I didn’t recognize the incoming phone number when I took the call last week. It was a friend from college days. He and I have kept in touch over the years, but he lives in Florida, he’s not a big Facebook guy, and it’s been three years or so since we’ve seen one another or conversed.
He called to tell me that Kevin, a mutual friend from our time together in college, was found dead in his apartment. Tall, lethally irreverent and good-hearted, Kevin had a head of hair that adhered to its own aerodynamic principles and synapses that ricocheted at speeds I’ll never approximate. He was a welcome satellite in a tribe of journalists and photographers who worked at the campus newspaper. Instead of majoring in journalism as the rest of us were, Kevin chose pharmacology. He said he wanted to be nearer to the drugs that had the capacity to mute or flash fry his zigzagging mind.
I sat in my vacuum-sealed car on the side of the highway. Cars whizzed by and made the world blurry as my friend and I traded stories of those gonzo, swashbuckling days. When we hung up and the laughter stopped reverbing, I felt the faucets to all my feelings shut. Or maybe the faucets opened wider and everything I felt flooded my insides.
I spent the rest of the day in a high-functioning zombie trance, which is the less formal term for the onset of grief.
I recognized the incoming phone number for the text I received the following morning. It was a friend from my Miami days, the city I migrated toward in my late 20s. She and I were part of a feral posse who helped colonize Miami Beach when the city was on the cusp of rediscovery. We were all pre-marriage, pre-mortgage, bulletproof and aflame.
She called to tell me that Joe, one of our gang from those days, had died of a heart attack a few days earlier. Joe was an artist whose apartment was a clubhouse and whose warmth softened everyone in his orbit. I watched both men and women fall in love with him, as did I. When I first met him he told me he was accepting applications for a girlfriend and urged me to apply.
The back-to-back deaths of Kevin and Joe was a one-two, dead friend punch that sent me spiraling into a double helix of nostalgia and wish fulfillment. I spent the next few days drifting into my past, a glorious, ornate library with lengths of bookshelves. Inside the books are chapters in my own handwriting, poems and laughter, streaming images and music. I pulled down book after book, rereading, reawakening, reliving. Then I saw Kevin and Joe doing bong hits, making fart noises and rolling their eyes. “Get out,” they both mouthed.
I unstuck in time and spiraled into the future, lingering at the on-ramp of the present. I careened in and out of a cloud pattern that was a skywritten question from a Mary Oliver poem: “Tell me what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Everything was wide and filmy. Kevin and Joe were there, eating fortune cookies and flanking Alex Trebek, who held notecards with questions that all asked versions of the same thing.
I don’t need a decoder ring, Freud or Deepak Chopra for this one. The way I see it, we all are afforded the opportunity to move through some version of this way of seeing when someone passes. And now it’s my turn.
I’m not interested in nominating Kevin or Joe to be canonized. Nor am I enamored of an extended crying festival. What I choose to think about instead is that Kevin and Joe were alive, and we were together for a while in this world radiating aliveness. They both seemed to be living ferociously, and I got to be near that and part of that. I got the chance to love them and to be loved by them.
These days, the deaths of those I knew and loved carry with them the expected spectrum of sadness but more importantly for me, they impart a poignant urgency, a gorgeously clarifying reminder of the ultimate deadline. They help me see the arc of my life, and they encourage me to remember the fleetingness of it all. Their deaths whisper to me: Get off your ass, my friend. You only have one wild and precious life. Ours have passed; let them spur you to radiate more deeply into yours.
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This story first appeared in Flag Live. It is dedicated to Kevin Turley and Joe Cafaro, fine men in a vexing world. Peace to them both and to all of us left behind who continue to puzzle our way through.