I remember the last time I saw him, in a bar in June when the air was thick and my mind was on other things. He had just gotten a haircut and was telling me about his plans for the summer, about going to Chile, a place that meant a great deal to me and so I leaned in against the noise around us to talk to him about it, standing up on the toes of my sandals and breathing him in. The bar was loud and the conversation was brief—we hugged at the end because he had just graduated and would be off, would be gone, would be away from this place. I sensed it might be the last time I would see him, but I thought it was because he had taken a job in Virginia and I was still in school, not because there would be water that was too cold and a boat that was too small and that heart of his that was too big, too brave.
The moment you find out someone has died and the moments that follow it are strange, and progress in distinct stages. It goes slowly at first, whole minutes go by where you are unable to process what you have heard, where you think that if you blink enough times or shake it off that you’ll be back at the kitchen table with your friends having a normal Friday night. There is this wanting to get back to that place of normalcy, of before in a desperate, grasping way. But after those first interminable minutes, everything happens fast, suddenly you are crying and calling people, suddenly the entire world around you has become the absence of this person. The life you were living before, just moments before, has changed completely, and you can’t get it back.
There’s this thing people say about grief, about how it comes in waves, about how you feel it with the force of a thousand pounds on your chest at certain moments and then at others you can allow it to blur so much that it feels as though nothing has actually happened. I think we feel grief like this because if it was constant, if it was real and heavy all the time we would not survive it, but if we are allowed even brief moments of forgetting, brief moments of relief, we may eventually be able to go on. But each time you gingerly bring yourself to stand again, and each time you realize with a crashing, dizzying sensation that you weren’t imagining things, that you weren’t wrong, you are knocked back down with a force that has not at all diminished.
In the days after Tyler died, I experienced these powerful waves of grief, but a strange, eerie guilt crept in alongside it. I had not known him well enough to cry the way I was crying, to ache the way I was aching. I felt self-conscious in my sadness, like at any moment someone would call me out for trying to involve myself in a death I had no right to be a part of.
To whom to the dead belong? To those who knew them best, who loved them most? Or to every person whose lives they touched, to everyone whose paths they ever crossed? Did I have the right to this grief, the right to his memory?
In all his twenty-three years, into which he seemed to stuff more life than most people knew how, I only figured into a small portion of moments, a handful, a drop in the bucket. Was I allowed to sit on the side of my bed, soaked from the rain, and cry so hard I couldn’t breathe? Did I have the right? Even though the memories of mine that contain him are bright and real and three-dimensional, they are not the memories of a family member or a best friend. They are of someone who knew him briefly, and only that. What right did I have to grieve so viscerally, to miss him with a sharp, stabbing ache that felt permanently lodged between my ribs?
I wasn’t crying because I had lost him, I was crying because the world had, crying because the space he had left behind was so vast, so palpable, that I think when he was gone everyone who had ever met him could feel it in their chest. I was crying because in that space left behind were all the people who never got to meet him, the people who would have filled the rest of the life he didn’t get to live. I seemed to somehow take on the grief of people who would never even know they were heartbroken, who would live out their days never knowing they could have met him. Tyler was unlike anyone I have ever known, this glowing, vivid, unforgettable spirit that seemed to have life and happiness figured out in a way most people never get to. He was thoughtful and giving and kind and brave and the kind of person who you could spend an eight-day backpacking trip plus a handful of other moments with and be affected for the rest of your life.
Sometimes we have to invent ways to hold onto people. For days after he died and even sometimes still, when I look up and see sunlight streaming through the trees into my eyes, I tell myself it’s him, I can almost feel his warmth, almost hear the rumble of his laugh, almost see his deep, brown eyes crinkled into a smile. I have made this up to tell myself, made this up as a way to hold on to him, to hold on to him in a way I couldn’t when he was alive. He is more mine in his death than he was in his life, and the strangeness of that is sometimes striking and uncomfortable. But it is fitting, I think, that he would leave behind all these people, maybe even people he met for five minutes, who would try to hold on to him in some small way after he was gone. It was who he was in life, and it is who he is still.
The most powerful way people we’ve lost persist is not through the preservation of the memories they inhabit, but through the evocation of their aura in present action. I think of him now when I feel my perspective has grown too narrow, when I have become too focused on little things, on things that don’t matter, on negatives or irritations or pettiness. I think of him, I think of the vastness of his soul, I think of the way he looked at the world for as long it was lucky enough to have him, and I am reminded of the way I want to live my life, of the way he lived his. And even though I knew him fleetingly, I count myself lucky to have known him at all, to have witnessed the brightness, the fullness, that it is possible for a human being to embody. I call on him, soaring around up there somewhere, to be with me when I need to be brave, or generous, or strong, or mindful, and his spirit seems to reverberate infinitely throughout the universe.
For Tyler Lorenzi, 1987-2011