people we know who died

I spent a day last summer in the wild overgrown annex to the botanic garden outside Chicago with a friend who needed assistance planting the small legumes that grew into his now-completed plant biology master’s thesis. There were four of us, two men and two women. Both women were named Erin. We broke one of our cheap shovels shortly into the planting, and other Erin drove to Lowe’s to replace it. The two men who are my friends and I stood in the woods and talked. I practiced mountain pose standing on a squat cement cylinder in the gravel road.

I don’t remember how we started talking about people we know who died, but I keep remembering that conversation. It wasn’t anyone very close to us, just people we’d maybe gone to parties with, seen around our college campuses. People who’d dated people we wanted to date, before we’d met them. People who’d come close, by accident or disease. Mostly, I listened. I smelled dirt and thought about a time when I’ll no longer be alive to smell the dirt and stand with a straight line down my spine under some trees. It’s a hard concept to put your mind around.

Two weeks ago when I woke up and checked Twitter, I had an @-reply from someone whose handle I knew from my Kickstarter project. Her friend had been excited to order a custom poem from my project, and I’d been delighted by his excitement. She said to look at her timeline for info about this friend. There wasn’t much info, just worry; lots of @-replies inquiring if anyone had seen him, and then a pause, and then this loss. Reviewing my @-replies now, that exchange came just after a deluge of congratulations on my engagement. What a juxtaposition. And I have to write a poem for someone who died, whom I almost knew, to send to his friends, who asked that I do it, and I don’t even know the right way to tell them I’m so sorry, your hearts must hurt unbearably, I wish I could send you a portion of my own happiness if it could make up for this impossible thing.

A phrase I’ve long tried to measure my life against is ”radical empathy.” Empathy even for people you’ll never meet, even for people you probably wouldn’t like, even for people whose humanity you might hardly recognize if you did encounter them, across barriers of language or culture or illness or any strangeness that can come between one human and another. I don’t think I’m succeeding at it, because I’m at a loss for what I’d need if I was that group of friends. There should be something I could say, a spell almost, but really I know it just takes time, and it’s just upsetting to know there’s nothing you can do but take time.

This week someone I know died, young and in his sleep. I looked at his fiancée’s Facebook just now, where the last post came from him before her announcement and all the sympathy messages began. He’d been posting things to decorate the home they’d have together. Which must be heartbreaking all over again: his name and his picture and a link to buy some pillows.

I wonder whether I’m bad at grieving from a lack of experience, or an inherent tendency to overintellectualize everything into tiny useless component pieces, or a reliance on the internet to catalog where I’ve been and what I’ve done and seen. Also there’s a larger cultural defiance of death; maybe we’re all bad at grieving together. Even talking about it on that one nice day in the woods, safe, with close friends, felt a little like ripping off a bandage.

Talking about things that are beyond ordinary language is a great strength of poetry. Whenever I hear of a death, I think of some line or another from Musée des Beaux Arts, which I once analyzed for a paper in comparison with the William Carlos Williams poem on the same subject. The Auden keeps coming back to me because it walks some crucial line of radical empathy. It’s that spell I need for saying: It takes time to understand this. Rereading it places me in the correct “human position” in relation to all those “someone else”s who don’t know one way or another. (A friend I drank beers with last night shared the dead person’s first name. He didn’t know; how could he know?)

Every life runs its course “anyhow in a corner.” We all make the most spectacular things we can in our own small orbits. I don’t know what else there is; it seems the best we can do is try to be kind while we’re around each other. (There’s one more poem I often think of, along these lines. “The new absence is always the same.”)