When I see you after all these years, right before walking into the hospital room where your body lays waiting and your lungs labor to breathe, I want to turn around and away. I want to not know this moment exists. It was years ago after all that we intersected, so I could learn after the fact, mourn you from the assumed secure perch of one who hears quietly of a teacher’s departure on a cold night in winter when the frozen breath looks like the cigarette smoke we used to inhale and exhale between lines of literature.
This is not what happens.
Because you have called me. You have told me. So I know not after the fact but in the happening.
You are dying.
I am afraid.
I have done this more times than I have fingers on my strong hands. I have watched those I loved die. I have learned of life taken and life no longer. I have sat in strange churches and stood in strange cemeteries. I have known the metallic taste in my own mouth when watching a body begin to suffer and I know the way my ribs seem to multiply in the afterward as if to make space for the hurt that swells beyond what a heart in a body can hold.
I also have done this for work. I have sat with the dying. I have read to the dying. I have prayed with the dying. I have laughed and watched tv and held straws up to dry mouths. I have midwifed. So I know what it looks like. I know what I am walking into when I knock and then open the door and this is why I don’t want to and also why I know I will. I will do this. I will not look away. I owe us, the space of you and me, this much I think.
You called me three days ago. I answered the phone, which I so rarely do but the part that knows responds without understanding and so I did. I answered the phone. And you said, “do you remember all those years ago when we read and wrote all those things, and hello, and I am dying.”
In the cracks of time between you calling and me walking into your hospital room, I have been unable to stop slipping into the leaking of salt water and of memory and of the words, all those beautiful words. How immediately and fully they, you, return to me.
You, messenger. You gave me Tender is the Night. You gave me Toi Dericotte. You gave me Toni Morrison. You gave me your much beloved The Godfather. You gave me critical and compelling analysis of popular fiction and its importance in the rooms where we speak of literature. You gave me T.S. Eliot and Little Gidding. You gave me, too, access to my own words.
It was at University and you were the first person who had ever really said, “You can write. Don’t stop.” And so I didn’t. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, well beyond the assignments given. And in the doing of this, the bloodletting of words, one day I stopped cutting into my skin to leak out what hurt and never did so again. You were the one who helped me to understand I was free to set down the language of others who wanted to tell my story, that I could stop seeking understanding of their narrative and begin to speak my own way. In this way, you gave me life.
And now you own is ending.
When we met and spoke five years ago, after fifteen years of not seeing one another, I remember us comparing notes of sorts over drinks and strong coffee and we laughed hard and made confessions which I won’t repeat back to you but will hold instead in my own quiet for all my years, and I tried then. I know I tried, to tell you what it all had meant to me and I think I failed to find the words to say it, though when you called me three days ago I realize it is also true you had heard them all the same.
So I’m going to walk through the door and sit with you and not look away.
This is what I do.
Steady the throat that wants to constrict and the body that wants to bend into collapse and the fear that wants to run and run and run. And then I walk in and there you are. There we are.
"You came," you say.
"Of course I came," I say.
"But you didn't have to."
"No. I didn't have to. I needed to. Those are different things."
And you smile, inrepose of reverence. "Distinction within language"
"Yes," I say.
"So we're here. And it's in a fucking hospital."
"Does this mean we are never going to have sex?"
"That was always true."
And we laugh, even though it is painful.
"But finality is a mutherfucker."
"Yes. Also true," I say.
And then we talk. Or you ask me to talk, to tell you things. About words. About the past. About memory. About falling in love with language. About nothing. Which is really about everything.
And then I read for a while.
And we stop sometimes. And remember. Or are silent.
And then I read some more.
"Do you think any of this means anything?" you ask.
"What?" I say.
"This," you say.
"The words? The books? You mean is there determinedmeaning or subjective interpretation?"
"No. Stop," you say. "This. Living. Doing all this. Do you think it means something?"
And I had tried, so much, to not dissolve or leak out over everything. To be here, with and for you. And I don’t know what to say or do then, except cry. And cry and cry and cry. And try to make the words from in between those spaces.
"I can’t answer that for you," I say. "But I know this. Your life means something to me. You changed my very life," I say. "And I knew it and did not know it then. But you did. You changed my life. You gave me life. And I don't know if that then has meaning. But I know I cannot separate my life now from yours.”
"Will you write this?" you ask.
"You mean me being here?" I ask.
"Yes. This. Will you write it?"
"Yes, I will write it."
Saying goodbye is hard in the way we try to write about later and in its happening only know as that which cuts through a body with unbearable love. It is one of the most devastating and beautiful human experiences. It is not always a think given or granted, and it is an undoing of wreckage and a great gift.
I read you lucille clifton's “blessing the boats.” And then we look at one another for a while. And then we say good-bye.
I go to Mexico. I think of you. I come home. I think of you.
I see you have called.
Two days later, I receive the words that you have died.
You, my teacher.
My teacher, from all those years ago, who opened a portal to words, which were worlds, which gave life. My own life, given back to me, freed from the stories of others I once tried to tell as if they would save me from what had already happened.
The one who studied sentimentality and found meaning in what had been discarded from the volumes that speak with authority on what is and is not real writing, and questioned everything, and sometimes you sat on your desk when talking and looked up at a room full of people with this look on your face like you wanted to slap something strong into the complacency and performance of prestige, and then you would laugh, and run your hands through your hair, and start again.
You. The one who found me all those years later.
The one who wrote the markings on the pages of my writing that would rearrange the interior rooms and undo me in the unlearning and challenge me in the way that is love. It is real and true love, to believe another, to care more about their breaking free than protecting them from their own stories.
The one who would once told me to cut my father's tongue from my mouth, and tell you the story again.
The one who did not seem to own jeans without holes in them and had hair that looked like the seventies never left you, even though it was nineteen ninety-seven.
The one who I loved.
You fucking died.
There is no place to put the grief and its insurmountable size.
And so we carry it. We live with and alongside it.
So I look into an unknown future, and I think, I will sit down and write, and I will catch babies who scream first cries, and I will remember. I want, of course, for you to somehow be able to see the writing that is yet to come, the story that waits for me in a thatched hut in the jungle of Mexico. The one where Susan speaks. The one that only I can tell, where the living words live. And you won't, even as the words would never come had I not stumbled into a room all those years ago, and fallen in love with survival and language and the permission to walk away and leave so as to live.
The story of survival is a love story, rich with loss and tied tight to the breath of other beings.
We don’t get to here, wherever here is, alone.
Our lives intersect. Our bodies reach toward one another and ache for each other. Our days press close to the lived stories of intimate strangers. Our very cells and selves are changed in being human, together.
I cannot separate my life from yours. Isn't that the most terrible and beautiful thing possible?
Ten days before you die, I will find myself in a hotel room in a town somewhere whose name I don’t even know, and here I will sip gin and eat ice cubes and lean toward language as a way of locating you, wondering how any of this, and by this I mean the human existence of interweaving lives and bodies and stories, ever comes to be.
I will think of you while making a decision to leave and go be with one whose name is as close to me as my own. Because there is only this one life, and if the call comes, however it comes, I want to say that I will drive out and find her.
I will think of you while my son and I tossed bags in the car and drive into the night with cups of hot coffee. Drive mile after mile to a Tribe Called Quest and Valerie June. I will think, this here is where something I could almost call truth lives, in this space between words, always becoming; and the moon that hangs so low and large to the curved earth I start crying, and my son says why, and I say, because it is the color of honey and have you ever seen it so completely I mean? The driving on roads late at night where it is only this moon and the dark and freight trucks and the cars are few and filled with longing or leaving, and secrets spill into the quiet. This. This is a world you too knew.
There are 6,987,000,000 humans on this planet, each having our own separate experience of being human, and under a sky that speaks one billion stars and that is just our galaxy. And in numbers and wide range of encounter possible, I am here human, intersecting with others in ways unimaginable and real. With you. In a thing so vast, my own heart beats and pumps blood and liquid revelation, and I get to be here alive. To know the woman I love. The man I love. the travel companion who once came from me and now tells me things like the numbers of aliveness and beyond into the sky I cannot see and still believe.
And you, my teacher who is dying while I drive and drink moons.
Only three days after you died, I receive a book in the mail you had sent. Your book of T.S. Eliot, with your own hand writing in margins, and your message to me to find this page and these words.
“You are not here to verify,
instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
or carry report. You are here to kneel
where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more than an order of words, the conscious occupation of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always."
Goddamn it. I loved you before I knew how to love.
Beyond the language of living.
You can no longer hear me, and still, I speak to you.