Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Things practiced: dumb solipsism, self-indulgence, big ball of regret

My first memories of death were of my mother’s mother, then my father’s mother. In Chinese culture there are strictly-defined rites around death and mourning: the son breaks a vessel into a thousand pieces to proclaim his grief, the children compete to see who can weep most deeply. Though juvenile and emotionally untutored I recognized the benefit then: it gives the bereft something to do.

I learned grief as a teenager, when a dear friend killed himself — except I learned it improperly, kept my thoughts to myself, and placated my restless brain by letting it systematically dismantle all the relationships I’d had. I convinced myself I was back to normal while growing gradually more mad; time passed, and I left as soon as I could.

Which is to say: I’ve mostly dealt with grim things by placing them in a box and running away at full speed. This has gotten me good at inconsequential things like brain dissection and numerical analysis but bad at handling emotional complexity.

So maybe I can start by writing something down.


Aimee was the one who taught me that even though our earliest experiences teach us who we are, the determined can transcend.

I was raped three times pre-adulthood, by people I knew: a cousin, a friend, a housemate. Aimee was raped many more times than that, by a man who was closer and less escapable. She fought back where I did not; she talked about it but I did not, not even to her — not because it was painful but because my experiences seemed pretty normal and I didn’t want to cheapen her experience, which had been abnormally brutal and cruel, by diluting it with mine.

When I was raped I discarded certain assumptions I had held about how the world worked and about how safe I was. But Aimee saw her trauma as a tiny obstacle to be cleared, and once cleared an affirmation of her strength. She always had a sense of the possible, which was admirable, and incredible.

What’s always seemed problematic is that the brave die, and yet we cowardly ones are still here.


Driving through Los Angeles, the landmarks I know best are still the ones from Aimee’s convalescence: hospital, hospital, pharmacy, cancer clinic; the readiest memories still those of sitting in freezing waiting rooms producing the insurance cards, putting them away, filling out paper forms, ad infinitum, uselessly, helplessly.

Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise that she was able to handle imminent expectation of death with grace and love and courage and personal sacrifice — but I was always surprised: at the equanimity with which she lost her long hair which she’d so prized, at her tolerance for pain, at her unflinching will to face hard truths.

Had there been a moment when she was afraid to die? I wasn’t willing to ask.

The problem is, as much as you’d like to, you can’t actually take someone else’s weakness or pain or fear.


There’s a time when you expect your life to always be full of new and shiny things, and there’s a day you realize that’s not how it’ll be at all. That what life really becomes is a thing made of losses, of prized things that were there and aren’t any more.

Grief is so uninteresting, I know; I can look at myself and scoff. I want people around me, I dread the moments of solitude; then I bore everyone until they leave, or talk nonsense about the fungibility of time, tradeoffs, undoing. The madness is fading somewhat but clarity doesn’t take its place.

I promised to protect her, she told me I could not. In the end she was right.