We’re strolling through the cemetery. It’s not morbid, I tell myself, to want to be surrounded by death, to really feel how finite things are.
My eyes roll over the gravestones, most of them are neat little black or grey boxes. Orderly even in their jagged, disarrayed placements. Cemeteries in the US are grim, empty affairs but here the bodies of the dead are sometimes held inside cheerful, bright forests. It feels safer or at least kinder to hold your dead in the forest rather than the mowed down, manicured cement lots Americans call graveyards. There are all the same souvenirs though: candles, names in Latin scripts, names in Cyrillic scripts, lanterns, flowers, sand gardens, small metal gates to keep the souls from wandering. But here there are also trees, there is spontaneous life blooming wild and through it all, the smell is overwhelmingly pine with a hint of grass and a lingering touch of ozone.
It’s not morbid to find the beauty in what people left behind here. Sometimes there’s a picture. Sometimes there’s a plastic flower. Sometimes there’s even a still-lit candle from someone who wishes there could still be something bright and good about this place. It’s not strange to be comforted by the knowledge that these tombstones are just a sign that someone is missing a piece of themselves, as if they only just clumsily dropped it into the ground and left a note so they could find their way back. Even if there is no real way back.
We’re talking about what happens after we die, not in the philosophical sense, just about which things we want to leave behind (like we get a choice?) and I laugh because it reminds me of how little I have been able take every time I’ve moved. Death will be like moving, I decide, one final chance to rid myself of everything extra. Everything weighing down on me. I want to leave behind as little as possible. Leave a clean space right where I used to be.
The last time I moved, the move that found me here in a foreign land among dead strangers, is most like how I imagine death. So much of myself was left behind. I was hoping I could have chosen which parts to leave but it was less choice than confrontation. Being suddenly struck with each secret I carried and not being allowed to put down the heaviest ones. I thought I had done a good job at least. I had brought the things that mattered with me and had kept the scaffolds of my whole being together – their corporal form taking up residence in my apartment. A single box of memories that traveled across the world with me. A pared down shoe box containing everything heavy and real that I needed to carry.
Another dry laugh escapes me.
Yes, everything I need, but also Isaac’s sock. A sock that I stole from Isaac’s room. A sock that I have tried to part with so many times because it seemed stupid to keep it after I’d done the even stupider thing of stealing it in the first place. He’s been dead nearly a decade and a half and he’s never coming back. I have so much of him inside of me that can never be put down, you would think the sock wouldn’t have been on the list. But when the hard choices came, when I could only save a few items, it was easy to throw away his funeral card but somehow impossible to put down the sock. A meaningless, desperate thing I groped around his room for so that I would have one last thing of his after death. I don’t even know why I took it and now I can’t get rid of it, what does that say about me?
At the same time I remember he once had so much of me. Filling up his room and his heart and his mind. Maybe even filling up his soul. And he was able to throw all that out. He threw out all my letters and my pictures and my words. Maybe he threw out my feelings. Maybe he even threw out my socks. At the end, all he had in that room was one thank you card I cut my hand on and the blanket I made him. Everything else was erased.
Seems only fair that his emptied shoe box baffles me as much as the sock I can’t empty from mine does.
That’s when I snap back to reality, realizing I’m standing in the graveyard with renewed grief. Eyes welling up with tears I don’t want to spill anymore. Old, soothed feelings suddenly made fresh and sharp. I tell my friend about the sock, assuming the story is funny enough that he’ll get a laugh out of it too. And instead he hits me with a gut punch.
“Who is Isaac?”
I let the question just hang in the air. It hangs there forever, suspended by forever because it’s an unanswerable question. Who are you? Who am I? Who is anyone? Isaac’s been gone so long the question sprawls into eternity because he was no one and now, now he’s nothing. The question is impossible because Issac isn’t a present tense, but a past one.
I feel so transparent all the time that I forget the things that destroy me aren’t etched into my skin. That even if I’m someone who is built up of singular moment building blocks they’ve all carefully blended together into a single structure – whole and unending. Each piece sinking invisibly into my skin and then stretched taut over my body.
I don’t try to explain anything about the soft feeling that I carry that I call Isaac. I don’t explain the sock in a shoe box in my house that I stole, or even the tears that have filled up my eyes because I miss someone who cannot be missed. We simply don’t talk about it because there is nothing to talk about. My words cannot raise him from the dead anymore than my friend could raise the bodies around us.
Instead I decide I would like to spend my time among the living.
Instead I would like to spend it with my graveyard walking companion. With his every laugh, story, and smile telling me that he is so alive and so here with me. Instead I would like to fortify my tower with another brick that is made of his clever retorts and his lopsided grins and his slow burn friendship. It’s not that I want him to die, it’s that I selfishly want him to live. I want him to live so loudly and so openly that it fills up some the empty spaces between the bricks, fortifying me with every step. I want him to be explained with simple language, without needing to be conjugated into the past tense.
But if he dies, I wonder to myself, will I steal his socks too? Will he have become someone who is so essential to me that any part of him becomes precious and holy? That it becomes a necessary piece of me to covet and keep?
I don’t know yet. I don’t envy the day when I find out.