My friend Michael recently passed away after what seems like a lifetime of medical complications. He left behind a wife, one of my best friends, Maureen, and their two year old daughter, Layla. His funeral took place in the Baptist church Michael's parents had raised him in, and though he hadn't attended since his late teens, the two pastors who spoke seemed unwilling to admit any of this. They talked about Michael's faith and about the (Heavenly) Father they all had in common more than they talked about Michael. As Maureen is an atheist (Michael was an agnostic), and I knew she'd consented to the religious funeral to please Michael's grieving parents, I took some time during my lunch break today and wrote this. It's unplanned and unedited, but it's utterly genuine.
I address this letter to you because it's easier to write this way. I tried to eulogize you, talk about you in the third person, but it seemed too distant, too formal. I was never formal with you. So I write this to you, but I write it for Maureen.
At your funeral yesterday afternoon, two people spoke. One was the pastor you knew growing up. He told stories about how funny and talented you were, and how everything always seemed to happen when you were around. I don't disagree with him on those counts, but it seemed that the Michael he knew was an incomplete picture. He almost never mentioned your wife or your daughter. The second man who spoke was the current pastor of the church, and since he'd never met you, he filled in the gaps with a lot of things that I'm sure comforted your parents and other family members. But still... I feel like there were only fragments of the Michael I knew, some of them discarded long ago, picked up now because they painted a picture of who other people wanted you to be. It wasn't always incorrect, but it was, as I already stated, incomplete.
I can't tell people who you were any more than the pastors can, but I can tell people how I saw you. I can tell people what you meant to me, what you continue to mean to me. I can tell your wife, and, perhaps someday, your daughter, that the longer I knew you, the more I loved you, and that every time my understanding of you grew, so did my heart to accommodate that new understanding. I feel like I have so much room left for you, Michael. I hope you would be happy to know that I still have so much room left for Maureen and Layla, too.
I will always remember how you made me laugh. Your hyper-observant, twisted sense of humor never stopped surprising me. Your stories never stopped amazing me. You lived the kind of life most people never dare to, though they may live twice as long as you did. Your illness, so much a part of your life for so long, never defined who you were to me. It never stopped distressing me when you were so ill you couldn't leave your bedroom. I never stopped being shocked when you were so thin that I unwillingly remembered pictures I'd seen of people in concentration camps. I never stopped feeling a swell of joy when you were feeling better, even minutely so. I never really accepted that any of these things had anything to do with you on a fundamental level. You were funny and caring and open-minded and whip-smart and talented and patient. You just also happened to be sick.
I can't say with all certainty (the way some people at least think they can) what's happened to you. But I can tell you what I believe has happened, and what will continue to happen, and why I take comfort in both.
Whatever else, you are no longer in pain. All that you suffered and feared is over with. We will continue to grieve for the loss of you at your best and your worst, but we grieved for you while you were alive and suffering, too. For me, this grief I feel now is different, multi-faceted. It's grief for your family, grief for the loss of someone I love, grief for what could have been--should have been--, but mixed up in all this grief is the comforting realization that there are no more hospitals or breathing machines or IV drips or viruses or outbreaks or flare-ups or Darth Vader oxygen masks or forced isolation chambers for you to deal with. I feel grateful to you because you falling in love with Maureen and Maureen falling in love with you is what brought her to North Carolina, which is where I met both of you. I feel overwhelmed when I remember that you and Maureen gave each other Layla, gave all of us Layla. No one child will ever be loved more than she is, and by so many people.
Last night, before I went to bed, I opened the window, sat on the sill, and thought about you while I tried to find stars in the city-bright sky. I thought about things I'd pondered before, but which never felt nearly as meaningful as they do now. I took a deep breath, knowing that all the molecules I inhaled contained what was and ever will be of you, that the air you breathed contained what was and ever will be of everyone else, including me. I looked up at the sky, seeing more skyscrapers than stars, and thought about what it means that all of us will go on swapping particles this way, sustaining each other. You're sustaining your wife, your daughter, and all the people who miss you. You're able to do that because you were here. Against the odds, you existed, and you enriched the lives of so many other happy accidents. It's silly to thank you for something you had no control over, but I still feel like I should. Instead, I will continue to be conscious of all that you've left behind, from the air I breathe to my beautiful, heartbroken friend.
But I still miss you terribly, and what's more terrible is that what I feel cannot possibly compare to what Maureen feels. I know how much it hurts to miss you, and I feel breathless when I try to understand how much more it hurts her. I can't. But I promise that I won't let that keep me from being with her. I promise that, when it hurts to see her suffer, I won't turn away from her to make things more comfortable for myself, if only temporarily. I promise that she can tell me anything, and I will listen. I will do my best to provide a safe place where she can miss you, cry for you, grieve for you.
We will remember you. We will laugh about you, Mo, Heather and me trying to set marshmallows on fire over the grill. We will laugh about the fact that the very last movie I watched with you and Mo was Terror at Blood Fart Lake and how absolutely perfect it is that I will always associate that movie with you, who loved terrible movies more than even I do. I’ll remember sitting up watching Idiocracy with you after Mo had gone to bed, laughing at the movie and the jokes you made yourself. Heather and I will remember the fun we had at the Waldensian Festival, crammed underneath a canopy sweating, telling stories, and cracking jokes about all the people who weren't buying any of our cards and jewelry. We'll remember that first night we all met, when Maureen was so pleased that you warmed up to Heather and me so quickly, that we sat there trading disgusting, offensive jokes like we'd known each other for years, laughing as loudly as we dared with Layla sleeping just one room away.
We'll remember you, all the ways you were. And when Layla gets older, she'll know how much we all still love you.
I won't ever forget you, my friend. My dear Michael. I won’t ever stop missing you. I won’t ever stop thanking you for being my friend and for being the reason Maureen was able to be my friend. I won’t ever, ever stop loving you.