You are responsible for some of my earliest memories. Not earliest, I suppose—we didn’t meet until I was seven years old. Still, the memories feel primordial: they feel like they coincide with the genesis of my being.
Playing in New Mexico, I remember vast expanses of hills and trees, valleys into which we would look from rocky ridges, fields of cattails. In these fields, I remember swinging sticks that we had found, knocking down the cattails and pretending they were our enemies. I remember playing numerous video games: anything on the N64, Super Mario, Mario Kart, lots and lots of Star Fox. I remember watching SpongeBob.
When I stayed over, we would sometimes turn your bed into a makeshift stage, peeping out from beneath the covers as characters, enacting plays in which we would get lost, be consumed by evil creatures, save each other. This dynamic of saving each other sometimes continued in our dreams: in one instance, I remember our sharing a dream in which we would swordfight monsters as we ascended the levels of a mysterious tower, culminating which we would compete with a flying dragon on the tower’s roof. At the end of this dream, I would always fall off the tower and you would be left to beat the dragon alone; given how many times this had happened to us, I remember asking you, “How does the dream end?”
You were my best friend, and though we annoyed the hell out of our parents, we invented our own world of silliness, heroism, and chaos. Too, I think we shared the quiet rumblings of personal lives we didn’t understand: our parents’ divorces, our senses of ourselves as people there was something wrong with, people who would later struggle to fit in. Those nights in your bed, I think we hid and commiserated—at least on a psychic level—as well as played.
I remember when I became conscious of social dynamics, and it seemed that you hadn’t. Middle school. My academic mind was revving to get in gear, and it seemed that yours wasn’t. With puberty, I was starting to notice women, and I was starting to become attracted to them; again, it seemed that this wasn’t happening for you. You remained the insane, inventive, goofy person I had always known, the theatrical one, the one as openly attached to his mother at twelve as you had been when we first met.
In this phase of our lives, I became embarrassed to be around you. Not only was it damaging to me academically—our teachers stigmatized you—it was damaging to me socially: I was trying to fit in with people who were beginning to have experiences you and I had never shared, experiences involving drugs and sexuality, and I could see that you weren’t going there. You were still speaking in our unique, invented tongues, still traipsing around the classroom in your own gait, beckoning the ire of teachers. One day I came home and told my mom, “I don’t want to be his friend anymore.”
Fortunately, this problem was taken care of for me when we transitioned to high school: I got into a top private school in our area, and you didn’t. In fact, I’m not even sure you applied. If not, your parents would have known you couldn’t get in, and saved both you and them the trouble. Nothing wrong with this—it’s just a separation that we experienced, a time when I went one way, and you didn’t.
In high school, I spent a lot of time trying to fit in with people who were very different from you and me, from how we’d been when young. Not only were these people doing drugs and having sex—or at least, they were pretending they were—they also valued things very different from what we had valued, things like sports, rap music, having a cool car, saving money. I couldn’t imagine your getting hip to these things in the way I felt I could, couldn’t imagine your even understanding or caring. We drifted apart. With your being at a different school, I don’t remember hanging out after 7th grade. I became invested in my grades, in the social points that I thought I could score through getting a girlfriend, being in a band—things that our friendship had never included.
And then came the news. I was in 11th grade. When did it happen? November, December of that year? I know it was winter, but little else is known about it because there was nothing in my life tying me to you at that point. You were simply a memory, a part of myself I had either forgotten or attempted to bury since moving to my new school.
You’re the reason I still look both ways when crossing train tracks, even if the atmosphere is silent.
About a decade later, I knew another young man who died in an unexpected way. He was a student I’d worked with in multiple settings, and the week after he graduated from college, he was the one American killed on a plane that crashed in Russia. It was the same sort of feeling as I’d had when you died: strange, because there was no longer anything in my immediate life connecting me to this person; quietly intimate, because when I had known him, I had so strongly identified with him; it was as though when he died, some part of myself vanished as well.
To the playfulness and inanity that we shared together, I give a humble thank you. Those qualities still live on in me, but never again will they be so fully expressed a part of my identity, something that I wear un-self-consciously—perhaps even to say that I “wore” them is not the right word. Thank you for those qualities; thank you for bringing out that wonderful, immortal essence of myself that, nevertheless, became muted with your passing.
And to the person who died in the plane crash, thank you for your bravery, your sense of adventure. In you, I recognize so much of myself, but the best parts, the parts that I struggle to live into, to embody—as usual with other people, it seems that what was so difficult for me was natural for you, and perhaps vice versa. Thank you for bringing forward what I always wanted to be, for living that quality through to its uncanny conclusion. Thank you for your honor and beauty.
I want to say to myself when young, swing that stick, play that videogame, make that farting noise with your armpit. I want to say to myself: you are going to change, and you are going to change such that these parts of yourself that are so elemental, while still there, will be expressed differently. And so I want to say: this time is sacred. This play is sacred. This being, this honor, this joy. This quiet, shared knowledge of what is hard and is hard to talk about. All this is sacred. Every moment is sacred. The train cannot take it away, the plane cannot take it away, but they can change it. Live with eyes open, child; you are mine.