Between Life & Death

For Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley, Kings of Grunge.
_
For Harper Lee, Alan Rickman, David Bowie, Scott Weiland, Glenn Frey and Lemmy Kilmister; and everyone else who died, but lives on.

 

inter vitam et mortem

Premise

When a powerful star dies, it leaves behind a black hole. Cosmic Emptiness. When a person dies, they leave behind destruction, too. They leave behind people and places and things that remind everyone of the permanence of their absence. They leave behind irreversible hurt and trauma, that can be buried but never forgotten. Just like themselves.

1

I met her in the winter of 2014 in this very cemetery, at the very place where she now lays buried. I look at her headstone, her full name engraved on the smooth white marble in cursive. She would have hated it so much. I run my hand over it, tracing the letters with my finger – the name she never let anyone call her by, followed by the day she was born and the day she died, written an inch apart. An inch that stands for her whole life, her every breath, her every thought. Lost in that one inch of space somewhere is the time that I knew her. I never thought we could ever measure things like those.

                                                          ________________________

I remember the day we first met like it was an hour ago. She had been picking flowers from over people’s graves when she saw me here, sitting on a patch of dead grass, trying to put out a cigarette. “I would suggest not putting out fags like that. Unless you mistook this place for a crematorium”, she shouted.
I looked at her, confused. “What a moron”, she sighed, loud enough for me to hear, as she walked up to me. She took the ‘fag’ from my hand, and crushed it against the headstone next to the spot where I sat, leaving a black mark on the granite surface.
“What are you doing?”, I shouted, as the snub dropped on the ground and rolled out of my sight.
“Stopping you from starting a fire”, she said. “Although,” she added, “You won’t kill anyone. Everyone here is already dead.”
I stood up and wiped my hands on my jeans. “Except for you and me”, I said, looking at her.
“I don’t know about you, but I feel pretty dead already”, she stated,as she walked over to another grave and pocketed the roses an old woman had left there half an hour ago.
I rolled my eyes. “Is that why you’re taking those?”, I snarked, pointing at the flowers in one of her hands.
“Well, yeah”, she shrugged. “It’s not like these guys need them,” she said nonchalantly, walking away.
“Wait!”, I shouted, going after her. To this day, I don’t know why I did it. I guess I just wanted company. Or maybe I just didn’t want to make this random girl think I was a fool.
“I am not a fool”, I panted, as I struggled to keep pace with her. She raised her eyebrows.
“Yeah? Then who are you?”, she asked me in a bored tone.
“I mean, I didn’t know how to put out a cigarette. I don’t really smoke.” I admitted, looking at my feet, the tops of my sneakers smeared with dirt.
I felt her eyes on me, heard her laugh, and watched her feet as she walked away to the other side of the cemetery.

    ************

I do not remember when we became friends. Every evening that winter, I had stepped inside the cemetery to pay a visit to my dead boyfriend’s grave. Every evening, I ended up sitting on a patch of land on the opposite side of the cemetery for hours, lighting cigarettes and stamping them out without putting a single one to my lips. Most days, that girl was there, too. From what it looked like, she had been coming there to steal the things people left on the graves and sell them later. From the way she dressed, it didn’t seem like she would need to do something like that for money. Then again, I thought, maybe the leather jacket was stolen, too.

I do not remember how we began to talk. This one day, when she was sitting on top of a big black headstone that belonged to a man who died in 1985, and when I had run out of cigarettes to waste, she asked me why.

“Why do you waste all those fags?”
“Why do you try to sound so British?”, I replied, ripping out blades of grass from the ground.
“I like the accent”, she said, coolly.
“I like the wastage”, I retorted.
She laughed.
“My name is Dee, by the way”, she said, hopping off her perch to go pick up the flowers someone had left two spots away. I swear, in that moment, I hated her almost as much as all the mean girls from back in high school. I got up and began to leave, but she had returned, and was blocking my way. So I asked her, “What kind of a name is ‘Dee’ ?”
She told me it was the kind of name that saved people from calling her by her real one. I chuckled.

In retrospect, maybe that chuckle was the moment when we became friends.

    ************

By February that year, we knew almost everything about each other. She knew why I blew my money on cigarettes that I never smoked, or why I visited the cemetery in the first place. I knew her real name, and why she preferred not to be called by it. There were quite a few things we did not know – and will never know- about each other, but the night before she was run over by a car on her way to the local asylum, Destiny told me that she took the flowers from the graves and gave them to abandoned people who never had any visitors.
On the evening of her death, I finally visited my boyfriend’s grave, and found a bouquet of flowers resting there that had only just started to wilt.

 

 

 

2

I wouldn’t say I had started loving him the moment we met – and that’s not because I am a skeptic when it comes to the idea of love at first sight – ; but I can swear that I loved him more and more every day since I had fallen in love with him. I do not believe in the idea of ‘the one’, but he was so close to what that would be like.

I had met him after he had been in remission for two years. He had his hair long, played bass for ‘an up and coming’ band, and was the kind of guy whom all girls had the hots for even before they met him – except me. He was the kind of guy that ultimately won the girl who never really fancied him before, like in the movies, and that’s exactly what happened. Our whole story was out of the movies, just not the right kind. For there was no happily ever after.

_______________________

He was a chain smoker. Smoking was to him what burgers were to me. He was as passionate about it as he was about his music, if not more.

“What feels better : making music, or smoking?” I once asked him.
“I’m almost as good at this” – he played a 20 second bass solo – “as I am at this”, he said, lighting a cigarette and blowing out three smoke rings.

It was impressive at that time. I didn’t know he once had Cancer.
I came to know about that when I told him that I wanted to try a cigarette.

“Don’t do it”, he told me.
“I thought you would be enthusiastic about it”, I said, pouting.
“Don’t do it for me”, he said as he looked straight into my eyes. “Don’t do it. For me”, he said, his voice deeper, and started to tap his feet to the beat of whatever song was playing in his mind. I decided to watch him do it, and let the subject drop. For the moment.
Later, he told me that smoking was just a way for him to deal with the despondence of not making it in the music scene.
Much, much, later that day, he told me his way of coping had almost killed him two years before. And that it was killing him again.

He refused to undergo chemotherapy. “The first time was bad enough”, he told me. “Why didn’t you stop smoking after that?”, I asked him angrily. I looked at him. I looked through him, at how amazing he was, and how foolish. It was breaking my heart. But It was him who was dying.

“I didn’t know how.” He said, and reached for my hand. He held it for a while, and then lit himself another cigarette.

  ************

“Why did you not tell me before?” I asked him one day when he had gotten worse, as he lay in bed with his eyes closed.
“I wanted to”, he said in his new squeaky voice.                                                                                     “But why didn’t you?”, I asked him,softly.”I guess I just didn’t want to give smoking up. Or give you up”, he said, squeezing my hand. After he fell asleep, I kissed his forehead. “But you’re ready to give yourself up”, I whispered in his ear.

Later, he told me how addictive it was. “It’s a part of me”, he said. “I wish it wasn’t, but it is, just as much as cancer is”, he added, while signalling me to adjust his pillow. I did.           “I started doing it again a few months into remission”, he confided.

“with a new band, a new city, I thought I had been onto something. But the phoenix effect wasn’t working for me…” he sighed. “…so I went back to the ashes I thought I rose from.”

“Cigarette ash”, I whispered.

“Yes”. Then under his breath, he said, “I’m so sorry”.

And then, then at last, we both cried.

************

He passed away 3 months later in his sleep. I like to think he died painlessly, but I know the pain he went through before it. And I know the pain I went through after.

The last moments I spent with him were on the terrace of his apartment block, looking at the stars. We had to look intently to spot them in the tar black sky laced with the city’s smoke. It was so difficult to find them, but we knew they were shining just as bright beyond. He took my hand, and told me that I had to live my life like the stars. And then he lit cigarettes and laid them out on the floor, and we put them out together. When it tired him, he closed his eyes and pulled me close. “I have come to acceptance with all of this”, he told me. “Death, cancer and cigarettes are a part of me”, he stated.”But they’re not the part I want you to keep alive”.

I gave him my word.

I never went to his funeral.

I was like the stars, and this was my smog.

Coda

Between your life and death, you lose a lot to life and death. You lose a lot to lessons being learnt, to mistakes being made, to things left unsaid. You lose a lot when you lose the people who mean something to you. But you are the stars. You are the unblinking, unwavering light, floating in the universe. You are energy, and everyone who meant something to you is energy, too.

 Energy never dies and neither do people. They just stop being human and start being the universe itself.

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