What would the dead want from us? My dead friend would want me to push back against the sorrow. My dead friend would want me to compete.
Courtney Graham, one of the more athletic, faster, and cavalier friends of mine seemed to be attracted to the dangerous. Throughout our friendship, the difference in our flight or fight response would provide many avenues for us to explore our more precarious sides. This often lead to bouts of whimsical competition (more often than not, instigated by Courtney). Once, we asked my older sister to tie us to a neighbor’s tree just to see who was the fastest at escaping. Another competition was who could climb the fence in my front yard the fastest. Each time we would up ante, going from “who could jump down the balcony the fastest,” “who can ride through pitch black tunnels the fastest” and eventually graduated to “who could run through the nursery that was guarded with the rockwilder,” of course, the fastest. I do not recall Courtney being fearful of any physical injury and I can’t think of many stunts that Courtney didn’t try and it was rarely the case that he would not be the first to attempt any physical challenge. So, when I heard rumors that one of his fists were swollen, after being shot multiple times and killed, I was inclined to believe that it came from wounding whoever pulled the trigger.
Even in understanding the socioeconomic factors that could lead a person to conform to the footsteps of crime, I can’t seem to employ myself to understand why a person would usurp the role of life-taker from death. Prior to Courtney’s murder, my thoughts on life after death and whether or not there is a deity dictating who experiences which and when had undergone metamorphosis. Before Courtney died, I only knew suffering as a Christian. Courtney’s death was the first tragedy I experienced as a nonbeliever. It had not occurred to me that I viewed death differently from the theist in my life until someone mentioned that Courtney was in a “better” place and is looking down on us from heaven. At one stage in my life, I could have agreed with the celestial bleacher premise: That all our loved one’s are sitting in heaven watching the living with jealous eyes as we play the game of life. In the past I used to believe in divine communication, but I no longer have the capacity to conflate dreams and messages from beyond the grave in such a way or confuse what is happening in my brain with what I want to happen when I no longer posses my cerebral or cardiovascular faculties. While the idea of having celestial reunions with deceased loved ones sounds appealing, I am more intrigued on forming ways to visit them in memory while I’m still alive. Propriety demanded that I keep my disagreement to myself, but I realized my atheism broke the solidarity I had in mourning with others and that my disbelief in deities would have larger implications especially when I had the honor of being able to speak at Courtney’s funeral.
Oddly, many of my Christian friends found the tragedy of experiencing death of a loved one as an atheist to be some sort of personal test that one can pass or fail. I’ve even had an individual say, “Well, the reason why you’re an atheist is because you haven’t been tested yet.” It is unclear as to what form of torture I need to survive that would justify my emancipation from theism and God, but I will say there was nothing in experiencing the murder of a dear friend that moved me enough to seek emotional or mental sanctuary in a higher power. The theist counterpoint could be summarized in two points:
1. Well, that may have been hard (referring to the murder), but wait until you lose a parent or a child.
2. Don’t you want to see your friend in heaven?
I don’t need to lose a child or parent to understand how difficult grief can be. Death is eternal and therefore grief of dead loved ones will also be eternal. You don’t learn to get “over it”, but you learn how get along with it. It becomes part of your daily shadow or acts like a distant relative of feeling that surprises emotion during holidays. After the news of Courtney’s death had been delivered to me, I didn’t know how to grieve. 24 hours in a day seemed to be too little time to do anything let alone grieve. I was unsure how to make appointments on the calendar for such a fickle client and it took plenty of time to comprehend Courtney was in fact dead. So how could I make the time to comprehend the feelings that followed the revelation? After my brother told me around 3:00am Courtney was murdered, I went to work.
It’s hard for me to imagine how it is I managed to sleep that night. It’s even more difficult to decipher what it was that made me decide to go to work. Maybe I was trying to avoid my own self pity or evade the slew of phone calls with the apologies and sorrows of others, but nevertheless I thought ignoring the knocking of grief at my door was the best way to ensure it would not intrude.
The problem with work was that I would be be in front of a computer. As short sighted as my attempt to work was, it was even more short sighted of me not to foresee what I would be inclined to do once I turned on the computer. First, check the news, then check Facebook. Again, ignorance on my part. If I truly wanted to avoid the apologies, pity, and consolation of others, Facebook, which acted as a tabloid of sorts, was the worst mirror to hold in front of my grief. I was, however, more than grateful for the many offers of ears. Especially for those who are common friends of Courtney and I and held a mutual grievence for his untimely departure. Some of these voices were a great source of strength during Courtney’s funeral. Katina and Quianna just to name a few.
The morning of funeral, I woke up, thinking of a conversation I had with Courtney’s sister. One of the greatest honors a person can have is speaking at a loved one’s funeral. I was lucky enough to be considered and I felt uneasiness doing so because that meant someone else would not be able to. I have learned grief sometimes just needs audience and I wanted everyone to be able to give grief a microphone and 15 minutes of infamy. I didn’t feel that I “deserved” to be heard more than anyone else, but I was asked by Courtney’s sister, which was a treasure that outweighed the uneasiness and helped subside the woe.
That morning, a little unsure of what I would say at the funeral, I decided to go to the church early. I happened to be the first one there that morning and decided to take a stroll around Emerald Hills park. Walking around the park, I could see footsteps Courtney and I left behind when we were kids. It felt as if I could walk those exact steps and relive the time we walked to the park to play basketball. It was a breath of old air that I hadn’t inhaled in years. Even in the presence of death, I felt the joys of boyhood I shared with Courtney. Courtney, and some of my other male friends, occasionally walked from our street to the church that sits in front of a place where I shared many kisses with my first girlfriend and is located behind the house in which I lost my virginity. Life was reminding me of its cyclical behavior. There I was, behind the location of which I indulged in life giving practices, preparing to mourn the end of life.
Once the casket was in my right hand, I could feel everything I had been holding come out. Grief was breaking down the dam that concealed my tears and seemed as if grief was looking to break me down. Crying had never hurt so much. I did associate pain with crying but not a physical pain within my eyes. It felt like tears were literally clawing through my eyes for air and scratching my pupils with their chains as they ran over my eyelids. It had become difficult to see and walk. I even lost the strength in my left arm to wipe the emancipated tears away. I did remember something my older brother told me about funerals when my aunt Charlene passed away of cancer. After I saw her body and made my way out of the church, my older brother put his arms around me and said, “This is what these funerals are for. If there was anything you wanted to say, you can say it now.” I had plenty to say to Courtney, but I knew my words would fall on death’s ears.
Sitting next to the pallbearers on the pew, all of whom I’ve known since I can remember, the energy permeating from the hurt took on a physical temperature. I felt hot and my brain went through a cycle of reflection, tears, random bouts of wondering what my speech would entail and then back to grief. I don’t think I was sure of what I was going to say when I made my way to the podium to speak, but I knew I would share the words that I discovered that helped me work through my own grieving process.
Cornel West often refers to defeating nihilism through the story of Emmett Till. Till was brutally tortured, murdered and left in a river. The sight of Till’s body was so gruesome it was advised to Emmett Till’s mother to have a closed casket during Emmett’s funeral. Till’s mother left the casket open, so the world could see how hate can reassemble itself and the human body. When Till’s mother spoke at her son’s funeral, she said, “I don’t have a minute to hate. I will pursue justice for the rest of my life.” I tried to echo this sense of justice, reflection and love when I addressed the crowd as best I could. Whether or not I was successful, I don’t know; I would have to appeal to those that heard my voice. When I have monologues with myself that repeat the words of Emmett Till’s mother, my grief, and mourning and despair transform into hope and here begins the process of closure for me. Closure really didn’t fit what is going on because I wasn’t “closing” anything. Closure is really an opening. It’s living with grief and giving it a space to live, a space to physically and emotionally express itself.
I will never know why Courtney was murdered and if I did know I’m still left with one less friend. I am still left with the unknown of why he is no longer here. I may never know who did it, but I do know regardless if Courtney’s death were by old age or disease, his death was surely coming and I still would have to find a way to withstand the woe. I can not say the things to Courtney that I wish that I could, but I do get to revisit all the things that I learned from him, which is how he will get his chance to have an eternal life. By pursuing justice in all instances, with Courtney in mind, I have the ability to revisit him through the memory of our friendship.
One of the memories I have of Courtney isn’t a memory in which he was with me. The memory is rooted in the way his name was evoked, and how it was brought up as a way I should strive to be – fearless. Although I cannot recall the context for this memory, I can remember the sentence that still resonates with me today. “You need to be like Courtney, a Die Hard.” This comparison has always been a dimly burning fire in my chest, however, that inspiration has evolved into a competitive nature as an adult. It also turned into my way of commemorating Courtney. I can literally feel what it was like to be next to him playing basketball, video games, riding bikes, or jumping fences. I do not need to be corporeally reassembled to visit departed loved ones because I can visit them through their influences on my life.
In a way, I have parts of my father and mother inside of me that are waiting for an opportunity to take the stage of my personality. These actors will stay inside of my body long after my parents have passed away and patiently stew for a chance to manifest in my own offspring. There is something poetic about this and it gives me hope about what my own children can be and how I will live eternally through them. It shouldn’t be surprising that the passing of genes is a way our removed relatives stay with us. It’s one of the first things noticed about humans when they are born and we are reminded of how much we resemble our parents until we die. I’ve been guilty of recognizing a smile or gesture in a person that I saw in their parents. I can’t even count the times I’ve said to someone, “You look just like your father or mother” or “You act like your mother or father.” This is where there is a difference in death, life, the eternal and the finite. While I will have the opportunity to live an eternal life through the passing of my DNA, Courtney, and those who unfortunately encountered the harbinger of death before bearing children, will not. This tragedy was made clear to me when I read his last tweet that said he loved his family and wanted to give his nieces and nephews some cousins.
Closure is a dull word, and the absence of it cuts deeply and painfully. Not having words in the possession of one’s tongue is different than not being able to deliver the message. My mouth is full of phrases that I wish I had delivered before Courtney passed away. I do wish I could have told him that I would have wanted his children to be common friends with mine and that I would have wanted him to be an uncle to my children so he could impart his “daredevilness” onto them.
When I think about what will happen to me after I die, I ask myself, “What did you think life would be like before you were born?” It’s a gentle reminder to myself that there isn’t much to be concerned about because when death becomes me, I will no longer know who I am. I will not know that I am dead. But, I do know while I am alive my concerns should be about what my life is like in the present and how I cannot afford to spare feelings of love, gratitude and solidarity.
We all are engaged in a dying struggle. We all are dying and in the process, we try to find ways to live. It’s embedded in our primate DNA just as it is to wonder about what will happen when we are no longer living and how our dead loved ones would want to be remembered. Those question can be answered with a reading of James Fenton’s poem “For Andrew Wood”. We, the living, are lucky in continuing and when we grieve we should grieve for what the dead have lost. And, to console the dead, we can offer life through honored memories and and celebrity. Courtney has his celebrity in my heart and his hallowed chair is rocking back and forth in my memory and I am more than confident that is what he would want.
For Andrew Wood
What would the dead want from us
Watching from their cave?
Would they have us forever howling?
Would they have us rave
Or disfigure ourselves, or be strangled
Like some ancient emperor’s slave?
None of my dead friends were emperors
With such exorbitant tastes
And none of them were so vengeful
As to have all their friends waste
Waste quiet away in sorrow
Disfigured and defaced.
I think the dead would want us
To weep for what they have lost.
I think that our luck in continuing
Is what would affect them most.
But time would find them generous
And less self-engrossed.
And time would find them generous
As they used to be
And what else would they want from us
But and honoured place in our memory,
A favourite room, a hallowed chair,
Privilege and celebrity?
And so the dead might cease to grieve
And we might make amends
And there might be a pact between
Dead friends and living friends.
What our dead friends would want from us
Would be such living friends.