where do you think you’re going? // aka another thing about dead friends, death, and also life

aaryn would have been 44 yesterday. he died suddenly last winter, of a heart attack, while hiking with his dog in the bay area. i knew him in pittsburgh and then i knew him in the bay area. i didn’t know him at all for years, he disappeared sometimes into his complicated life. he did this to lots of people, not just me. i thought we’d run into each other again, have another silly adventure and laugh hysterically and then he was gone.

his ex-boyfriend/best friend organized a memorial for him at the sleazy gay bar where we spent a lot of our 20’s. when we were there, the neighborhood was cheap, i lived right up the hill in a 2 bedroom house with a backyard that rented for $440 a month (total, not per room), smoking was allowed inside, the bartenders would make kielbasa and sausages in the crock pot and put it out on the pool table for anyone to eat, i didn’t eat it because i was vegetarian. i would get wasted with the other clientele, who were mostly middle-aged self-identified crossdressers and queer people in all sorts of trouble.

the neighborhood is fancy now. the bar got famous because it was the hangout of two very successful contestants on rupaul’s drag race (which i used to watch with aaryn and his boyfriend/bestie, because they were my friends and neighbors and they had cable, back when it was on logo and the production values were really low and the prize was only like $20,000, or was it $10,000?). i haven’t been there in forever. it’s a little more cleaned-up. some decor changes. i’m sober now and a lot of the old-timers are dead.

i wasn’t going to go to the memorial. i had too much stuff to do, i was feeling anxious, i had forgotten about it, i didn’t trust myself to stay sober at the bar. i decided it was okay to skip it and take care of myself. i walked around my neighborhood in the drizzle, looking for blossoms that had fallen off branches to make an altar on my desk. i dug through a box of photos, found a picture of him, arranged the blossoms, lit the candles. i breathed in and tried to listen.

my first thought was, this is bullshit. you need to go to the memorial.

so i got my shit together. it stopped raining. i figured if i really wanted to drink, i could always just leave. remembered that i am in control of my actions. there was some stressful social bullshit waiting for me at the memorial, certainly not the main reason i didn’t want to go but definitely a factor, and as i rode my bike i sang affirmations. i don’t really remember them, exactly, but they made me feel strong and powerful. something like, “i’m gonna die with my head held high/i know who i am/no one can take that from me/i can show up for the people i love, even if it’s hard.”

the memorial was queer joy and anklets and pool and shrieking and reminiscing. it was writing messages on paper lanterns, lighting them and watching them take off. they flew so high. some random people playing pool asked what was going on and we told them. they were so sweet, such sweet sweet strangers, meeting them felt perfect somehow. one of the guys lost his partner of 7 years to a heart attack too. “we were out at dinner,” he said. everything changes in a moment.

earlier this week, i had a really strange and unexpected experience. i had just taken a melatonin and benadryl, was going to bed, was in that space between sleeping and waking when i felt this sensation emanating from my spine. i suddenly had this feeling, this overwhelming feeling, of rightness and okay-ness and i realized it was the exact way i felt in the presence of axi, my bff who died in 2005 and who i will never stop writing about, even if absolutely no one else cares anymore, and that realization just highlighted the void of these past 17 years, and immediately, instinctively, all i could think was “STAY” and just as i thought that, the feeling vanished, and i realized how stupid i was, how mortal. but that’s all i could do, was clutch. i wanted it to stay. i wanted her to stay.

i’ve been in a lot of emergency situations at my job and a few in my life, and fortunately i’ve never had to directly be responsible for saving the life of someone who’s slipping away, but i think about when i’ve seen it, or heard it, the person who is conscious, who is not actively dying, almost always yells, “stay with me, stay with me” at the person. i always think about that. are those words a life raft? can you hear them? can you stay? do you choose not to?

i also thought about the lady gaga song “joanne,” written about an aunt that died before she was born but who she feels connected to, and the song is an entreaty to stay, even though she knows that it’s not possible, hardly worth it to ask. but she can’t help it.

on another note, i recently had a zoom meeting with two of my best friends to talk about living wills and healthcare proxies. we’re all partnered-but-consciously-unmarried, not living in the place where we’re from, and willing to have conversations about hard things. when someone dies without a will or a plan or instructions, it makes an already difficult situation even worse. so much worse. doing this sort of thing now, when we’re lucid and young-ish and our deaths aren’t imminent, is an act of love.

we used the 5 wishes template to help us. didn’t want to pay for it so we just re-typed the parts that we wanted–it felt like a poem, in a weird way–

I wish for my family and friends to look at my dying as a time of personal growth for everyone, including me;

I wish for my family and friends to respect my wishes, even if they don’t agree with them;

I wish to be called by my name. My name is: _________________________

We turned our cameras off and wrote and then turned our cameras back on and talked. When we were done, I felt so close to them. So proud of us for being brave and doing something that was kind of weird. Something that people know they should do but put off because they think they have time. I wish this sort of thing was more normalized, especially among queer people, people who are estranged from their families of origin.

I’ve been reading this book and it’s kind of blowing my mind, it’s about utopias and all the new ways people have found to live outside of the nuclear family capitalist warmonger model, and it’s written unlike any other book i have read. the author calls it a “biocartography” and in so many ways it is a map, and also unflinchingly honest. it makes me want to live harder, sleep less, not say hello to people who hate me even when they’re a few inches away and it would be so much more comfortable to pretend that everything’s fine. but everything is not fine, but there are also so many other ways to be.

this summer i attended a woo-woo journaling workshop in the woods, where we were supposed to write a letter to the goddess and then write back in her voice, and i wrote her about something totally different but her response was that it doesn’t matter that i lost most of my pictures of my beloved dead friends in this cross-country move, because they’re all a part of me and i don’t need the pictures of the bodies they once inhabited, they’re something else now, the pictures are something unnecessary. and i had never thought about that but it made perfect sense. i still like the pictures, still wish i had them, but i don’t need them anymore. i have something else.

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