeks’ time, yet here I am with a question that I don’t know how to ask without sounding like Wednesday Addams. It seems I miss you too much when I am not writing to you once a week, so here is the question anyway: What, if any, was the first celebrity death you remember feeling?
I say feeling, specifically, because in my case, while there were surely many, many high-profile deaths to precede it, it wasn’t until Leonard Nimoy passed away in 2015 that I truly felt the loss of a life that had never once overlapped with mine. Or at least not in the traditional sense that we think of social relationships, though I was fed enough Star Trek as a child under the occasional wing of a father who never quite grew up that Nimoy’s Spock felt as much a prominent figure in some of my memories as a distant uncle I only met every other family gathering. I don’t know if the loss and grief I felt upon his passing, weeks away from my eighteenth birthday, was the echo of something personal, or if I was participating in a more collective emotion, compelled to join in on the mourning by all the Live Long and Prosper posts circulating quickly around social media. That isn’t to say that it was performative or superficial, but it was a little like the first time my grandmother took me, all of six years old, to an open casket funeral viewing; I didn’t know whose ghostly face I was looking at, but I knew that I was looking at a dead person, and that this meant an empty, unfillable space where they once were in other people’s lives. That was still worthy of grief, for me, being an observer to such irreparable loss. So I mourned Leonard Nimoy’s death with intensity still foreign to me at the time, and in doing so, he became the first in a series of deaths to remind me year after year that in getting older I am also moving further and further into a period of my life where celebrity deaths have finally begun crossing over from the 70s and 80s icons of my parents’ youth and into my generation of pop culture figures: Alan Rickman, who played Snape in the Harry Potter films, passed away in 2016, and from 2017 to 2019, a string of suicides in the K-pop world left me irrevocably shaken throughout the first few years of my twenties. It hasn’t gotten easier since; if anything, I think I am left more and more rattled each time I see a name trending on Twitter and brace myself for the headline I know I’ll find. Ursula le Guin hit me particularly hard, for example, then Chadwick Boseman even harder, and if you ask me why, I still, really, won’t have an answer to give you.
I start us off on such a somber note because I’ve been thinking about death a lot this past week. Or, more precisely, I’ve been thinking a lot about the human body, all the veins and synapses running underneath the skin, all these tiny but formidable parts that ensure our system runs as it should as we sleep and that we eventually wake up to another day. It’s been a recurring theme for me since summer ended, though I guess the only reason I am sitting down now to articulate all these thoughts is because I shouldn’t even be sitting down to write anything, much less in front of a computer screen; I had eye surgery two days ago, an operation with a name so polysyllabic that I have taken to telling people I simply had LASIK, and technically, I should be in bed with my eyes closed underneath a pair of Sharkboy goggles, reliant every turn of the hour on eye drops to hydrate where my tear ducts have been temporarily rendered nonfunctional. It gives you much room to think, that kind of down time. A bit too much, I always say, though I’ve had to interrogate that thought as well. Too much thinking isn’t a problem for me other times, yet I struggle with having nothing to physically do, and I’ve had hours to wonder why that distinction makes such a crucial difference. The answer might be in how counselors and therapists have this mantra about feeling your feelings, which I realized only recently did not actually mean to drown in the emotions you’re feeling as a way to validate them; what this advice actually offers is a way to pay attention to how your body is feeling your emotions, to be aware of every stuttering breath you take during a panic attack, to understand that the swoop at the pit of your stomach is your system trying to caution you about something that’s causing you anxiety. It’s returning to the most primal state of your capacity to feel, to stop thinking your emotions so much that you spiral, and to instead float in the tiniest of sensations until your mind stops racing.
This was the first thing to return to me during my surgery, laid out flat on a bed and given nothing but anaesthetic eye drops as the surgeon got to work. I was conscious and able to move for all of it, gripping two stress balls that a kind nurse handed to me after she must have noticed that my twitchiness was coming from something more than anxious trembling. I’ve never felt terror quite like that, so discreet that I didn’t even feel it hit until I was there getting my eyes taped open. Look at the light, the doctor kept telling me, and when I got too jittery that he, in turn, became snappish, he would sigh and say, I just want this to turn out the absolute best it can be for you, alright? After we were all done, once he had checked my corneas and told me I did well, I apologized for how skittish I was. It was the only thing to say that made sense, even though what I wanted to explain was, You have been kind and great to me, Doctor, you and my GP and my psychiatrists. But I am terrified of you. I am terrified because my father is a doctor, a very, very good pediatrician, and when you learn to fear the one that was beloved for his kindness to all the other children except his own, you learn to fear others.
How does that New Yorker story by Catherine Lacey go again? “If you’re raised with an angry man in your house, there will always be an angry man in your house. You will find him even when he is not there.” He isn’t here, my father. He isn’t in my house. But I look at every doctor and see him, and even dentists with the most featherweight hands leave me twitchy, even though I don’t carry the terror anywhere else but my chest, even though I don’t carry the terror around anyone else.
I say this as a precursor to the fact that a long autumn of medical care has left me quite drained. It’s like I was trying to make up for twenty-something years of never having been taken to a hospital by virtue of who my parents were, professionally, and who they were, personally. I was able to navigate my way around a stocked medicine cabinet by the time I could read, and before I even got my first Girl Scout badge, I knew how to use a sphygmomanometer. I guess that had lulled me into a false sense that I would never need a doctor, or at least not for physical ailments. Before this year, the only doctor I’ve seen were the handful who took me through different antipsychotics and antidepressants until we chanced upon one that I liked. But last September, I was taken in a police car to the hospital after I gave the suicide hotline lady my consent to alert the emergency response team, and I spent a weekend in a windowless room, reciting my life and situation to a series of doctors and nurses until I got sick of it and decided my home was a lesser evil than the psych ward. Then, last month, I finally met my family doctor, who cannot be much more than a decade older than me, and I had to sit, hands on my knees like a scolded child, as he gently took me through questionnaires and lectured me about taking my mental health as seriously as I would any bodily pains. But I won’t willingly go to the doctor for any pain or fever or flu, I thought privately. I’ve also been extra careful never to fracture a bone or dislocate a joint. Why do you think I put up with chronic back pain? Yet he’s a nice guy, my family doctor, and he doesn’t deserve my bitter thoughts. When he saw me tense up about the prospect of getting blood tested, he changed the subject. That was enough kindness to leave my throat tight.
There was no running from my eye surgery this month, though, and so I sat straight through hours of pre-surgery consultations at the clinic, eager to get all of this done and over with. When they said they had an opening in a week, I jumped at the chance even though it meant waking up at 4 A.M, just to get it over with as soon as possible. Adulthood, for me, has been an ongoing realization that the day will inevitably come that I won’t be able to refuse the medical care I need, and that although I came close to ending my life just two months ago, for the third time in six years, I am still, at the end of the day, scared to die in pain. Sometime in the future, I will have to trust a doctor. One day, my life will be on the line. One day, I will be in pain that my already high pain threshold won’t be able to perfectly stomach, whether it’s early onset arthritis or a sprained wrist. Statistically, I know this. I know I have been lucky to have evaded the hospital for as long as I have. It still feels like betrayal, in a way, to have this body who reminds me how to feel fear, even when I do not think it, will also be the same one to eventually deteriorate, to prove itself only as fragile as the rest of what’s inside.
But it’s difficult to ignore, too, how wondrous this body is, how intricate. That it can survive all it has, that although I feel like I’ve been made ancient by my life, my body is still so young, still prone to so many changes. Right now, as I type this letter out slowly, the grass on my neighbor’s lawn is the most green, the most clear it has ever been to me. It was gray and overcast on the day of my surgery, but now the sunshine is near blinding to my eyes, the sky a shade of blue I never realized it was. I was around eleven when my vision first started to go — the product of poor genetics, a premature birth and a childhood spent reading in the shadowed backseats of cars — which means, technically, that I have never seen Canada with perfect vision. It seems a cliché to describe it as seeing everything for the first time, but as my eyes gradually recover, it’s proving literal; the colors are brighter, from the plants I have watered diligently without realizing how crisp the green of its leaves are to the dark brew of the Earl Grey tea I’ve let steep for too long, and even the way the showerhead in the bathroom displays the temperature of the water is to me suddenly fascinating. My face, in all its clearness in the mirror, is foreign the way seeing a recognizable portrait of yourself is foreign, and with every blink, I recall with vividness the anatomy chart of an eye that I had in my childhood bedroom. I imagine the way it had depicted the light going in, refracting as it touches my corneas, upon which the most intensive of my surgery had been done, my pupils, my irises, which I am realizing for the first time are tinted with the slightest brown despite my insistence in high school that they were black as ink, as tar. At night, when I lie down with my eyes closed for the entire minute that I have been instructed to let the eyedrop seep in, I grow conscious of my body: my heartbeat, the joints that rotate around my ankles, how each breath I take comes up from the very heart of my body and is drawn up and through expanding lungs until they reach my mouth, until each one is expelled and replaced. Then I think, too, about how the last time I felt this conscious of my body was when I was confined in the psych ward, with nothing I can potentially use to hurt myself, even though by the time I was led out of the E.R. the urge to do anything had already passed, replaced by a heavy feeling of defeat, maybe even humiliation, because no one seemed to understand that when I say I want to kill myself, I don’t mean that I want to die. I just want to stop living for a bit, to abandon this life and this self for a moment, and this difference means that I don’t really want to hurt my body too much, that for all I can hate myself, my body has been very, very kind to me. It doesn’t deserve any destruction I can wield over it. I don’t have it in me to hold it hostage. I don’t have the willpower to go the extra mile to make it stop working just because I can’t bear to live in it anymore, not after all the hard work it’s done to do so despite everything.
I did so much research, you know, in all the times I wanted to die. I did so much research, examined so many methods, read everything from Reddit threads to scientific journals published in Switzerland. All I was able to gather for myself is that it is supremely difficult to kill a person. Without the help of external variables, it is a guaranteed slow, agonizing process, nearly impossible in the case of self-suffocation, and even with something to aid you, it must be treated as a precise art form, nothing short of learning everything they teach you in years and years of medical school. The reason death is always so quick when it is inflicted on another person in films and shows and books is because that is the only way to ensure it; otherwise, you have to reckon with how truly stubborn the human body can be, will have to face all the possibilities outside swift, certain death. It wants to live so badly, your body. All our primal emotions have something to do with survival, for if there is one universal thing we all have to accept about why each of us have been put on this Earth, flawed as it is, the only answer your body will have for you is — well, to survive, whatever that means now that we’re long past the hunter-gatherer days. To do what your body needs you to do to take it through a day, then the next, until they pile up into years.
In retrospect, though I have laughed about it a lot, my child self wasn’t too wrong in feeling the parameters of her own existence for the first time after she learned that the sun would explode and die out someday. My almanac hadn’t thought to inform me that this wouldn’t be happening in my lifetime, yet I sat in bed for nights upon nights in a row, pushed into crying by terror at the realization that someday, my grandparents would die. It didn’t even matter to me that the death of the world would mean my death as well; what hurt me was this sudden clarity over knowing that the deaths of the people I love are inevitable. I’ve carried that with me as the years passed, this certainty that I’m not really scared of death, only the pain that would have to come to ensure it. In high school, when a history teacher gave me a copy of The Denial of Death by the anthropologist Ernest Becker, I considered his arguments — that human civilization has come to form itself as we know it as the product of trying to defend itself against mortality — lacking at best, thinking that I myself was unmoved, emotionally and intellectually, by the concept of dying. I am not spurred by mortality, by the fragility of my human-ness, towards any sort of defining legacy or immortality project, and if I may make a broad statement here, I don’t think much of my generation is, really; so many of us navigate life around relics of one crisis after another, and the unattainable thing a lot of us yearn for lies in the small, in the mundane, in having a place to call home and food we can share as a love language. It’s in living a life that is easy to live even if everything else in it is hard, a life that won’t make dying, with all its difficulty, the easier alternative.
But it isn’t an easy life, even though it is unburdened by any hope of heroics. I wake up everyday painfully aware of my own existence, and of the fact that in reaching an age where the celebrities of my childhood have begun passing away, I am also now at an age where it will no longer suffice to wait out my life. I didn’t even realize how well I did it, this interpretation of survival as merely a form of a waiting game. As though, if I just make it to the next day, and the next, something will click into its right place eventually. Not in a God’s plan kind of way, even, but as a matter of statistics, that if I hit the right milestones, eventually I’ll be able to cash in one of my bets. I’m not looking to hit the jackpot, just some pocket money to tide me over until I somehow happen upon the next successful gamble. But is that really survival, this passiveness with which I treat life? I thrive more as an observer to the world, not as a participant, this I know for certain, but am I long past the age where this is acceptable? My friends are getting engaged, getting married, discussing families with their partners. I haven’t even thought far enough beyond my undergraduate degree to have anything to say when anyone asks me about pursuing an MFA. All the stillness and pause from the pandemic gave me the brief illusion that I will be allowed to grieve all those lives lost and all the time and momentum taken from my twenties, but now that the world is lurching back into motion, I am forced to confront the fact that I cannot be merely an observer in my own life, that observation is a solitary, sedentary act. It cannot keep up with movement. It cannot move forward. Eventually, the things I am observing will be far beyond my sight, and there will be nothing to look at except empty space. Like all the holes left in the shape of people that others have lost.
There’s that adage a specific subset of people like to say when what they mean is YOLO. Memento mori. Remember you will die, is how people like to translate it. Memento is an imperative, a verb form that makes it an explicit command. Here, it’s been conjugated in the perfect tense, but in force, it remains very, very much in the present. A warning of sorts to remember, to keep something in mind, maybe even to be absolutely sure. Mori is the infinitive of morior, in turn a member of a class of verbs known as deponents, which have tripped up many a first-year Latin student yet to realize that there are verbs that look passive but are, in action, active. Often, deponents translate to words in English that cannot have an agent doing the action; here, in morior, the action is death, behind which, supposedly, there is no doer. No Grim Reaper, no assassin. A natural course of life. Death is a thing that happens to a person, who in this case becomes a passive object masquerading only as a subject. For the act of one person killing another, Latin has no shortage of other verbs you can use to describe everything from vicious slaughter to the precise moment of exhaling your last breath — none of them, off the top of my head, are deponents. Only morior is, and somehow, in memento mori, it has been immortalized in millions of tattoos and a hundred lists of Cool Latin Phrases To Know. I am personally not a fan of this saying, or at least not its widespread translation of “remember you will die,” but that is nothing new, with me and Latin translations. I can appreciate knowing at the very least that grammatically, there is a beautiful, almost poetic contradiction happening between memento and mori. Memento, as a command, is forceful and cautious, and when I read it, I hear it snapped, yelled, hissed — yet mori is a quiet exhale of a word, a painfully pretty little infinitive even in an entire family of inherently pretty verbs, a helpless but steady heartbeat of an action for which there is no one ultimately responsible. Why so aggressive, then, faceless person ordering me, even imploring me, to remember? Why are you so desperate, so present and violent, about something that has no qualms nor even hostility about someday coming for us all?
There’s a particular calm, I think, in realizing this. In making through those first few horrible moments of truly, truly grasping the shape of your life and your existence, and arriving on the other side attuned to every flicker of alive-ness in your body. Media widely romanticizes the last moment of peace before passing away, but there is a way to achieve that in life, too. At least I believe so. If there is one takeaway from these last few months of being shuttled from one hospital to another clinic, prescribed one dosage of one medicine then another of a second, it is that both my body and my life are the sum of so many tiny parts that I won’t ever understand, and there is peace in that, in realizing there is too much to me and my world to observe and therefore too much to know. I think about what a skill it is to care for another person, how much patience it takes, not even from a healthcare professional perspective but from a friend to another, from you to yourself. A skill, because what it comes down to is understanding that you can never know everything about a self, even your own, but there might be others who have done the work of understanding the parts that you don’t. And maybe, try as you might, it is inevitable that something will have to break, to fail its function and its purpose, and it will take great vulnerability to do what you need to fix it, laid out flat on a bed, two rubber balls squeezed in your fists as you endure the temporary pain of setting something on the path to healing, but with this, too, with everything, you will eventually be on the other side of it, realizing how vivid the colors of the world around you are and coming to terms with the fact that you can spend years in a place and still reach a point where you will see it for the first time with new eyes.
There’s a line from the four-book series The Raven Cycle that I have known by heart since I was a teenager. It describes the psyche of a character who remains one of my favorites of all time, even if I’ll get farther reciting the Periodic Table than I will describing the plot of this series to you; sometimes, mid-loop of the following paragraphs, I can feel it all over again, that moment of first-time recognition in reading a character you recognized because it gave your own perception of self some clarity.
Being Adam Parrish was a complicated thing, a wonder of muscles and organs, synapses and nerves. He was a miracle of moving parts, a study in survival. The most important thing to Adam Parrish, though, had always been free will, the ability to be his own master.
This was the important thing.
It had always been the important thing.
This was what it was to be Adam.
A recurring reaction to Adam is readers not realizing how deeply this description of him runs: this need to be the agent of his own life, and how much of a miracle his survival truly is, how earned it had to be. But on my end towards Adam, there has only ever been recognition, understanding, pulsing like a slight, puny heartbeat recovered from flatlining. And when I think of how I grieved those celebrities I didn’t know, how I will probably mourn all the celebrities and strangers whose deaths overlap with the continuation of my life, it will be that same feeling: that first shock of a pulse after a moment of machine silence, that first gulpful of air after being submerged underwater, a reminder of your alive-ness that you can’t quite appreciate yet because you have only experienced it as a reprieve from pain, from near-death.
Last week, my mother and I had a conversation about how she wants her funerary arrangements to be made. She looked at me like she expected me to resist this conversation, like she had prepared a spiel for how it’s only practical to have these things prepared ahead of time. I didn’t bat even an eyelid out of turn, though; of course I understood. I nodded to her instructions to be cremated, smiled when she mentioned the jewellry box she wants her ashes to be kept in, gave her a thumbs up as she described how she wants to be flown back to her hometown to rest with her siblings. It all sounded very serene in how in order it was, in how meticulous her preparation was, in how sincere, for once, she had been when she said that the logistics will be one less thing for me to worry about when the time comes.
The truth is that I don’t fear death as a concept so much as I worry about it crashing in when I least expect it. I don’t fear death so much as I fear not being able to choose how I go, and sometimes, the best thing I can imagine for myself in a life going nowhere is to take ownership of how it ends before anything else can. That passes, though, always, and more than it, more than anything, I fear waking up to a day that will inevitably have to be the one where I find out I have lost one of my loved ones. I don’t fear death. I fear pain. I fear grief. I fear how difficult it is to recover from both. I fear the work that it will take to heal, because I am so, so tired, and there is still so much left to live.
But — anyway. I’m starting work on a new novel this week. It’s the first one I’ll be trying to write since I was nineteen, and the only thing that connects this novel-to-be to that old manuscript, complete but left to collect dust, is the grief they share at their foundations. I confess this much to you because I need to say it to someone, because I am done with hiding my work from the world in fear that acknowledging it exists would jinx the rest of its lifespan. I saw someone say that it takes a lot of love and vulnerability to share your unfinished work with another person, and I agree in that I know it takes a lot of vulnerability to be unfinished, full stop, and even more love to be unfinished around another person. So let me admit this to you, too: I don’t know how to write fiction for myself without it being founded upon grief. Grief as a complicated emotion, grief as the aftermath but also the aperitif to something. In light of everything I said in this letter, I don’t think I write it because I fear it. I think maybe I write it because like Adam Parrish, I only know my life and my work as a study in survival, an observer even to my own pain.
For now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. So much of life comes down to surveillance, to observation, of our own selves and each other. It’s true. Sometimes it prevents us from participating, sometimes the problem with it is that it is only active in a form tinged with loss. But if I consider myself now, self to self instead of observer to reflection, if I look inside me without getting caught up in the fact that it’s me — the truth is that I want to live. The truth is that I want a future, and I want to be given hope I’ll actually believe. I want to sit by the window in an apartment that’s all mine, with my coffee and my morning toast, and I want to write a book that will be successful, that will be enough to pay my rent and maybe even to buy my loved ones a nice birthday gift once a year. I want a moment to stay still in the sun, not thinking, breathing quietly, and if a voice in my head calls with a reminder that someday myself and the people I love will die, I want to be able to simply say, Yes. I know. I will be heartbroken when the time for goodbye comes. So please, please, when it does, let it at least be at the end of a lifetime of days like this, sun-dappled and warm and full from a good meal. Let us all live a life that will hurt when it ends, because then I’ll know for certain that death was never the better, easier thing to choose.
Your huckleberry friend,