When I first met him, I thought he was completely terrifying. A monolithic enigma, strange, confident and kind of an asshole. But it wasn’t long before he was like a brother to me. Underneath the greasy veneer he wore so proudly, I learned that he had a violently beating heart. In class he would play devil’s advocate, grinning wickedly any time he got a rise out of one of our peers, and when we were amongst friends he prided himself on his ability to dole out the tough love.
He was good with words, great with them, and wielded them skillfully in order to move and manipulate minds. He was not a man you’d want as an enemy but as a friend he was like no one I’d ever met. Fiercely loyal, protective, a good listener. He wasn’t all good – No one would dare call him a saint – but if he cared about you, you never had to feel alone.
Past tense. It’s hard to write about someone I loved like that in past tense. But he’s gone now. Lost from this world because of addiction. When I met him 6 years ago I saw him as a terrifying, fascinating break from the tidy little world I’d grown up in. Heroin, cocaine, prescription drugs – “It’s not that bad if you know how to use them wisely,” he would tell me as he made us another drink or rolled another joint.
I was skeptical but his words had such conviction in them. He was brilliant. I thought if anyone knew what they were doing with hard drugs, it would be him. But if you’ve ever cared for someone with an addiction, you know how wrong that is. Sometimes I wish he hadn’t cast his spell so easily on me. Sometimes I wish I’d told him he was being a fucking fool.
There are other things I wish. That I hadn’t let him drift so far away after we graduated, that I hadn’t laughed at his anecdotes of more intoxicated times, that I hadn’t sat there in the room with him while he snorted something and continued our conversation like he wasn’t hurting himself right in front of my eyes. It’s not that I blame myself. No one is to blame. Because with addiction it seems the power to save rests in the sufferer’s hands and theirs alone. The best we can do is love them.
When he passed away, we hadn’t spoken in months for no other reason except for we were both lazy and I find Skype conversation impossibly awkward. The last text I sent him had been 4 months before his death. “Merry Christmas.” I know this because when I heard what had happened I went straight to his name in my phone and called him over and over and over thinking it was some sort of cruel joke he was playing.
He loved cruel jokes. I hate them and left him a pleading voicemail. “If you’re messing with us I promise I won’t be mad. Just give it up. Please. Just give it up.” Some days I wonder if anyone listened to that voicemail. If his family picked up his phone and heard my voice begging him to kill the joke. And I’m sure mine isn’t the only choked up message left by disbelieving friends. None of us thought it was real. He lived his life like he was invincible and managed to convince all of us that it was true.
I could still feel his presence in this world, still felt the strings that connected us were being held taut. You never think about those strings until one of them snaps. The people you love bind you to earth and when one of them goes you find yourself a little less present, a little less bound to the physical things around you.
When I was first told about his passing I refused to believe it because my feet were still firmly planted on the ground. There was no way time could continue to pass without him here, breathing, thinking, starting shit where it doesn’t need to be started. I was sure his loss would cause something to collapse and yet 12 hours after his death I still had to show up at work, still had to floss and pay my student loans and be courteous to those around me.
I didn’t want to. Why wasn’t anyone else reeling? Couldn’t they tell something very terrible had happened? Every smile I saw the day he died, every person who laughed – it all made me so angry. I felt so alone in my grief. The other people who knew him and loved him were far away from me. I had to carry this weight alone, lightening it only through solemn phone calls and long, loaded text messages. I envied the immediate world around me.
They never knew him so they never had to lose him. For months after I wished I had never met him either. The loss, I thought, was weightier than our experiences together. If he’d never teased me, if he’d never bought me my first beer or spent the entire night helping me piece together my heart after someone broke it, then I would have never had to mourn him. Mourning him was a black hole. He died, I fell into it, and I didn’t think I would ever crawl out.
It’s been a year now and I’ve learned that grief doesn’t have to be so damning. I’m okay. I go on just fine and weeks will go by without me thinking about him. March has hung over my head for a while now because I knew I’d be confronted with the facts of his loss again. But here we are and it’s really not as hard as I thought it would be. Time is an effective salve and at the very least I am no longer crushed by denial. I also realize there are others out there hurt even more by his death and I’m lucky that I do not have to be in the physical spaces he once regularly occupied.
Now that I have enough distance from his memory I’m able to pursue the things he wanted for me, wanted for both of us. I’m trying to write more, trying to dream so big it scares me. I’ve been able to move forward, determined to achieve something that would make him proud. Still, there are late, too-quiet nights when I think about him and how when he was alive the cure for loneliness was a simple phone call away.
That’s when it cripples me, that’s when my eyes sting and I forget how to breathe for a second. But that’s also when I feel closest to him. In the dark of the night when my heart is breaking, his presence is there, even in death determined to be the devoted, honest friend it was in life.