My friend Kyle died over the weekend. He was my co-worker in Alaska, at the Black Bear Coffee House, where we pulled espresso. I didn’t know him that well: we only spent one summer working together. Even so, I am adrift in the strange world of mourning, raw and bright with blinked-away tears.
I return home from a potluck Saturday night, having just received a mass text with the news. My sister sits on the couch, red-eyed. We curl up together, hug, repeat, “I can’t believe it.” I sit dry-eyed, unable to absorb the fact of his absence.
Next, and this perhaps is unique to my generation, we open the computer to Facebook. We type Kyle’s name into the search box, and all seems so normal. Yep, there is his information, photos, his words, his eyes. But there on his wall is also the first of many RIPs. Facebook confirms what we already know.
As the truth sinks in, the remembering begins. I saw Kyle at shift changes; he walked through the heavy wooden door of the coffee house in his flannel shirts and Chuck Taylors, smiling. I saw him early mornings in the cookshack as I gathered sandwich fixings. He was passed out on the couch, arm over his face, too drunk to make it to his cabin twenty yards away. Sometimes we crossed paths at Panorama Pizza Pub, where we danced to bluegrass in the Alaska summer half-light under the shadow of mountains.
Next is the hypothetical, the trying to make sense of what makes no sense. I imagine what might have happened. You are with people at a bar. The light is golden and fractures through bottles, and you feel so alive, filled with a glowing recklessness. Someone passes you a handful of pills. You swallow them with your Jack and coke, the world blurs a little and you laugh, because it’s all so funny! Someone refills your drink and though you are numb around the edges, you raise your glass and drink deep, to friends, to the moment, to this fucking life. You don’t remember much after that. Someone gets you home and you somehow get upstairs to your bed, where you drift off, drift away, nothing anchoring you here anymore.
Tears come, when I say it out loud for the first time. I form the words, give them oxygen and shape. But they melt just outside my trembling lips, as if the words can’t stand under their own truth, and I dissolve along with them.
At a certain point, I become giddy and overwhelmed, as if the sadness has formed a wavering bubble that swells up inside and makes me lighter. When that happens, I am at a novelty store. I stand for ten minutes reading an electronic book about farts around the world. I push buttons that make fart noises over and over, and laugh hysterically.
I keep returning to Facebook, drawn back to Kyle’s wall. Facebook has been around for long enough that some of us habitually distill our days into status updates. Now, though, I question its efficacy for mourning. Can a life, a person, be captured on a wall? A cyber-wall, at that? We friends of Kyle’s are so far apart. Because we summered together in the far north, now we are winter-locked across the lower ’48. We can’t gather to tell stories and weep and laugh and get drunk. All we can do is post lonely cyber-scrawls.
The strange thing, though, is that people write directly to Kyle, as if he were on the other side of a screen somewhere, reading their notes to him. As if we lonely people, on the other side of our own screens, can’t handle his absence. We wait for a “like” to affirm our grief. Or maybe this public forum is, for a very public generation, our confessional, self-conscious manner of grieving. So all can see our anguish via emoticons and the bare thin stalks of letters, strung into ineffectual words. It’s not enough. Nothing can measure the worth of a life. As I scroll down, reading memories, though, tears start to fall. Words, tributes, songs, images.
The night we found out, my sister and I poured shots of whiskey. We sat side by side, our warm arms touching. When you lose someone, you want to hold everyone else closer.
“To Kyle,” we said, clinking our glasses together. She tossed her shot back. I sipped mine, feeling the slow burn all the way down.