BY ZIBIA CALDWELL
Art by Florence Sykes
If I write this, it will be true.
(It is already true.)
If I write this, it will be true again.
The problem with discussing grief is with words: the ways they fail and succeed to signify themselves. This in and of itself seems to me an apt metaphor for death—a failure to signify oneself. The body remains but can not communicate the soul. The thing that animated the form, the meaning behind the word, has vanished. (Saussure says that words—collections of syllables—have no relation to their meanings. That you could completely re-order language with new sounds and find the same core system of meanings beneath it. If it is sensible to analogize words and bodies and meanings and souls then perhaps the body and the soul too have no relation. Does that make you more or less gone? Certainly water exists without the words for it. There was ocean before man. Could you still be somewhere? Last night I dreamt I went to a football game and you were there, except they’d given your body to science and put someone else’s brain inside of you, and everyone kept telling me to go say hello and I kept telling them I would soon, but I was scared of you and never spoke to you. At the end of the dream you looked up at me blankly, as though you thought you knew me from somewhere.) No wonder there is such an aphasia surrounding death: death itself is aphasia.
I’ll tell you how it happened: in the end he got sick very suddenly and died very suddenly and it is still not clear how this happened. We don’t even begin to open the door of why. (I opened the door of why and nearly fell out of myself.)
This is what I will try to talk to you about here: the underbelly of life and language and the ways they are the same and different. The process of vanishing which happens in both. And also to tell you the story of this person I loved.
By vanishing I mean: you wake. You open your eyes. You choose to see your life as a series of appearances: the wall, the light from the window, the clock (9:57 AM). You leave the house. You walk on the streets with other people. You believe that the stranger in front of you is appearing rather than vanishing and you do not think about how, as they turn that final corner, you will never see them again. You know another stranger will soon appear. And so you don’t consider the specificity of that stranger, the one that has just exited stage left of your life. Appearances suggest permanence: everything is birth, everything comes towards you because you are the center. And you know on some level that permanence is a lie, but you don’t believe that yet.
But the clock is not appearing, the clock is vanishing in front of you. I know it sounds morbid. I don’t mean it to be. (I saw him the week before, tan, beautiful, happy.)
In my new room I have a desk. In the desk there are three drawers. In the second drawer there is a heavy blue piece of paper with an image of you and your name printed under it. Drôle de blague. What a joke. (They say you’ve reached fluency in a language when you can make someone laugh in it. Drôle de blague does not really mean “what a joke,” but when I hold up the impulse, not the words, to the tracing paper of language that’s what I get.) At the memorial they played ‘Clair de Lune’. People spoke at a podium about you as though you had died. I just sat there. Was I wilting? I keep writing that word in this paragraph. But I have no memory of feeling anything except a strange perceptual brightness, as when one crosses the street and looks up too late, and for a split second one feels so utterly alone in one’s aliveness, and one thinks, oh yes, I remember you: Headlights bleeding your outline through tracing paper. There is nothing else in the drawer.
Death breaks life in half the way a stick snaps. Before; after.
This is before:
We met in fourth grade at the American Community School of Abu Dhabi. We were not friends; I was in love with you in the way that only a nine-year-old can be: without knowing you at all, and with abandon. Ten years later, I met you again in a dining hall at Columbia University. At this second meeting, in winter of 2021, I was so starstruck upon seeing you that I literally could not speak. You were so beautiful. You were also dating someone: we became friends.
Abu Dhabi formed a crater on the planes of my childhood. I was an outcast there and too young to appreciate the potential romance of that status. My memories of being there are characterized by open space and vacancies: heat waves molting over vast soccer fields, heavy air conditioning falling softly onto the open seats of the school bus, the call to prayer penetrating through corridors of grand but empty architecture, the uninterrupted sound of my footsteps everywhere I went. And beneath the quiet there was an impalpable malice. (What were we doing there? An American school in the desert. Migrant workers packed into buses to build more buildings that no one would work in. One was told not to look at them. One was told to wait inside. The day my sister came out as gay, the parents in her grade wordlessly stopped including her in their carpool, and left her on the sidewalk outside of school.) I had never met anyone who knew about this silence, had been alone with it for ten years. It rotted inside of me and grew cavernous,
ringing. It baffled therapists, friends, even my family who had been there with me. This silence was completely legible to you: it was our secret language.
We took our infant sadness and made a fort. Now I return alone. I try to reconstruct you, your sentences. But how can I describe the way you looked, the quality of your attention, the way you, sitting on a park bench, green eyes flush against green September trees, with almost exactly a year left to live, apologized for not including me at recess ten years earlier. I was dying of pinhole pains and did not know it. Apparently, so were you.
You mended me. (I imagine you sitting on your bed with a needle and thread, meticulously stitching.) I thought I had time to give to you. Is a word enough? I become religious about language: I become holy: I pray to the insides of words, the hope that if I cut open the word there would be a glimmer inside. And while I’ve given up expecting language to carry the complete weight of its own meaning, I beg it to pick up even a scrap of you.
Have you ever seen someone realize they’ve lost something in public? They reach into their bag or their pocket to get their wallet or their phone or whatever object they assume is there, in the habitual place, and their hands root around for a few moments and then gradually they begin to grasp its absence and though they are not yet panicking their faces change, their bodies tense, and they shift from the slouched, thoughtless position they were in a minute ago and they become alert, searching. They open the bag up on the ground or the subway seat and count out their daily objects. Phone, earbuds, book, keys---what’s wrong with this picture?
Once they have conducted this search, and still found the object gone, they begin to panic. People shift uncomfortably around them. It’s animal. Maybe someone tries to help-- ‘what did you lose?’ People glance around as though somehow they might be able to locate the missing object. Sometimes the person is too flustered to even answer, they just shake their head and repeat the same motion. Phone, earbuds, book, keys--what’s wrong with this picture? But it’s no use.
New York in September.
That morning I took so long getting dressed.
I was happy, rushing, late.
I went to see my aunt in the hospital.
I stared out the window of her room at the George Washington Bridge and remarked on the view; my parents had their first date on that bridge. (They biked across and had a picnic on the rocks in Jersey. On the way back, it started to rain: one thing led to another.)
I lowered the shade
(the light had been in her eyes).
We talked for an hour or so.
The sun moved steadily across her face, and every fifteen minutes I got up and lowered the shade another inch.
(And all this time you are done dying,)
I painted her toe nails bright red.
(And my old life is disappearing, ebbing,)
We joked about her hospital socks.
(And while for everyone else it will only be another nighttime, a new and familiar loss of light, for me it will be something else.)
A nurse came in and brought dinner.
My aunt asked me to cut her chicken into little pieces.
Death breaks life in half the way a stick snaps. Before; after.
My phone buzzes. Someone has texted me: ‘Zibia I just heard about Sam. Oh my god.’
Did I know he was dead then?
I had no reason to but I think I did, because I remember the insane hope that maybe
he had only been severely injured.
I look up at my aunt: the chemo is making her hair fall out onto the white bed sheets and she gestures at it emptily.
‘Look,’ she says, ‘already.’
Outside the window the light is dead on the bridge, and there is only the white outline and the pockmarks of offices in Jersey.
This is after.
What do the Catholics say? ‘Amidst life we are in death.’
Amidst death, I am in life.
There was a certain logic to the world: there was an organized topography, there were kidneys and hearts and neurons; there were appointments and lists and drinks being served; in the houses, there were staircases and off the staircases there were rooms with purposes. This one to sleep: this one to bathe; this one to eat. And you were alive and I knew you. What proof do I have of this now? Empty handed, I gesture into space for you.
That bit from a Chekhov short story where one character dies and the first thing the other thinks is: “He is dead, but I am not.”
In the first days I could not stop picturing a huge parachute dragging behind me. Wet and dirty from the rain, blowing around my ankles. (It rained every day after you died, and on the day of your memorial, there was a torrential downpour and the subways flooded.) Deflating and sagging over the bed when I slept. Grief.
How gauche to be alive without you. Gauche, from the French, meaning “left.” I am just left of life, just outside the light of day but still squinting at the same sun as everyone else. I am just left of life, going to parties and meeting beautiful people and seeing new cities in the rain. I am just left of life, watching another procession of autumn.
I am hoping to never be older than you, which I will be, in four months, but also hoping to live. You will never be 21. I likely will. What was once the path now looks like a minefield.
I remember the corridors of your mind. I make a false turn and find myself walking along one. You are a part of me. Where are you?
I am thinking of the way a feather falls. Slowly slowly slowly: then still.
(If everything is vanishing, we are obliged to notice the particular, rather than blindly trusting the general. Today: 5:00 a.m. light at 9:00 a.m.. I keep thinking of the poem Franz Wright wrote about his dad, how he calls him his ‘hungover Virgil,’ how he can still hear him bumping around and cursing in the other room, long after he’s gone. The last time I saw you, I folded a ticket stub into triangles while you talked. Later I found it in my pants pocket, intact. As I am writing this, the sun has come out for the first time today.)
ZIBIA CALDWELL is just a girl in this world.