My friend died last night.
We had a weekly pick-up basketball game. I dropped in to play but he didn’t show. The next day, I messaged him: “Didn’t you sign up for drop in last night? Saw your name on Andrew’s list. It was fun man.”
He never responded. Later that evening, I checked my messages and a mutual friend of ours started a group chat with the words “There is no easy way to say this…”
I knew right then and there that something wasn’t right. I couldn’t stop reading. Whatever it is that I’m going to read next, I told myself, it’s already happened. I can’t be in denial. Slowly scrolling down, parsing the words, scrolling back up to make sure this wasn’t a cruel fucking joke.
My friend, captain of my basketball team, had died unexpectedly. A stroke. The doctors couldn’t save him.
I just saw him on Saturday. I shook his hand after the game, said our customary goodbyes. Everything was fine then.
Everything is supposed to be just fine, up until the moment when it ceases to be. Isn’t that how life goes?
A few weeks ago, China experienced its own version of 9/11. On March 1, 2014, a terrorist attack occurred in the Chinese city of Kunming, Yunnan. 33 dead and 140 injured. It was surreal. Left people looking for answers. Raised a lot of national security questions.
It didn’t get a ton of press in Canada or the United States, but as a Chinese resident, I suddenly felt mortal and powerless. I remember thinking in the same cliched way that people did when a great tragedy occurred. What can we do better? Could it have been prevented? Could it have happened to me? Of course it could have happened to me. It could have been my girlfriend. It could have been our families.
In that moment, I felt a minor shock. I tried to console myself with a lot of semi-comforting thoughts. People die from traffic accidents all the time. More people die from natural causes more than anything else. Terrorism is an unfortunate byproduct of the world today. Statistically speaking, China is one of the safest countries in the world. Certainly Beijing has felt really safe in the two years that I’ve lived here.
The thing is, when tragedies happen, I don’t feel anger. I don’t feel a need to lash out at the Taliban or the Chinese terrorists or anybody. I don’t need to punish somebody to feel closure. I just want to understand. And to not live in fear.
I was raised in a Catholic family. A lot of it still manifests in my present life in different ways. I feel guilt, I feel a sense of right and wrong, and I feel a need to attach explanations for things that happen to me and those around me.
Another thing really occupied me in my youth, as I’m sure it did for many people — the fear of death. I remember crying violently at my grandmother’s funeral because she was gone forever. My mother was crying and my brother and I joined in. The grief was natural and contagious. But selfishly, I also cried because I didn’t want it to happen to me.
The funny thing is that I became really self-important in my young adulthood. It was all about me. My problems. My future. My love life. Who cared about the other people? Because of this, the self-importance shielded me into thinking I could live forever.
I couldn’t be taken down a notch because everything had been going well for me. It was an arrogance I couldn’t shake.
The arrogance faded yesterday.
The death of my friend really affected me, but not in the way I expected. I tried to be rational and analytical, in the same way that I was when the act of terrorism occurred. But my friend was a young guy. He had a loving girlfriend. He was perfectly fine on Saturday. There was no real reason for this to happen and the terrorists didn’t get to him. There was a little fear, too — the fear that it could have happened to me.
In the circle of life, there’s life and there’s death, and we don’t ask questions when babies are born, right? I called my girlfriend that night and told her about what happened.
“That’s terrible…” she said to me. “What are you going to do now?”
“Well — I’m going to watch a movie at home. It’s called Junebug.”
“What kind of movie is it?”
“It’s a sad movie. Lots of sad things happen in it.”
“Don’t you want to watch a happy movie? A comedy?”
“No. I want to watch something sad.”
It was getting late. After taking to her, I started watching and fell asleep on the couch before I could finish it.
I’m writing this today, the day after my friend died. I woke up from the couch and got ready for work. It was a nice day and I walked to the subway instead of taking the taxi. It gave me time to think.
I felt like I just woke up from a nightmare. At least, I hoped so. But my friend was still dead and Wikipedia still contained an entry on the terrorist attack. The world was permanently imprinted with these two events, and nothing could change that.
I got on the subway train, put on my earphones, and looked through my playlist. I started playing Massive Attack’s “Protection” — the ultimate love song. It’s about a woman who fights for her man. Is love what makes the world go round? It was at that point that I knew that I had to keep going, and that dwelling on what happened yesterday wasn’t going to make things better.
I’m going to keep living. I know that’s what he would have wanted, and it’s the only thing I can do. Maybe the longer I live, the more answers I’ll find, until the moment I stop living and we start all over again.