I was 21 years old. I had been living in Auckland, New Zealand for about two months. I was in class and I knew something was terribly, terribly wrong. I could sense it; it was palpable. I couldn’t understand it though. I remember getting these fleeting images of me laying on the floor of my dorm room crying. Just weird flickering images going through my head, like a spliced movie reel. I was confused by the foreshadowing I was predicting on myself, without even having control over those mental images. They just kept passing through my mind. After class had ended, a history class or a poetry class, it slips my mind now, I was walking home and just started crying. What was up? Why? Why was I crying? A guttural instinct was kicking in, I knew something bad had happened and I knew I needed to check my email to find out. Chills were running up and down my body. Something was terribly wrong.
There it was, in my inbox, an email from a friend from home, “Bill died today.” No explanations, no nothing, just a brief email. Something like, “I’m so sorry to tell you this but our Bill died today.” He was 20; he had just turned 20 four days prior. I was in a computer lab in the building I lived in. I remember staring at the screen in disbelief and then a huge invisible cloud sucked me into a vortex and I couldn’t hear anything above the din of grief and disbelief beginning to rage in my head. I signed out and half walked, half ran to my room. I remember opening the door and falling to my knees and weeping, choking, sobbing, unable to catch my breath. The same scene that I had seen in my head in class earlier. Why? How? What the fuck happened? No. No. No. Everything hurt, my heart felt like a giant fist was squeezing it, draining all the blood. The pain was all-encompassing. The pain was visceral.
And whom do I turn to? Whom do I go to? I’m the only person here who knew Bill. How do I grieve when I have no one to grieve with? This was the first time in my life that a close friend had died. I remember my grandfather passing away when I was 13, my great uncle when I was in my later teens. I knew what death was, but I couldn’t comprehend someone close to my age dying. This happened to other people, not me.
It’s not an easy day for me to reflect on. I didn’t find out until a day or so later what actually happened. He had mono and his spleen ruptured. Instant death. No suffering for him, but the rest of us would suffer for sure. I was incapable of doing much that afternoon. I think I tried to cook myself dinner but could barely choke it down. I do remember texting my relatively new friend, Gerald, someone I didn’t know too well but who was always so warm and kind whenever we hung out. I just needed a friend. I couldn’t do this alone. He didn’t get my text until the next morning but he called me and said, “come over here now.” I remember walking to his apt in such a daze. I remember holding back tears the entire walk. I remember the shock, seeing the sun shining and not realizing that it was a sun or that it was shining or that I was walking and breathing.
When Gerald opened his door, I burst into tears. He pulled me inside and hugged me. He didn’t say anything; he just hugged me. There’s not much you can say to someone when they are in grief and most of it is so trite, it never makes you feel good in that moment. Time heals everything. He’s in a better place now. At least he didn’t suffer. It’s all bullshit. You don’t want to hear it. You want your friend back on this earthly plane, you want to return to two days ago and never allow tomorrow to come. Gerald didn’t say any of that though. Instead, we sat on his bed while I cried and he held my hand and hugged me. When I was able to speak, he said, “tell me about Bill.” So I did. I told him all the funny stories I remembered about his quirky personality. All the little nuances that made Bill, well, Bill. I didn’t even know him that well, we weren’t best friends by any means, but we were friends nonetheless. He was the type of person that everyone gravitated to because he always brought sunshine into a room. And still, there was a gaping hole in my heart for a long time after he passed. If you knew him, you would feel the same way.
I still remind Gerald every year around this time the lasting impact his kindness had on me. How, whenever I’m holding a grieving loved one, I try to not say the stupid, commonplace advice that everyone says when someone dies. I still thank him for taking care of me when our friendship was just a little seedling barely above the ground. I am living in Costa Rica now, so far away from where Bill was from in upstate NY. So far away again from anyone else who knew him. Sure time allows acceptance and healing but time doesn’t make you forget. Nothing makes you forget. I went to a yoga class in his honor tonight, I spoke a few words to the moon for him, I flicked my lights on and off and said, “this is the laser light show, the laser light show.” If you knew Bill, you’d know exactly why I did the latter. If you don’t know Bill, then the latter is simply proof of his silliness. He was charming and he was hilarious. So tonight, despite the sadness, I will go to bed smiling while I reflect on his sweet soul. Death is incomprehensible for most of us, but I no longer ask, “why Bill?” I just try to say, “thank you for the time I knew you.”