So word by word, and line by line
The dead man touch'd me from the past
And all at once it seem'd at last
His living soul was flash'd on mine.
--"In Memoriam," Alfred Lord Tennyson
When I was 22, I taught for a year at New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn. There, in my 9th grade English class, I met Vincent, a lanky and sometimes cranky boy with piercing dark eyes and a lock of hair that just wouldn't stay out of his face. During that year, Vincent and I became friendly. I was closer in age to him than to most of my fellow teachers, while he was intrigued that I lived in Greenwich Village and had gone to college right outside San Francisco in Berkeley-both locales, in his estimation, being slightly more desirable than Nirvana.
At the end of the school year, I moved on, and, except for one brief visit Vincent made to my apartment, I never saw him again. A few years later, his Christmas cards started coming, never saying much, except "Dear Elizabeth" above the printed message, and "Love, Vincent" below. Only the postmark told me he had made it to San Francisco.
And so it went for the next 25 years. Vincent never missed a Christmas, and neither did I.
Then one chilly March day, several years ago a box arrived at my front door. In it was a letter from Vincent that began, "Dear Elizabeth, You must be wondering why I left you my diaries in my will." Inside the box were Vincent's diaries-3500 pages written over ten years. Only by turning to the final pages did I learn he had died of AIDS. Now, according to the rest of his note to me, he wanted me to read his diaries and write about him, about his life. The dizzying fact to me at that very moment was that here was a living man telling me he was dead, and here was a dead man telling me he would "always" regret not seeing me one last time.
It was a charged moment in which the boundaries separating life and death seemed to collapse. And that was how I began my relationship with a dead man, a relationship, I should add, that I did not feel equipped for at all
. Perhaps like many of us, my relations with the dead had never been very good. When people close to me had died-my grandmother whom I loved unambivalently, and my father whom I did not- my feelings blanched and wilted under a heavy rock of numbness.
Though I had been close to my grandmother and angry at my father, after they died, I couldn't remember either one of them with animation. At night when I dreamed of them, they were flat and listless. So how, I wondered, could I write about Vincent, a man I'd never met as an adult. I didn't know the sound of his voice or laugh, or how he walked, or whether he was early, on time, or late when he had an appointment.
And now he was dead.
Slowly, though, the question of how to reach Vincent began to be answered by Vincent himself through his journals. As a gay man living his life during the plague years of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, Vincent, too, had had to reckon with how he remembered the dead-like his good friends, Ronny and Eddy-and even how, soon to be dead himself, he could encourage others, like me, to remember him.
Reading his diary, I saw that over time Vincent had became more adroit at mourning, not evading it, but moving through it to some new terrain. When Ronny died, in 1986 two years into his diary, Vincent went flat and numb. He couldn't cry. His only reaction to the funeral service for Ronny was that it was "nice." Eventually, he developed a psychosomatic symptom-aptly enough, a clogged tear duct.
But when Eddy died, in 1994, Vincent's mourning was much more effective. He cried. He talked to friends about his feelings. And if he needed to, he talked to them again the next day, and permitted himself to do so without censure. He took photographs offered to him by Eddy's father. And, finally, in an act of personal memorialization, he went to eat dinner at Eddy's favorite restaurant.
As I watched him through his journals, something began to happen in me, giving footing to the overwhelming flash I had experienced when I first read his letter to me. First, I began to have feelings
about Vincent, varied feelings that evolved over time as I got to know him better. Soon, somehow or other, he had metamorphosed from a wooden teenage Pinocchio in my emotional attic to a vivid manly hologram alive inside my mind. As he became more textured and complex to me, I understood that I had come to know him through an act of imagination--the same kind of imagination that not only keeps those we love close to us when they're away, but that lets us know, and engage with beloved characters in literature. Or even with God.