2020-04-29
Adapted from "A Boy I Once Knew." Used with permission.

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.

As I looked around me, I saw that others like me were engaged in efforts to make or keep their ongoing relationships with the dead alive and supple. But this territory beyond grief was so uncharted that it didn't even have a name.

One of those looking around was my friend, Donna Bassin whose younger sister died when she was a child of 7 or 8, leaving Donna with a persistent interest in mourning and memorializing. As an adult, Donna became a psychologist and psychoanalyst, adding another perspective to her interest.

In Donna's view, mourners, at least those who had mastered the process of grieving and moving beyond it, found ways to convert, rather than curtail, their relationships with the dead person. They could infuse their emotions for the person they loved into new activities that summoned a fullness of feeling. This redirection of emotions was a living act of memorial. Maybe that's what Donna herself was doing through her intellectual interests. And maybe in writing about Vincent I was, in part, reckoning with my own losses, renegotiating my relations with my grandmother and my father out of the corner of my eye.

Donna found what she was looking for in Mexico on several trips that coincided with The Day of the Dead (Nov. 2). On her last visit, while she strolled through a cemetery, she stopped to chat with a plump middle-aged woman who was sitting on a folding chair in the middle of a cemetery plot (her mother's as it turned out) watching the Mexican equivalent of "Dallas" on her tiny battery-run television.

"This was Mama's favorite program," the woman explained, gesturing in the direction of the TV, which she had nestled in the grotto of her mother's headstone.

"Do you think your mother is watching the program with you?" Donna asked.

"I don't think she can actually hear this broadcast," she said after a brief pause, "but watching it here makes me feel like she's with me."

Does staying connected to the dead mean doing something tangible? For many, it seems so. Recently, my mother remarked that everyone she knew was either dead or in Florida. Her phrasing made me think about how some people do treat death as if it were a state somewhere near Florida. This was most striking to me in the "In Memoriam" section of the New York Times where every day four or five people write the equivalent of wish-you-were-here postcards to the dead. Today, I found one that said "Dear Mom, I will always love you and treasure your memory. " It was signed, "Your Son, Robbie.

Meanwhile in cyberspace, there are literally thousands of individual web memorial pages as well as memorial web rings. Most poignant is the political and social activism initiated by mothers whose children have died tragically-Megan's Law, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and more. And clearly there is an audience for all those movies in which a living person has an ongoing relationship with a well-loved dead person. Many of these movies are comedies, not horror films, and the source of the humor is that only the living person can see this friendly ghost, which, at least metaphorically, is accurate.

In this way, my friend Joanne seems to feel, if not actually see, the presence of her mother who died suddenly one night 20 years ago shortly after leaving a party at Joanne's apartment. "She's still with me," Joanne told me. "I still have conversations with her every day."

And it isn't only her mother. "I always take a little piece of everyone with me, and it's always a physical gesture," she explained. "I hang up clothes on the line exactly the way my mother did and every time I do, I think of her." From others, living and dead, she has taken the way she sweeps a floor, ties a scarf, arranges flowers. All small gestures, but all gestures that furnish daily life. "I always feel everyone I love is with me," she said.

I understood for the first time what all those people who so profoundly feel that the dead are somehow right there with them base their convictions on something more visceral than visual. When Joanne hung her clothes or Vincent sat in Eddy's favorite restaurant, or the Mexican lady watched her tiny TV in the graveyard, they were summoning their dead.

I have noticed that these days on highways and at other sites where deaths have occurred, there are many more outdoor shrines than I recall seeing in the past, many carefully maintained, decorated with balloons or flowers or soccer balls. Perhaps this influx of practices and perspectives brought to us from other cultures will, over time, expand our own narrow focus on grief, allowing it to include the recognition that after we travel the terrain of loss, there is another realm, one smoother and more gratifying, that lies someplace beyond.

Vincent himself believed in a realm beyond death, and in the connections between the living and the dead with far more certainty than I ever did. I've now come to believe that in leaving his skeptical English teacher his diaries, Vincent knew he was reaching from one realm to another, showing me, word after word and day after day, that a relationship between two people can change and develop, even after one of them is gone.

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