Death of a Friend
Even as a child, death was no stranger to me. However, the people death claimed were. At four, my parents and relatives were mourning for one of my uncles, an uncle I don’t remember, although they did mention I met him when I was two or three.
At thirteen, my grandmother passed away. She had been living in our house for the past few years, and I had to give up my room to accommodate her. When she first arrived, the doctors said she had around three months before the cancer would claim her life. We waited for three years. My father hangs sampaguita flowers around her portrait during her death anniversary. Sampaguita flowers were her favorite, and I remember me and my sister bringing some to her when she was still living with us. For me, sampaguitas were metaphors. They smelled good and looked fresh they day they were bought. In the span of a few days, they’d wither and die. If you wanted to have sampaguitas as room decor, you’d have to buy new flowers every other day or so.
I didn’t shed any tears during the funeral. My mom cried her heart out, although the two were never really close. A part of me wanted to ask whether my mom was just overreacting, just as she normally does. As for me, I felt guilty about not feeling grief, about not shedding any tears. I was a crybaby when I was a kid. Why couldn’t I cry now?
Two years later, our Chinese tradition of mourning ended. I could wear clothes that weren’t neutral colors. I didn’t have to attach the customary black pins to my white school uniform. Not that I had an extravagant social life nor did I go to parties that required me to have a fashion sense, but there was something liberating about it.
By this time, I was a social pariah in school. I didn’t have lots of friends, and only a few of them were my classmates. During group activities, I was the student who had to beg his classmates to join their team, and it’s not because I was a slacker in my schoolwork. If I was going to have close friends, it would come from elsewhere.
One of my few friends from the school across us (an all-female school, in contrast to the all-boys school I was enrolled in) introduced me to this friend of hers over the Internet. We were communicating over ICQ, the father of many of today’s private messenger services such as the more popular Yahoo Messenger. My alias back then was Naga, named after a character of one of my favorite anime series, and coincidentally my middle name in reverse.
It was only through ICQ that I managed to talk to the friend of my friend, mainly because she was a continent away. Despite the different time zones, we did manage to chat, and considered me her friend. It was a refreshing feeling compared to all the effort I exerted just to meet new people and gain new friends. I mean let’s face it, people don’t just befriend strangers. One of the best ways to impress other people is to do something for them. Here was a friendship born of mutual acceptance. There was no pressure on my part to do this or that. We just talked. And talking is often enough.
For someone I met over the Internet, it was actually surprising that I managed to receive news of her death. My friend was with her parents when they got into a car accident, killing the entire family. The friend who introduced me to her was in tears, recounting the story to me and her other friends. The loss certainly affected me more than my grandmother’s death ever could. But despite our relationship, we were really strangers. I knew her name but I don’t remember it now. I have no face to attach my mental picture of her. And in certain ways, I realize how superficial our conversations really were. Sure, they cheered me up, and I did enjoy her company, but in all honesty, I knew very little about her. I wanted to cry but I couldn’t. It was another loss in my life, but one that I wasn’t unfamiliar with. I don’t attribute the loss though to my relatives who had passed away. It felt more like loosing my childhood friends, who for one reason or another had moved on and left me behind. Our relationship was severed and would never be the same way again. In this case though, the memories of my friend would be permanent. Death, after all, has a way of defining things.
Forward to the present and there have been a few more deaths in my life. At church, I’ve seen fellow members grieve over the death of their own friends and relatives, some younger than them, some older. On my part, my grandfather died, and is hopefully resting well with my grandmother. My other grandmother has also passed away, while my other grandfather is at this deathbed, his right arm the only part of his body that he can actively move. The only thing that’s protecting me from their deaths is perhaps their unfamiliarity. They spoke a language I never understood. I see them but we never really bonded. Not that I don’t grieve over them, but rather it doesn’t hurt as much. It’s hard, after all, to mourn for someone you don’t really know.
But if you talk about death to me, I’ll probably go back to the memory of the friend I never met. Despite being a world apart, I got to know her more than some of my relatives. What I’m missing out now is on the friendship, on the conversations we could have had, on a possible meeting in the future. Yet when I look back, this kind of death is in certain ways similar to losing touch with the people you already have relationships with. It could be your best friend from grade school. Or that coworker you never saw again after you quit your job. Or it might have been someone you were good pals with, but he or she had to leave the country. If one doesn’t resume the dialogue, they might as well be dead. The only true difference between the living and the dead besides an innocent conscience is that the former has the ability to change.