Losing a Friend

Usually when people write about catastrophe they start by saying, “I don’t know where to begin.” It is not that I do not know where to begin but that I do not know where I would end. I could start anywhere — with the first time I saw Myles, with the last time I saw Myles, with any of the times in between — but no matter where I started I would still have to go on forever. Death is not incomprehensible, nor is its essence inarticulable. It is just too large, with too many different faces, parts, and dimensions. We simply do not have time to do it justice in words, or even in thoughts. It is like circling a massive building as we attempt to find the entrance: we are not trying to see the whole perimeter, we only want to find the door. What death is — how it looks from unlikely angles, what materials it is made out of, how it is constructed and arranged—does not really feel like our concern, and so we write it off as unknowable.

I will be accused of speaking too abstractly about a loss that is devastating and a grief that is blistering. But everything I am saying I am saying literally. When we are in the blast radius we have no time to wonder, to draft allegories, to test out phrases and polish them up. We look around with our mouths open and grab whatever is on the ground in front of us and eat it right then and there. Any teacher of writing will counsel against mixing metaphors but I do not even feel like I am using metaphors, nor am I mixing them: I can only say what seems true to me in each instant and only in that instant. It is like talking to God: nothing you say will be right, but you have to say something, so you just say — you just say. Whether this involves a metaphor or the recitation of a memory or a quotation from a poem is not really up to me. It is just my duty to be vigilant and not turn away from the reality of what has happened and keep my mouth open in case I should ever happen to hit on a true way of talking about it. I believe now more than ever that truth can be a salve, and that by hearing or reading the right thing at the right time we can be healed. Myles and I shared a belief that words are more than just conglomerations of air and it is this belief that I cling to now, that if words can be weapons then they can also be handholds, supports, things to cover oneself with while storms are raging.

It seems perverse to say, but I almost wish I could return to the moment I first found out, when my body got too hot to touch and my legs turned into vapor and I stumbled onto the Midway, surrounded by orange. I feel that if I could have stayed in that moment for a little bit longer I would have been able to say everything that I still want to say. For an hour Myles was all around me, in everything I saw and everything I touched. I heard his laughter, felt his hand on my shoulder. It was like being around him when he was alive, but everything about him was easier to see, easier to hear. I didn’t have the rest of the world to distract me from the overwhelming beauty of his smile, his exclamations, his bewildering work ethic. I loved him the same way I always have, but in that moment I could see how my own love worked—its nakedness and color. It was pure valuation.

In the past year there have been times when I did not feel in the mood to talk to Myles, or when I could not make time for him. Now I see how senseless and vicious and stupid I was in those moments. I see him passing underneath everything else in my life like a transatlantic cable, surfacing whenever I was lucky enough to meet him on the quad — the energy and the beauty of his personhood, his inability not to live. When we talked about philosophy it always felt like the concepts were right in front of us, sitting between us like idols or totem poles, really there to be argued over and criticized. He had an incredible focus when he was reading, he would sit hunched over at a table in the library so still that I frequently forgot he was there, looked up to see that he hadn’t moved since 2am. Moments like this convince me of the reality of the soul. Suddenly, without preparation, you see someone for who they are, not in complexity, but in fullness.

I recall once I came to his room on a Friday evening and found him sitting at his desk watching videos of drunk lawyers trying to give testimony. I asked him why the hell he was doing this. He shrugged. We sat there for thirty more minutes watching the videos. When a lawyer admitted that he was drunk, Myles guffawed and gripped the table, and turned around to look at me. I have never seen another person look at me like that. Everything was already shared, already said between us. In his undecorated dorm room, just the two of us — I can hardly bear to think about it. I don’t even remember what we did that night. Probably met up with some other friends and got too drunk on some apartment porch and walked home holding each other up and laughing about nothing. One night like that I bought him a sandwich at Midway Mart so he’d have something to eat the next day in case he didn’t wake up before the dining hall closed, but he ate it before we even got back into the dorm. I fell asleep smiling.

Now I wish I could go back and relive every time we saw each other in passing in the dining hall, as he stood in his pajamas waiting for the next round of hamburgers to be done. We would discuss how our nights had gone and how much work we had and exchange the usual platitudes but each of our words was exploding with love and knowledge. He really knew me—I could hear it in his voice, right from the beginning. I wish I could take all those little encounters and arrange them in a row so everyone could see how beautiful our friendship was, how many tiny alleys and nooks it had, how warm and safe a place it was for me. Myles was one of the first people I ever met from the University of Chicago. My life would not be the same without him. I think of trying to untangle him from my life, imagine my life without him, and I laugh at the absurdity — it would be like trying to take all the white blood cells out of the bloodstream, with tweezers. He will always be with me. There is a part of me that bears his name, his face, the color of his eyes.

Last spring I was in a class taught by James Redfield. One day Redfield went on a very garbled digression that I suspect Myles would have dismissed as nonsense. It was about how the ancient conception of death differed from the Christian conception. I am remembering it imperfectly, but he talked about how Christians believe there is something invisible that resides in the human body and escapes the body during death—casts off the image of the person. The Greeks and Romans, he said, believed that the soul bore the image of the human, and that it was not something invisible and without character that survived to the afterlife but an image of you as a mortal, a likeness that bore your intensities and imperfections. I always felt that Myles seemed like someone who could have been at home in the Aeneid or the Odyssey, and in trying to imagine how I am going to live the rest of my life without him I choose to believe that in death he has not lost anything that made him Myles, and that he will go on being Myles forever. I love him. He gave me everything he could, whenever he could. He helped me believe that it was possible for people to understand each other. When I am walking in the dark I want to reach out and touch his face but it is not there. More than anything else I wish I could tell him how deeply I am indebted to him for my happiness and my hope.

Chicago, 4/27/16