The final essay brought up from the archives… a personal piece, written in the immediate aftermath of late January 2010, edited later that year, still felt in 2016.
I am on the BART back to Oakland and the music pulses in my purloined headphones, hijacked from the seat-back pocket and emblazoned with the United Airlines logo. They’re cheap headphones but the sound quality is better than earbuds, rich with depth and clarity that I haven’t encountered yet from my iPod.
The BART is packed for a Thursday afternoon and I focus on the music, the slippery sounds that I have never quite been able to comprehend; it is entrancing, this brilliant noise, and I am ensnared by its rising and its falling, forever enigmatic. I’ve read books on music theory, sonic cognition, and still it refuses to reveal itself to me.
Words: that is how I order the world. Language I can marshal and understand but music is sublime and mysterious, and no matter how I chase it no illumination arrives. I want to escape into the music now but neuronal firings won’t allow it, insistent upon conscious thought, and these words won’t go away even though I wish they would, coursing through my gray matter as they’ve done all week:
David, I wonder; David, where did you go?
Where did you go?
My flight into Cleveland is delayed by an hour and a half — bad weather in Chicago — and when my mother and I walk through the back door it is nearly two a.m. My father is still awake, in the living room with my uncle and three aunts and a cousin, more arriving in the coming days. Most of us are still on California time but all of us are hesitant to go to sleep.
I am camping out in the basement, my own private cave in the zoo of so many people. It’s a spacious basement with room for more but something is wrong with the water pipes and whenever the toilet is flushed they bleat a ridiculous song, something in between a siren and a gong, loud and reverberating. No one else is willing to put up with the noise but I don’t mind it, my head too stuffy to sleep.
I take advantage of the privacy to stay up late, later even than everyone else is staying up, and in the quietude of dead hours I lean on language to make sense of all this. I don’t know that it can but my aunt and uncle have asked me to speak at the funeral and by five in the morning I think I have beat the words into a shape something like my cousin.
This family, my family, our family, is a many-headed organism made of dozens of moving parts: one matriarch, twelve siblings and each one paired off, twenty-three cousins (only a few of those paired off yet), three great-grandchildren so far. Technically I suppose the number is now twenty-two but the official tally, the permanent record, will always say twenty-three, death certificates be damned.
We play Scrabble and put Scotch tape on my aunt’s cat, sleep on air mattresses and go through gallons of booze and don’t stop talking until we pass out from exhaustion. It’s so easy in this world to feel like an outsider but in this tribe I see myself reflected, in so much resistance to tragedy and so many reflexive jokes, and together at my uncle’s house and my parent’s kitchen and the funeral home we stave off despair with food and alcohol and laughter and each other, most of all, with each other.
I am in a NyQuil haze for the wake, my head pounding and congested and confused on so many levels. I don’t normally take much medicine but I needed some rest and NyQuil seemed the best way to sleep through the symphony of the pipes; I’ve been too sick to drink but at least I can achieve a chemical unreality with cough syrup.
It is an open casket and David doesn’t quite look like himself, made up and in a suit and more formal than he ever was in life. I want to touch him, to shake him awake, but instead I go through the line and hug my aunt and uncle and then my cousin, David’s little sister, collapses against me. She is a senior in high school, about to graduate from my alma mater, a middle child forever hassled by her older brother, and I stand firm and hold tight and say nothing.
Words may be all that I have to make sense of this world, but sometimes there are no words at all.
There’s an easy moral to be had from it all — drugs are bad, kids — but I’ve seen “Trainspotting” half a dozen times, and my cousin never looked like “Trainspotting.” The pastor gives the official eulogy, something long-winded and meandering that ends with an exhortation to come to Jesus. My father had employed David in countless home improvement projects and he sobs next to me, my mother on his other side clutching at his hand, and I wonder if his devout Catholicism is blunting this pain, making sense of the inexplicable.
There is a polished wooden casket at the front of the church. I had pushed past it moments earlier, to speak at the lectern, to read what I’d written, and it seemed then and it seems now oddly out of place: I know David’s body is inside, the same made-up thing I saw the day before, but that is not where my cousin is now, and I just want to figure out where he has gone.
We like to think of death as a point on a continuum: birth and youth, adulthood then old age then illness and then death, the period at the end of a long and complex sentence. It is a process to reach such triumphant punctuation and we imagine that it should happen peacefully, with family and friends present, time given for all the necessary goodbyes.
It happens this way for some, I suppose, but for others it is binary and sudden: they are alive and then they are not, young and vital and then — not. David didn’t even go to a hospital, beyond such intervention. My aunt found him in his room and of all the comforts this enfolding human blanket of family can offer, no one can ever erase that tormenting image for her. I’m told there was some blood but I can’t listen yet, can’t picture something that I can’t even believe to be real.
They tell me that I captured him well in my words, well-written and well-delivered, and I am asked for e-mailed copies. What I can proffer is so little but it is at least something, these meager words and whatever meager comfort they might inspire.
They were only memories, these words; they made sense of the person that was but offer no insight into what has happened to him now. David was a solid presence in life, the sort of guy you’d want on your side in a fight (the sort of guy who got into fights), but death has rendered him ethereal, here and then gone, given over to time and things I do not understand.
I could blame the NyQuil or the head cold or the lack of sleep, those screeching pipes, but deep down I know that no matter how lucid I am this will never make sense.
Within one thirty-six hour span I go to the airport four times, all of us dispersing back to the unceasing demands of a life that moves in only one direction. Chauffeuring is something to do, to keep me occupied as my parents’ house slowly empties. I am the last to leave, departing back to Oakland, leaving behind a mountain of sheets to be washed and the wailing of their plumbing for the distractions of work and stand-up comedy gigs and bills to be paid. It all feels even more unreal from thousands of miles away, and it is too easy to believe it never even happened. Days later I play Lady Gaga at absurd volume across the Bay Bridge and try to crowd out the tears in my head, but she is less effective than booze and family and the song ends too soon.
The tears never come, anyway, dammed up by unrelenting disbelief.
Memories peek into my life now from so many unexpected places. A Phil Collins song plays and I remember joking about it two Christmases ago; “Titanic” is on television at a friend’s house and with a jolt I recall seeing it in the theaters with David more than a decade ago, my grandmother taking us both in her maroon Oldsmobile. These have been unconsidered memories for so long, piling up in my brain without reflection, but now that their collection has been so abruptly foreshortened I cling to them; they have lain dormant in my gray matter for years, shuttered and unspectacular, and suddenly three time zones away from where I grew up with my cousin they are all that is left.
Six months later I am transferring numbers into a new phone, culling old friends — fallen away now — and I am blindsided at the letter “D”, tears welling up backstage at an open mic, and against all rational thought I put David’s number into my new phone because anything else would be a betrayal.
It would’ve been a fun trip home, under different circumstances, but under different circumstances we might not have all been so determined to have fun.
I am, like so many other members of my family, a terrible judge of time. If it can be held and touched I can measure and analyze and understand but when it comes to the fourth dimension I am strangely disabled, pathologically tardy, incapable of proper judgment or perception. Music lives in that incomprehensible space, transient, evanescent, and despite the best efforts of man to suspend time and hold onto these sounds still they fall forward into the ether.
It is like life in that way, music is, and just like life it cannot go on forever. There is much about music that is a mystery to me, but this much I can understand; these are impermanent things, fading from the earth in time, disappearing to unseen places, but when I close my eyes I can still recall the peculiar notes struck by water rushing through my parents’ pipes and the particular cadence of David’s voice, and these lush sounds are more than all the words I’ve ever put together.
His birthday is (was? is?) two weeks after the funeral. Twenty-three years old today, if only I knew where to send the card.