Just before Halloween, I began to run a game for several friends about teenagers, but teenagers that just happen to be monsters. The game is designed to explore the volatile nature of teenage emotions and obsessions more so than serve as any sort of supernatural escapism. One of the characters has an ability that forces them to admit to a secret weakness or a happy memory of a sibling, in exchange for another character having to tell them about their relationship with death.
This is a blog about my relationship with death.
Up until Friday 13th November, it had been a good month. I got married last year in November, and so the first week was spent in Ireland in the run up to our first anniversary. We had a great time over there, and I summed it up as being a week largely about tea and babies (if only because we don't drink tea at home, and don't have a baby, and yet on this trip we met our new baby niece, our London-based friends with a baby whose trip over coincided with our own and, as is usual, I was offered frequent cups of tea).
I was trying to finish off a document I'd been writing for a while, a short game played with a deck of cards, called Curtain Call. It's about friends lost somewhere between dream and reality, life and death. I finished it and emailed it off on the Tuesday, a few days before the events of Friday night.
The news about what had happened in Paris was shocking. Before this year I'd never been to Paris. We'd visited early in the year, on a mini-honeymoon, and I loved the place. Much like our proper honeymoon in September, to New York, I found myself in a place full of iconic landmarks, places that were reassuringly familiar and yet were slightly magical as they'd only ever existed in magazines, on TV shows or in films before now, beforeI found myself standing in the streets, staring up at them (or found myself high up on one of those landmarks, staring down at the streets). The Charlie Hebdoe attacks had happened a little while before, so there was some tension, but you always assume that those things are in the past, and the chances are slim that they would happen again or, at the very least, that they would happen right here, right now. And indeed, nothing happened whilst we were there. Nothing happened for many months.
When it did happen it was no longer such a distant place. I had some emotional connection to it. And yet it seems terrible that, to all intents and purposes, these events struck harder than, for example, those killed by bombing in Syria, or by genocide in Africa. The brain understands simple mathematics, of course. Hundreds of deaths are more terrible than a handful of deaths, which in turn is more terrible than one. Yet it's never really simple mathematics that determine how you feel about a tragedy. It's distance. Or rather how close you are..
Last weekend a friend of mine died.
I only found out on the Monday evening, and it didn't really hit hard til the following day, but still, there were emotional ties there that made me so much more closely consider death, and the finality of existence, than perhaps the death of countless strangers had. And it's odd, because this is a person I'd never met. But my friend David was someone I'd talked to a lot online over the last ten years or so, as I'd discovered him whilst researching something we had a common interest in, we'd both read each others work (although, admittedly, he has an extensive back catalogue of published material whereas I have, so far, something in a small press publication, a haiku that won a prize and a letter in Kerrang). He also introduced to a few other people who I'm friends with on Facebook. Still, it feels a little weird having such a strong emotional connection with someone I've not directly met.
Nevertheless, if I was to look back over the years at my relationship with death, maybe it's not altogether odd. I have to admit to having had a somewhat unconventional understanding of death since I was a kid, because my father's parents were spiritualists. They went to a spiritual church, and they spoke to people who were dead. I grew up believing this to be fact and, though I never experienced a church meeting myself, always had a fascination with things unseen, the idea that there's something just beyond this world. I always assumed that, upon their deaths, the spirits of my grandparents might sense my ceaseless curiosity and appear to me, to confirm that, look, we're still here. They never did, although there's a few interesting transcripts of spirit mediums passing on messages from beyond that appeared in a small press publication of their life stories and poetry. Regardless of how I feel about that those early years shaped my relationship with death.
By the time they had died I was also a keen reader, and somewhat fascinated by quotes and aphorisms, the wisdom of poets and thinkers who'd been around longer than me and, in many cases, already died, that wisdom distilled into a one or two line soundbite. There's a quote by poet (and clergyman) Henry Scott Holland that reads "Death is nothing at all, I have only slipped into the next room" which I always took to heart. It's a metaphor that can be interpreted in many ways but, in reality, it's clear that those who pass through the door don't come wandering back to check up on us. That's what makes death so difficult to deal with. Someone has left the room, and they're never coming back to the party. Sometimes it's just those left behind who are lost for a moment, having not had time to say things they wanted to say, or just feeling that crushing absence of someone who played a big part of their life. Sometimes you feel bad for the person who left, as it was clearly not their time, and they clearly had concerns of their own. You can only feel a sense of anguish over what their last thoughts may be.
My grandmother, I know, felt her journey was at an end, and was ready to go onto that next room. She died in 2001. My grandfather died in 2003; those final years were clearly difficult, for him and those immediately around him. I felt sad, of course, that I would never see them again, but in many ways I was young and could not appreciate the weight of years they'd carried, nor the burden that fell upon the generation in between. My grandparents lived a fair distance away, and the distance of years between me and them also meant that sometimes I felt I didn't know them that well, certainly not to the extent I know, for example, my parents. And, of course, I knew that they knew they were going on to a better place. There were at peace.
However, there was another death that occurred when I was younger that resonated a little more. I'm sorry to say I can't remember his name, but as a child there was a Dutch boy I would occasionally see and play with, through friends of my Dutch mother. I didn't really speak Dutch, and he didn't really speak English, but I remember him being interested in some of the books I'd bring around, illustrated game manuals usually. Kids don't need to speak the same language to play, of course.
One day my mother told me he'd died. It was, apparently, suicide. He'd drunk acid of some type, that had killed him over a matter of days I think, rather than hours. And the idea horrified me. Not simply the idea of the death being as painful as it sounded, but knowing that he'd decided to end it all and, having made the decision, continued to walk around knowing that he was going to die. Seeing the faces of those around him, and knowing that soon he would be dead and that they would have to pick up the pieces. Wondering how terrible must a life be to want to end it, and how much more terrible it must have been to spend painful hours doing so, perhaps with regret.
It was soul-crushing.
I'd found my own childhood quite lonely, because I was pretty introvert. On the plus side I lived at home with two parents, two sisters and a varying number of cats, so I was pretty grounded emotionally. When I moved out I probably experienced the most lonely periods of my life. I'd never had a girlfriend until I was in my 20s, and I didn't really retain many friends from my school days, so whilst I made friends over the years I often went out alone, and often came home alone, and often felt crushed, broken, in pieces (although I was a goth, and that's possibly par for the course). I'd feel depressed, and there'd be nights where I'd find myself crying in the mirror, hoping that I could go to sleep and never have to wake up to face the aftermath. There were never suicidal thoughts as such, because I knew that there were people out there that cared for me, and that my death would weigh heavy on them, but I sometimes wished that I could maybe not have to worry about the 'terrible things' in my life, and not have to be worry about the responsibility for that decision. But, inevitably, I'd wake up next morning, pick myself up, and start again.
At some stage in my past I'd begun writing journals and writing bad angsty poetry. But, with my love of other people's writings (and my new found appreciation of goth night clubs) it was soon quite apparent that this was not something I alone experienced. The same miserable lonely experiences resonated across countless generations. On the other hand, as heart breakingly sad as I knew life could be those words also promised much more exciting and beautiful experiences. As you grow up you learn that bad things happen. But you pick yourself up and start again.
Friends came and went. Relationships came and went. Experiences came and went. There were maybe a few constants. There were two friends from art school who I'd kept in contact with for a while. Andy was a guy who was always confident and funny, great at design and into his martial arts. Around the time I was first living alone he joined me for a New Year's bash at the local pub, on Edgware Road, but eventually we stopped catching up with each other. Chris was sillier, a bit more like myself perhaps, but someone who I'd shared similar tastes in with music and had sometimes gone to play games with. We shared in jokes that were no more elaborate than a word or phrase (like 'octopi' or 'Green Park') said in an amusing manner, or would quote Ren and Stimpy cartoons. Ultimately Chris was the only person I regularly kept in contact with, though after a few years of me living in London he'd up and left the country to live in Cambodia. He'd fly back every once in a while, but he'd usually be at 'home' abroad, teaching English, and taking incredible pictures.
We kept in contact on Facebook, but gradually the messages grew less frequent. There was a moment just under ten years ago when I had an accident on my bike, suffering concussion and being battered and bruised, spending a long time recovering and lying in bed and just thinking. Chris had had something similar occur, a mugging where he'd been wrenched off a bike I think, though it was something I only learnt of later when relaying my own story. I'd not seen him for a good while when I invited him to be my best man at my (first) wedding. He said he was honoured and would get back to me, and dragged his feet a while until I suggested that, if it was going to be a problem I could find someone else, and he admitted that it might be a problem, but he hadn't wanted to let me down. But that was cool. Still, I came to terms that he was pretty much based in Cambodia now, and I probably wouldn't see so much of him.
It was around December 2013 that I was on a coach passing the pub on Edgware Road when I thought about the New Year's Eve spent there, and about trying to contact Andy on Facebook. I naturally sought out our mutual friend, Chris, only to find messages of condolence. I found out that he'd died in May 2012.
I felt immediately terrible, because he had been the friend I'd had longest, close enough for him to be my first consideration for a best man, but I felt terrible too for having not tried to contact him in well over a year, his death having completely passed me by.
And then I scanned back past the messages, to find out what he'd last posted, to try to get an inkling into what had happened, for amongst the messages there were some people asking why, but which seemed to have a greater idea about what had happened. I found four YouTube uploads from three days before he'd died, of tracks that sounded sad and ethereal, and a profile pic change to traces of car lights into the distance in the night, and wondered if his death was something that had been planned, if it was something he saw as inevitable. Further checks through the many many posts left on his wall, some from fellow British expats, but so many from students he'd taught over the years revealed how much he was loved. There were simple messages mixed with stories of how Chris had been talking about coming back to London for a visit soon, mixed with longer stories, and as I read those that recounted the memory of Chris being somewhat of a quiet guy, sitting in the corner, but then liable to come out with the silliest things once he was comfortable enough with your presence I realised he was more like me than I ever realised when he was alive.
I left my own message on the wall when I found out, and added a second after I'd had a day to let it sink in, whilst the tears were still flowing...
"It's been a really miserable 24 hours since I found out. But I've loved reading back through this page, seeing how Chris touched so many people with his... well... his ability to be Chris. His silly sense of humour especially.
A human life isn't quite like a light-bulb - when the light goes out you can't get a replacement. Everyone lights up a room in their own unique way. And no-one will ever light up a room quite the same way Chris did.
I wish you'd made that trip back to London. I'm really going to miss never seeing you again, or hearing your voice. X"
And I guess that's what you realise when someone dies. That there's not just that one relationship you had with a person, there's those many connections, all unique, that other people had with them, and those connections sometimes tell you a little about your own relationship, reminding you of what that person was like or perhaps why you were friends. That moment when you start to see yourself in some of the descriptions of your friend are when it feels all the more sad, knowing that there was that common element, and yet you weren't there for them when they needed someone.
I was never too clear on whether Chris planned to take his own life, but he died from a combination of medication and alcohol, both which I believe were combating depression. Two of the last things he posted were quotes about the world, one by Oscar Wilde, about the world when viewed when drinking absinthe (containing the line "Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world") and one by Hermann Hesse (“Whoever wants music instead of noise, joy instead of pleasure, soul instead of gold, creative work instead of business, passion instead of foolery, finds no home in this trivial world of ours”) and I can only imagine that he had had enough, or suffered enough, that the things he felt were truly of importance weren't there to be had.
I can only hope he drifted away peacefully. Regardless, listening to the last few tunes he posted, all instrumental pieces with titles like 'What Heaven Allows' and 'Shining Through', has me imagining him drifting off to sleep, never to awake.
Learning of David's death, this week, has been something of a reminder of Chris's death. In part it's because we only really spoke over the internet, and I only ever saw his world through the series of pictures he took of friends and locations around the world. But where Chris was often quiet on Facebook, David's life came to life for me through it and his Blog - with regular updates of what he was up to, getting up early in the morning with a cup of coffee, watching the sun rise as he completed a chapter of his latest book, or visiting friends abroad, sharing a drink. Playing Fury of Dracula with his friends. Running the game Yellow Dawn that he wrote, based on the Call of Cthulhu game but mixing in a healthy does of zombie-ravaged post apocalyptic landscape and techno thriller, and, to my delight, writing up a blog entry about a scenario I'd written, which he'd run as a Yellow Dawn adventure. Posts about recent leaps in science that felt slightly cyberpunky, or to art that he found inspiring, or music that he found cool. I was never directly in his life, and yet it felt like I was able to dip into it, like I was a fly on the wall, one that he never felt the need to swat away.
Discovering he had died was a shock because he'd always seemed like he was enjoying life to the fullest. He'd inspired me not only at a distance but through directly enthusing about some of the stuff I'd sent his way, and so I felt there was that cerebral connection. And, much like Chris, who'd been a year old than me (plus a couple of weeks), Dave had been four years older than me (exactly four years, as we share the same birthday). So, whilst there was some distance there - I never made the trip to Bristol I'd hoped to be able to make, and he never made it to my 40th birthday in London, although he'd considered making the trip up - it genuinely felt like he was part of my life. Indeed, he's been someone I've chatted online with fairly regularly online with for around ten years. That's longer than I've known the close friends I regularly meet in London.
I've heard the details of what was going on in David's life from one of the people he introduced me to online (just to confuse matters his name is also Chris) and, again, it's crushingly sad. I've heard not a small number of friends recently admit to anxiety and depression online - David, although I never knew of it from his posts online, and the wealth of material he was putting out into the world, was suffering pretty badly. And, in the end, it was too much. I can only imagine what he was feeling.
Much like Chris, again, it's great to see a wall of posts by the people who knew him better than me, the stories that people have of their first meetings and the real sense of character he had that I never got to see, and I'll always regret not having made more of an effort to travel down to Bristol to have that first encounter of my own. I can't find my earliest messages to him, as they were via a now defunct email account, but I first contacted him about his Yellow Dawn game when I was scouring the internet for material to put on my King in Yellow wiki, and he was generous in sending me a copy of the 1st edition. One of the last exchanges on Facebook Messenger was for a scenario I had offered to write for the game, and after coming up with the idea him messaging an enthusiastic "Yes! Yes! Yes! That's it!"
I never got to see him, so I never got to tell him how much of an inspiration he was, even if I've largely failed to use that inspiration and wrestle it into a successful series of books as he was able to do. David, I admired your attitude to just going out there with your creation and continuing to push it out there, and for showing me an adventurous lifestyle that I was able to live through reading your posts. I loved the way you made every post feel like a personal message, as you slid in on a light beam to share a few words, or an observation, and then zoomed back out again. The actual online conversations we had were great too, and I only wish I'd followed up on some of the things sooner. You'll be greatly missed, but never forgotten.
So. Death, when it comes, looms closest when it strikes those you feel closest to. When it takes those who are strangers, even in a tragedy that takes countless lives, it is a vague shadow, a terrible presence but, like the Paris and New York I know from the screen, somehow unreal. When it pulls away a person who is so closely connected to you, you feel it pulling at your very heart strings. I can't mention the death of friends without mentioning the death last year of someone that many friends took to heart - Terry Pratchett. So many of us connected with the man, who wrote words in fiction that resonated so closely as to mean much more than simple fact does. Whenever I think of the impact his death had on me I feel that, unlike most of the people the world over, Sir Terry was someone who got under my skin. He got inside my head, he shaped my very imagination, in many ways he helped make me who I am today. As any true friend does. With Sir Terry I felt loss at a great mind, but there was some comfort in knowing he'd come so far on his long journey, that he'd done all he felt he could do, and was ready to go. And his legacy was to leave us so many guidebooks to show us points of interest along the way. Some of my friends, it feels, took a shortcut, and maybe didn't get to see all the world has to offer, nor did the world get to see all they had to offer. And the world is all the poorer for it.
As I quoted around the time of Sir Terry's death: “No more words. We know them all, all the words that should not be said. But you have made my world more perfect.”
Thank you, Terry Pratchett. Thank you, Chris. Thank you, David. I can only hope to make other people's lives more perfect in my own way.
The video below is a sad tune I've been listening to over the last week. There have been a few, but this one simply has some sad music, over which a voice over finally talks to us a little, about loss, about grief, about what we think we know. But if you've lost someone recently, it might just break your heart.