He was six months younger than me. He died, and I cannot understand it.
H’s head is on my breast, right hand curled in a tiny fist resting near his face, foot hooked over my thigh. I work hard at memorizing the weight of 27.6 pounds resting on my body, the warmth of it, the exact points at which our bodies meet. A desperate desire to hold on to this moment – no, to this life – seizes me. My stomach knots. I feel there is not enough air in the room to breathe. I am drowning, or I am suffocating, and it is taking me further and further from this moment and from peace.
He once boasted that you could build a kit aircraft using just the tools I saw hanging in front of us on a 3’ x 4’ peg board. They were arranged with fastidious neatness, with the kind of care you give to something you love, and it was impressive. I took a picture.
H’s heart beats against my stomach, our bodies press into one another as our lungs fill, the gap between us when we exhale barely perceptible. I want this moment to go on forever, so much that my insides are still tightly wound. I feel I will burst from the tension, the cells of my body exploding into the air like a mini Big Bang. I breathe. I surrender. I won’t remember everything, maybe not even this moment with H. I know in the deepest part of my soul that to hold on to life with feverish desperation would be to strangle it, that I can’t bottle it all up for always, that there is no forever. This impermanence is simultaneously crushing and liberating, and I lean into it now, trying to find the places in it that feel comforting.
He was singing karaoke when I walked into the bowling alley in Seattle. Jeremy by Pearl Jam. He was a good singer, but it’s not a song with an easy melody. Yet there he was, up on a small stage, pins crashing in the background, belting out the words as if he were a rock star on a stadium tour.
H’s tongue clicks as he loses and finds his latch, his body twitches as it falls into sleep. We both breathe. In. Out. In again. I think about human consciousness, about our ability to observe nature, about how beautiful and amazing it is that evolution has created a being that can gaze back upon itself and all that exists. I wonder what lies beyond this pinnacle achievement and come up at a loss, not for lack of believing there is something greater, but for lack of imagination. What will happen to us next? Who will we become? I do not know. It seems cruel, in a way, to have knowledge of our mortality, to know that awareness as we know it will end, to not know with certainty what lies beyond death. Cruel. And yet a gift. Would we experience the awe and majesty of life the same way if there were no mystery? Would we know to hold it so close, in gentle, loving embrace, if it were not so fragile? What would we search for if there were no need to search for meaning?
He took me up in a plane built from those tools on the peg board. It was a two-seater, just me and him and the exhilaration of having so little separating us from the sky. I think I could be making the memory of this up, so I ask a friend. I distinctly remember standing on the runway and watching them speed away from me, growing smaller as the plane ascended higher and higher into the bright blue sky. This friend told me I flew, too.
H’s leg is bent, femur falling from his hip, ankle held up by my thigh, a perfect V. His breathing slows, the pause between sucks grows longer. I take stock of what I know. H is here. I know him, and I am getting to know him. It is a privilege, and it makes me a better human being. So it is with myself and all of you and him. I am here. You are here. He was here. He will always be here. I know myself, and I am getting to know myself. I know you, I am getting to know you. I will always know him, it was a privilege, and it has made me a better human being. I think about what I believe. Life is taken from us with painful regularity, but it is not the end. Love and the heart defy death to render any of us forgotten. We are all part of something that reaches back far before our existence in this form and will likely stretch on for a long, long time after we have gone. We all matter. I breathe. I surrender. I didn’t want the reminders of what I am feeling so acutely now. I would rather have him here than have the veil parted for me for this brief moment. The pain is exquisite. The fragility of life is as heartbreaking as it is beautiful.
He hugged me like he meant it. No back patting, no space left between our bodies, no hesitation or tentativeness. The intimacy of it could feel startling, at times, but it was also grounding. How else to learn to be all in than to experience it with someone who knew to move through the world like that? I know he meant it, all of it, everything he did. There has been a flurry of sharing memories of him, and I witnessed for the first time a moment that occurred more than twenty years ago. We were 18, just babies in so many ways, standing on the precipice of all that was yet to come. ‘What are you planning on majoring in?’ he was asked by a voice off camera. ‘There are so many things. Just so many things that I’d like to do. You know? I’d like to tell you about them,’ he said. I could hear the self-assuredness in his voice when he said it. He wasn’t afraid, but he wasn’t cocky either. He was excited, optimistic, confident. And he did it, so much. He did so, so much with his life. He meant it. He was all in. Whatever comes next, I’m sure he’s all in for that, too.
In loving memory of Jeremy Monnett, June 12, 1974 – June 2, 2015.