How my friend and I found each other in letters, and how I lost him
Laura Passin is a poet and feminist at large.
Isaac was the mascot of our little tribe of nerds: a lanky boy with the air of a tweedy college professor. You could imagine elbow patches on every item of clothing he wore. You could even imagine a pipe (though of course being a good boy, he didn’t smoke). We used to joke that someone should give him a Ph.D. in classics just because he acted the part. His persona perfectly captured the inherent strangeness of going to academic summer camp, where we met: actual kids pretending to be college students, imagining a future when our true inclinations would make us rock stars instead of weirdos. In our particular patch of utopia, our stay on campus partly overlapped with a local soccer camp. The soccer kids were known to look at us, on our way to or from five hours of class, and say things like “Why would you want to go to SCHOOL in the SUMMER?” To which we replied “Why would you want to play SOCCER?”
During the school year, when we were separated by geography from our gang of misfit toys, Isaac and I were especially faithful correspondents—I could have kept a calendar based solely on our letter deliveries. I got Isaac’s letters on Thursday, most weeks. I’d write back and mail mine Friday afternoon, and it would arrive in Manhattan on Monday. Isaac would send his response on Tuesday, and I would receive it on Thursday, and then we’d start over again. Writing letters is an extremely private way of maintaining a friendship; it was always a little strange to know our gang, though utterly inseparable in the summers, was split into dyads by the postal service. Isaac and I both loved poetry and aspired to write it. Our letters were filled with scraps of poems as well as personal news, gossip, jokes, cartoons, and all the other things teenagers share. He sent me Mark Strand’s “Nostalgia;” I sent him Muriel Rukeyser’s “Waiting for Icarus.” Isaac was my first reader, the only person I trusted to critique my fumbling attempts at writing my own poems. He was a great reader, even then: unsentimental but generous, enthusiastic to a fault. He was a much better writer than I was then, but he took me seriously as a poet. He was the first person who ever did.
After we all went off to real, grownup college and got the internet and new girlfriends and boyfriends and housemates and homework, Isaac and I fell out of touch a bit. We were still friends, and I would still see him whenever I went to New York (if he happened to be home from Yale), but he was no longer one of the central presences in my life. He was my dear, old, wonderful friend whose hilarious old-soul wisdom was a constant. I didn’t worry about our friendship disappearing, because I knew it wouldn’t: we had found ourselves through each other.
Isaac has been dead for six years.
For as long as I remember, my life has been parceled out by geography. My family moved around a lot; my parents were divorced and lived in different states; I had relatives from Florida to Alaska. In some ways, this meant that having deep long-distance friendships felt very natural to me—we were always waving goodbye to someone. This familiarity, though, didn’t prevent the spiky pain of knowing that there were people out there whom I loved more than anything, and that we would not see each other for months or years. It was so different before we had the internet, different in ways that are very easy to romanticize. I kept every letter I got in the 1990s. In my stepdad’s home in North Carolina, there is a box full of shoeboxes (Chuck Taylors, every one) full of letters from people who now have kids, doctorates, houses. My old friends and I now communicate almost entirely online, which is easier and faster and makes me feel like we are in each others’ lives daily instead of occasionally. But I still know where those shoeboxes are.
In that poem Isaac once wrote out neatly and sent to me, Mark Strand uses surrealism to capture the weirdness of nostalgia: “The professors of English have taken their gowns / to the laundry, have taken themselves to the fields.” I always pictured those professors as being older versions of Isaac, birdlike creatures plucked of their feathers. Nostalgia hurts; that’s what the word means (nostos: “return home,” algos: “pain”). But it is a beautiful hurt, a throbbing of the past into the wounded present. Strand’s poem ends: “It is yesterday. It is still yesterday.”
Isaac did not make it to his 30th birthday. In my head, he is always 16, and when he is 16, so am I.
I couldn’t make it to the funeral: everything happened so fast. Isaac and I were both in the middle of Ph.D. programs at big-name universities. (It turned out they wouldn’t give him the doctorate just based on looks.) One minute, I was trying to write a research paper on Spenser’s “Amoretti.” The next, I was answering a call from one of my closest camp friends and trying to understand what she was telling me. It still seems impossible, somehow, even though it was the most ordinary of accidental deaths: a pedestrian hit by a vehicle. The services would be in two days, in New York. I was in Chicago and too dazed to figure out how to put my life on pause and make my way back east. I stayed home, emailing my Spenser professor and trying not to sound insane. The day of the funeral, I had to go to campus to teach, and I have no memory of how I made it through class. After the funeral ended, my friends who were there called me; I left my office and went to sit on a bench by Lake Michigan as they passed the phone from person to person. I should be there, I would think, and then I would correct myself: Isaac should be there. Look at him: even when he dies, he brings us back together.
The strange truth is that Isaac’s death hasn’t changed my friendship with him. I already didn’t see him for years at a time. I already was mostly out of touch with his daily life. I already counted him as one of the most important people in my life, but the crucial role he played was in the past. I missed him terribly, but I already missed him terribly. His loss seemed metaphysical, a crumbling of the world, rather than an absence of an individual person. Isaac wasn’t allowed to die, because a world that would take such a person so young was indescribably bleak. He shows up in my dreams sometimes; he never knows he’s dead. Sometimes he insists that I’m the dead one, trying to drag him to some afterlife to keep me company. I try to tell him that I know he’s dead, because everyone was there, all our friends, they saw the service, but he won’t listen. We always argue, when he shows up: his seeming presence makes me angry, because it means the grief I feel for him has been torture rather than reality. Sometimes I wake up and I’m already crying.
After the funeral, we decided, as a group, to write letters again. Addresses were exchanged through email, stamps were bought. It didn’t take. I have become a big fan of writing postcards, personally: it gives the recipient the fun of getting snail mail without the implicit obligation to respond in kind. I wrote a few letters, but I found that the impulse behind letter-writing had changed: I didn’t need to fill in the details of daily life for my friends, because they already knew from Facebook and Twitter. More importantly, I don’t feel lost in my own life anymore—I don’t need the reassurance that my overstuffed shoeboxes gave me, the confidence that yes, one day I would get out of my shitty town, out of my unglamorous life, out of poisonous social hierarchies. Receiving letters was still a great pleasure for each of us, but we no longer viewed them as artifacts of our true selves, always at one remove. Now our friendships are both permanent and intangible—they leave no trace in the world outside our bodies. I survived those years defined by our epistolary love; so did everyone. So had Isaac.
“Nostalgia” is not my favorite Mark Strand poem. I prefer “Keeping Things Whole.” It starts like this:
In a field
I am the absence
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.
In the world of this poem, every presence creates an absence. Every movement disrupts something that was previously undisturbed. To remain in one place is an arrogant mistake; it is an insistence that your particular self is more important than the world it stands in. I’ve written here about Isaac, but this is also about mourning my mom, and my grandparents, and every family member and loved one who has died. It’s just that Isaac did it so early, and he was my age, and I will be older than him forever. The part of myself that feels most real, that kept me whole during the other difficult periods of my life, is the part that sprung to life when that skinny boy with too much hair started laughing at my jokes. Nothing in my life has been untouched by that moment. Isaac is gone, but he gave me part of myself.
The poem finishes:
We all have reasons
to keep things whole.
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