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grief and a rainbow
This essay deviates from our normal topics of reading and writing. It covers the death of a close friend and my subsequent processing of grief. If those aren’t topics you’re up to facing today, I’d suggest saving this post for another day.
I turn on my phone when the plane touches down at Heathrow. None of my texts or emails come through. I’m annoyed—I’ve downloaded an e-sim ahead of time to avoid this very predicament, but it’s not working. I’ll have to wait until I get inside the airport to let my family know I’ve landed safely.
I lived in London for six years. This is my first trip back since moving out of the UK. I’m pumped to see my friends and publishing team. I’ll be here for two weeks.
My husband, Matt, was seated ten rows behind me, so I deplane first. While I wait for him, I pull out my phone, connect to the airport Wi-Fi, and see I have a WhatsApp message from Kate, who recently married my friend Shiv.
This is the message I hoped never to have to send.
Shiv’s liver is failing. He has days, possibly a week, to live.
I don’t think I fully process the news. I only slept ninety minutes on the overnight flight, so I’m exhausted. Or maybe I’m just in shock. Matt and I make the long walk, unspeaking, from the jet bridge to Border Control. We wait in line at the e-gates, then move onto the baggage claim. It’s only there, as we wait for our suitcase, that I have a sense of needing to sit. My legs feel weak beneath me, which reminds me of last September when Shiv delivered the news that he had Stage 4 cancer. He said someone his age had a .01% chance of getting this cancer. I remember thinking in that moment that if I hadn’t been sitting down, I would’ve collapsed. I have fainted a handful of times throughout my life, but this was different. I’d never experienced anything like it, the sudden inability of my limbs to support themselves while my brain was fully conscious. Standing there, waiting for my luggage, is the closest I’ve come since.
You’re not going to collapse, I chide. Shiv is dying, and you can’t even stand on your own two feet? Reprimands are pointless, but that does not stop me from delivering them. I let Matt stand by the conveyor belt while I go sit on the floor next to the wall. I feel better physically as soon as I do. I can’t fall further, I think. The floor has me. There is some comfort in that, the idea that there are structures in place—walls, floors, chairs—to hold us up when we can’t do it ourselves.
I met Shiv when I moved to London in 2014. I had wanted to live abroad since I was a teenager, but the reality of being an expat was different than what I’d expected. I was lonely and unemployed, second-guessing my decision to leave a solid job and close friends in Chicago. My self-esteem was in the toilet.
Enter Shiv. He, too, was restless in his job and looking for friends. Shiv had the most interesting life of anyone I’d ever met. He was born in Fiji, grew up in India and New Zealand, and by the time I met him, had also lived in London, Edinburgh, and New Zealand (again). He would eventually go on to live in Brisbane and Melbourne. I had only ever lived in Chicago—unless you counted four years of college in Ohio—so next to him, I felt boring. Shiv didn’t seem to notice.
He became my closest friend in London, my go-to for both goofing off and heart-to-hearts. I knew a lot of people who talked about seeing the world, but talking was as far as they got. In Shiv, I found a doer. When he said, “Have you ever been to San Sebastian?” he meant he was already planning the trip. Being an expat felt more manageable when Shiv came into my life. After a while, London even started to sparkle.
A few days after the text from Kate, Matt and I have dinner at our friends’ house. On their balcony, I stare at the brightest, most perfect rainbow I have ever seen. A second fainter rainbow emerges. At the time I don’t think of Shiv, but later I will. As I wait for news and grow more agitated when news doesn’t come, I begin connecting the rainbow with his passing. Maybe he died that Saturday night, I think. I need to know if the rainbow was a sign. Why? Why do I need to create meaning where there is none? I feel irritated by my human-ness, by my frailty and stupid, misplaced comfort in stories. If I were writing this one as fiction, I’d cross this section out, label it tired and cliché. A rainbow? Really?
No matter when he dies, I know I will always associate that rainbow with him.
I think about Shiv every day while I’m visiting this city where we met but have both left—one of us moving east, the other west. I think about him mostly at night, when I’m not occupied with meetings and commitments. How scared he must be, though Kate says as the days go on, he’ll be more confused than anything. His pain will be well managed. I think about whether he’s checked all of his boxes. Shiv squeezed so much living into forty-two years. He took a sabbatical to become a scuba divemaster. He started a business he was proud of. He loved his partner and his dogs and, later, his chickens. Already I am thinking in past tenses. I simultaneously hate and congratulate myself for adjusting to this new reality.
As the days wear on, I keep thinking about the rainbow. I keep wondering whether he’s passed and I just don’t know it yet. Shiv’s partner is my only source for updates, and I don’t want to bother her. She has enough going on as it is. Tuesday night arrives, marking one week since Kate has shared the liver failure news. One week was supposed to be the maximum amount of time Shiv had left, so I should hardly be surprised when I wake up to a text the next morning.
I’m sure you’ve seen the news of Shiv’s death on Facebook. Would you mind filming a short video for his wake?
The brain is strange. The first thing I do after reading the text is pore over old photos of him, trying to determine the best ones for an Instagram post. Who the fuck cares about Instagram? I argue with myself. But he deserves commemoration, another part of me thinks. He must be remembered. I am tired of holding this in, of pretending everything is normal, that I’m okay. You are okay. Am I? Shiv is dead, and you are alive. The least you can do is be okay.
I’m pretty sure that’s not how grief works, although I’m admittedly a novice in the field.
I do not cry, not yet. I feel guilty when I don’t cry over a death, like I’m not grieving hard enough. This goes all the way back to Dzia Dzia’s death when I was eight. Every other member of my family was crying, but I didn’t shed a tear at my own grandfather’s funeral. What does that say about me? Don’t make this about you.
Shiv’s death might be the first I truly grieve. I was sad when each of my grandpas died, one just last year, but both men lived good long lives. My maternal grandfather said as much to me the last time I saw him alive. They were eighty-seven and ninety-two when they passed. When I say Shiv’s death is the first I have truly grieved, I mean I feel the loss physically. I feel it between my ribs and in my knees, in the crooks of my arms. I feel a sense of injustice for Shiv. He was unfinished. Men in their forties don’t just up and die. No, men in their forties that you’ve known have never up and died. I have floated through life with relatively little loss. I have arrived in adulthood unscathed. I don’t know how people do it, how they process the death of a parent or sibling or child or best friend while they’re still growing up themselves.
I am too old to believe his death is impossible.
I copy the following into my journal from Center for Loss and Mind.org—
Cognitive Manifestations of Grief:
slowed thinking or processing
difficulty making decisions
daydreams or flashbacks
talking to the deceased loved one
“After the death of someone loved, you may feel a sense of restlessness, agitation, impatience and ongoing confusion. It’s like being in the middle of a wild, rushing river where you can’t get a grasp on anything. Disconnected thoughts race through your mind, and strong emotions may be overwhelming.”
“Obsessive review or ruminating are the psychological terms used for describing how you may constantly think about the circumstances of the death or stories about the person who has died. It’s “telling your story” over and over again, either in your mind or out loud.”
I think this is what I’m doing. I know this is what I’m doing.
I feel confusion more than anything that first day. For the first half hour or so, I am clearheaded, even clear-hearted. The longer I’m awake, though, the more I can’t focus my thoughts in any single direction. My to-do list taps my shoulder. Shiv has died, and I’m going to do laundry? Go to the gym? Work? The idea feels disrespectful.
I have to go to my agent’s house and mingle with people while Shiv is dead. I’m supposed to head to a literary crime festival tomorrow while Shiv is dead. I’m going to fly back to Chicago while Shiv is dead. I’m going to drive home to New York and look for a new apartment and write my books and see my friends while Shiv is dead.
What I want more than anything is to press a button and be home. I want to be in my apartment, on my couch. I don’t want to see anyone, don’t want to make small talk. I want to lose myself in the fictional worlds I’ve designed, worlds where Shiv might text me to say he’s coming to Brooklyn and we must get together. I can compromise further. Shiv doesn’t have to exist in these worlds, but at least he hasn’t vacated them. I can make do in a fictional world where I have not lost my friend. A distraction will more than suffice. I want to go home. I do not go home. I stick to the plan. I sit through every meeting, see through every commitment. I smile and play the role of myself and I don’t talk about Shiv.
My video for his service is supposed to be twenty seconds. How can I possibly sum up what he meant to me in twenty seconds?
Because Shiv lived all over the world and made friends everywhere he went, his memorial service is live-streamed. His last city of residence was Brisbane, which means his wake happens in the middle of the night where I am—a Hampton Inn in Lamar, Pennsylvania. I’ve made it through the London trip, am nine hours into the thirteen-hour drive from Chicago to NYC. Why do I wind up in Lamar? Because it’s the point on I-80 where jet lag takes over. Lamar is where we say uncle. I am dead asleep by nine o’clock.
I learn the livestream will be available after the service too. I’m afraid to watch because I don’t know if the casket will be open, and I don’t want to see Shiv dead. I don’t want to see him dead because I’m scared that is how I will remember him for the rest of my life. The only other young person I’ve seen in a casket was my cousins’ cousin. She was twenty-one and died unexpectedly. I remember two things about her wake: the thickness of the embalming makeup and the song that was playing when I approached the coffin. Every single time I’ve heard “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in the last ten years, I’ve pictured her head on the satin pillow.
The longer I go without watching Shiv’s service, the guiltier I feel. Some friend you are, I think. The least you could do is watch it. Why? I argue back. It’s not like he’s going to know.
Would he want me to watch? Would I want him to, if I was the one lying in a box? Why aren’t our roles reversed? Why have I been spared?
At some point during my teenage years, I came to fully understand my mortality. With that comprehension came an almost phobic fear of death that I struggle with to this day. Back then I would lie awake for hours every night, unable to fall asleep, worrying I wouldn’t wake up the next morning. A heartbeat stops, a life is snuffed. It’s too easy to die. The human body is excruciating in its delicacy.
Twenty years later I find these thoughts keeping me awake again.
What if this is it?
Here’s the commemoration post I finally come up with—
Remember when we “borrowed” a couple wine glasses from The Volunteer? Remember the Christmas markets in Vienna with Marcus and Vicki? Remember the absolutely atrocious bike ride we made you and our other wedding guests suffer through? Remember when you bought cigars for Matt at the wedding, and he could only take one puff before coughing like a child? Remember how I thought you were a burglar when we met? Remember lunch at the Bordeaux market, the wine/bike tour through Saint-Émilion, the food tour in San Sebastian? (I’m detecting a pattern here.) (The pattern is food.) (And booze.) Remember all the walks through Regent’s Park with Bucky and Tali? Remember visiting us in Boston—the Freedom Trail tour, the baseball game at Fenway (you were bored after three innings), dinner at Giacomo’s? Remember Christmas dinner in Strasbourg? I still have no idea how we pulled off such a big meal with that teeny tiny oven. Do you remember all the ordinary unremarkable nights we spent running around London?
Thank you for pushing me toward adventure, for the countless jokes and laughs, for being the most generous of confidants. What an honor to call you my dearest friend. I will hold you in my heart always.
Shiv was one of my first friends in London and one of the best people I’ve ever known. I am incredibly lucky he was part of my life for as long as he was. I wish it could’ve been longer still.
I watch it, it being Shiv’s wake. I’m glad I do. The casket is closed. The memorial makes me feel both warm and sad, but the former outweighs the latter. I learn things about Shiv, details and photos of his childhood, what he was like in high school and college. Despite all the time we spent together, there was a lot I never knew. Not the important stuff, just minutiae. Did I know he played the guitar? Or that he was good at sports? I love seeing him through his family’s eyes, hearing stories from friends of his that I’ve heard of but never met. Their portraits have different flourishes but are sketches of the same man. No matter my age, it’s impossible to believe my friend is inside of that coffin.
I begin to let go of the compulsion to make sense of his death. The unsatisfactory truth: it doesn’t make sense. I don’t believe everything happens for a reason, nor that he’s in a better place, though I’m glad that at least he’s no longer in pain. I believe life is random and cruel but also beautiful, surprising. I doubt it much matters whether we choose nihilism or existentialism as our worldview—it just depends how you want to spend your one wild and precious life.
I forgive myself for putting so much weight on a stupid Instagram post. Writing is how I make sense of the world. Writing and then sharing the writing. Writing and sharing. Writing. Writing some more. Joan Didion said she writes to find out what she thinks. I write to find out what I feel.
I finally confirm that Shiv died on July 15, 2023. Which is the date I saw the rainbow, after all. Tomorrow would have been his 43rd birthday.
Thanks for being here,
A phrase coined by the great Mary Oliver.