Death and I are well-acquainted.
While he is not exactly the most pleasant of companions, he is diligent in what he does. He may not always be fair; he sometimes makes mistakes by taking people by the hand who still had so much more to experience before he appeared, but he does help the living grow for better or for worse. He often reminds us of what matters – he wakes us up, breaks the fishbowls we live in, and allows us to truly see the ocean ahead, with its hurricanes and sunsets alike.
In the constant hustle and bustle of the present, sometimes one cannot help but look back at their life with a certain sense of bittersweet understanding at certain unexpected events. Although I’ve lived through at least seven moments where Death walked away with someone I knew personally, there are three specific people who come to mind as definite game-changers. For each of those partings – unforeseen goodbyes with two friends and my grandfather – I went through the same coping mechanism: reading until my eyes hurt, and writing until insane hours in the morning.
The first friend was a middle-aged teacher in charge of the library at the school my siblings and I attended. She also happened to be our neighbor, a detail which paved the way for a lasting friendship with my parents. This teacher had an uncommon case of polio, and was always seen with either her trusty wheelchair or cold, metal crutches (she would occasionally let me wobble around on them when I visited her section of the library early in the morning). My siblings always mentioned how she refused to allow any of her students to read the same book twice, but rather recommended new ones every time they checked out a copy. Her sense of humor, easy smile, and contagious laughter were as colorful as her constantly-changing hair dye. I still remember how every winter she would sport sparkling green Christmas tree earrings and deep red sweaters that only someone like her could pull off successfully.
It was in such a winter that she passed on. With a weakened immune system, a case of pneumonia, a golden but relenting heart, and the request to not be resuscitated, our beloved friend and teacher finally rested.
The second friend involved different circumstances; he parted ways with the world at the age of 19 – I was only 15, a freshman in high school. His cause was one easily hidden, subtle, more present in his heart and his mind; it only made sense after it happened, and even now, four years later, it is still an unsolvable puzzle that he took along with him. I wrote a short story of approximately 56 Word pages in a month (now realizing it was a small amount compared to what other people tackle, but it was an all-time record for me at the time). I spent my days writing (on paper or on a computer), walking with earbuds that whispered album after album, reading anything I could get my hands on, and binge-watching Disney Channel’s The Suite Life on Deck (for some bizarre reason).
The third and most recent case: my grandfather. He’d come up with small poems for his grandchildren on their birthday. He always kept his mustache neatly combed; a poetry-and-tango loving gentleman through and through. He held this strong resemblance to Clark Gable in his manner of speaking and moving. His arms were covered in freckles and white hairs, his hands were strong and familiar with a typewriter. He loved my grandmother to every corner of the world and back. His jackets still smell like him – cologne and tobacco. My father’s face mirrors his. There are pages and pages of yellowed words he brought to life, and by God, they are absolutely beautiful. In 2014, after months of the slow spread of cancer in his body, the sun rose and set one last time in his eyes before he left for the stars.
I loved it when he read aloud; I loved it when he quoted passages of books from the top of his head. It is because of my grandfather that I took it upon myself to see if I could write with the smallest, most minuscule amount of heart he poured in everything he said and everything he penned. It is because of my old librarian and teacher that I make it a point to grant any book the benefit of the doubt before reading it for the first time. It is because of a puzzling friend that I want to know about the world, and that I truly appreciate books and their stories as comforting company.
Every winter smells the same; the almost acrid scent of smoke from chimneys, the sharp cleanness of the cold air, even the dust from synthetic trees and the warmth of twinkling lights outside of homes and apartments. That combination of odors triggers flashbacks and crooked smiles. It is with such clarity that memories reappear like a familiar movie you have not seen in some time.
In moments of darkened skies, bright stars, gleeful shrieks from children playing at the park, and the soft tickle of icy wind during evening walks around the neighborhood, we remember.
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