The cliche is “What is a man but the sum of his memories?” Cliches are used to the point that they’ve become trite, but that doesn’t mean they are inherently untrue. I think this one is true, or mostly so. There probably is more to me than my memories, but I can’t tell you what that is.
I’m religious. I believe in a soul, but I don’t think anyone has ever defined that very well, and I certainly don’t think I’m capable of it. In my limited imagination, however, the soul seems pretty much like a self-aware repository of memories. This brings up the question, “What is the soul but the sum of our memories?” That’s way too frustrating to deal with for me, and assuming anyone ever reads this, half of them probably won’t believe in an eternal soul anyway, so I’m not going to bore anyone with my fanfic theories of the afterlife.
Instead, I’m gonna talk about my friend John. He died in January of this year. He was a year or two younger than me. I wouldn’t say that his death messed me up, but it has affected me uniquely. John was my best friend for my last couple years in high school, and probably my first year or two in college as well, though he didn’t go to college, or at least not with me. We saw each other increasingly rarely, drifted apart. Eventually we hit that point in our relationships when we only talked about stuff we’d done in the past, nothing new, because there was nothing new. There’s something sad about that.
I bumped in to John entirely by coincidence in an airport one night. Bought him dinner while waiting for his plane. We told lots of stories from 1983-1987, some stories from 1988-1993, and really nothing after that. There was nothing after that. Pretty much half a lifetime apart, and only a few years together.
I’ve had people die before. Hell, I’m practically swimming in death. In the last six years I’ve lost my dad and his entire family. In the last year, I lost my aunt and uncle. I’ve lost friends, co-workers, bandmates, enemies, rivals both IRL and online. I used to point and laugh at those kids who took the “Death and Dying” classes in college because they’d been sheltered by their wimpy baby boomer parents. Me? The earliest funeral I can remember was my great aunt Ailene when I was about 3.
My point being that I’m depressingly jaded about death, and, though I didn’t think about it until just now, I’m something of an asshole to those people who aren’t jaded by it. Whups. Sorry ’bout that.
Just the same, John is the first best friend I’ve lost. He’s the first person’s death has made me think, “Well, what the hell was this all for?” This is the guy who used to work at JoAnn’s Chili Bordello, and who lusted after the waitress, Tobie, same as the rest of us. This is the guy who ended up as my subordinate in ROTC when he should have gotten my job simply because our teacher found him annoying. He’s the guy who chased after this girl for a year, went out to dinner with her, realized there was nothing there, then called me up and told me how strange that was. We used to sit around for hours on end listening to Huey Lewis, which was considered acceptable in those days. We’d talk about Star Trek – which was only just beginning to suck – endlessly. We both wanted to be filmmakers. I helped him move several times. I remember things that he himself had forgotten, like a hallucination he told me about once. I know he’d forgotten it because when I brought it up, he clearly had no idea what I was talking about. All trivial, but I remember them in vivid 70mm Eastman Kodak color with Dolby Surroundsound. (It was the ’80s, remember)
Why does this matter?
I don’t know. You know people in life, and they become part of your story. They’re your sidekick, and they probably see you as theirs. You drift apart, their story ends, and maybe you never even hear about it. Maybe you do, but you’re so removed in time and space that it means nothing. Somehow it’s different for me, though, because I feel like I was there at the beginning of the story.
I wasn’t, of course. John was 14 or 15 when we met. He had a big long life before that, and I did too. Maybe it’s just that I feel like it was kinda the beginning of my story. I sometimes don’t feel like I was really interesting prior to sixteen, but that’s a story for another day.
For whatever reason, though, I remember a million billion trillion things from “The start of the story” that seem to have no payoff now that the end credits have rolled. The day I was joking with him about this thing, or he insulted me about that, or we’d compare notes on girls we were too scared to ask out, of stories he’d told me he was going to write, but never did, not because his life was too short, but because he never really liked the act of writing. All those moments are….
Not lost. They’re locked in my head.
Another cliche is “Nobody is ever truly gone as long as we remember them.” Now that one truly is utter bullshit. It’s grossly unfair, too: everyone remembers Jeffrey Dahlmer, but very few people remember my friend John. People will remember the very bad man long after they’ve forgotten the perfectly average one. What the hell kind of piss-ass immortality is that? It’s bullshit, and I’ve never placed any stock in it. Not that I’d have to. I’m religious, as I said, so I believe in an afterlife, even if I don’t know anything about it. I don’t need to rely on Hallmark greeting card philosophy.
But I’m having trouble reconciling John’s loss because all those moments, all those stories, all those events, were building blocks leading up to, well, I assumed they were leading up to something other than a massive heart attack at 48 brought on by chain-smoking four or five packs a day for thirty three years. And now they are building blocks that lead up to nothing.
This isn’t about ‘a life cut short.’ Certainly he should have lived longer, and if John were alive to realize how badly he’d been ripped off in that department, he’d be madder than a wet hen. Just the same, people die all the time and I am depressingly desensitized to that. Likewise, people die without reaching their goals so often that we don’t even comment on it. We only mention it when they did end up the way they wanted, since it’s so rare.
So I guess this isn’t so much about his story getting cut short – tragic though that is – as it is trying to figure out how to reconcile it into my story.
I’m a writer and an editor. If my life were a book, or more likely a long series of really boring books that no one reads, John would turn up, play a major part, and then just sort of disappear. He plays no real role in the larger story. While he was alive it was always possible that he’d turn up again in the third act and do something remarkable, however unlikely. I wasn’t holding out hope for that. Truth is, I didn’t think about it at all. Now that he’s gone, though, I look back at this theoretical manuscript, and I see that introducing such a major character with no narrative payoff is simply bad writing. John would be the first thing chopped in the editing process.
This bothers me. He’s dead, I don’t want him edited away, too. And yet there’s this huge file in my brain of John Stuff. Funny stuff he said, dumb stuff he said, incredibly stupid things we both did, girls we fought over, movies I’m pretty sure only we saw. He and I went to see “Psycho Girls,” just a terrible, terrible movie. We were the only ones in the theater. I laughed so hard at one point that I fell out of my seat, the only time in my life I’ve ever done that.
Well, now John’s gone. This reduces the number of people who even *remember* “Psycho Girls” by probably 10%, and it reduces the number of people who remember me literally falling down laughing by half. What do I do with memories like that? Furthermore, his loss has kind of eroded the persistence of that moment for me, you know? Only the two of us were there, he’s gone, the moment seems less real somehow. That “So long as someone remembers them” bullshit cuts both ways. Whenever someone dies, there’s fewer people to remember you, too.
I remember once in the parking lot I told him that I’d decided I was one of the 15,000 greatest people ever to live. He laughed and said, “You’re not.” John’s life was…not great. He definitely got closer to the 15,000 than I did, but certainly a triumphant third act would have covered over a lot of stuff. As for me, I’m left with all these dangling plot threads. A million Checkov’s Rifles set on a hundred thousand mantles (John always tended to be doing several things at once), and most of them are still sitting there, never to go off. I don’t know what to do with all the dangling plot threads he left in my formative life. I don’t know how to incorporate what remains of his story into my story. I need closure on that anecdote, dammit!
I’m not saying anything new here, and I have no great insights or answers. I can’t even seem to express it very well. Basically, lots of stories started back in the mid-’80s, and they ended with as little resolution as most of us get in life, but I need to believe that all of John’s stuff back then meant something. I suppose maybe if his endless whining about girls and obsession with grade-z movies and student films and nametag jobs and crap like that meant something, then maybe my life means something, too. That’d be a help, as I really don’t think my life matters. (Being religious doesn’t mean you’re particularly optimistic. When I die, assuming heaven is even an option, I expect St. Peter to refer to me as “That waste of human skin from Florida.” Likewise I have to think Satan would find me singularly disappointing.) I’d like John’s giddy hobbies and good days and bad days and all those useless memories to mean something even if the story is – like most stories – begun and abandoned, because, I guess, it means that his existence would have had some meaning, or at least value, beyond a bunch of memories locked in my probably-dead-in-a-decade-or-so head. By extension, that would imply that I am not completely valueless, and perhaps I’m more than the sum of my memories, too.
Like I said, I don’t know what that would mean. Perhaps my memories are the sum of me, and not the other way around. Perhaps I have value, and the value of the memories is derived from that. Certainly I hope so, because the alternative is that all those first pages of the unfinished stories that made up John’s life, and my life, and all of our lives, are useless.