I’d say ‘death’ prevails in my vocabulary as a way of pedantically talking about ideology, habits, values, democracy — its use has always been figurative. In my academic pursuits, the word is just a reminder that every idea can have an expiration date. To me, death has become a synonym for change.
Recently, I remembered its sensory meaning.
Two of the most defining figures of my high school career have passed on to the afterlife. And no longer am I using ‘death’ as a metaphor or to wax poetic about fictional characters. Nope… now it’s real.
I was faced with it as I sat in a church this August, listening to eulogies of my close childhood friend and his battle with cancer, staring blankly at the numbers printed on the pamphlet that indicated his life had an ending date. Arthur Halim. September 22, 1994 — July 30, 2016.
He was valedictorian — a devout Christian — a member of the most elite youth orchestra in the county — an attendee of the University of Pennsylvania’s most exclusive program — never bothersome in his quiet demeanor — always earnest in his wit — the best advice-giver and fellow Buffalo Wild Wings-goer — I’d spent 10 years trying to achieve his standards of overachieving perfection, hating and loving my good friend who was always up for staying up late to Gmail chat about love and success.
To be honest, was there anything Arthur couldn’t do?… Oh. Staying alive.
After three months of emotional procrastination on processing Arthur’s death, I also heard my beloved AP Literature teacher died last week. Presumably of suicide.
Mr. Hardin’s Facebook has already switched to Remembering Ryan Hardin. He never accepted my friend request, but I took the liberty to search his name and flip through a couple of his Facebook profile pictures. About three right-arrow clicks in is one of Arthur’s high school lit class. Arthur is in the very left corner, his hand behind his head. He is smiling with his eyes closed, a serene but mischievous look upon his face, while Mr. Hardin kneels in the center, tongue out and winking at the camera, his boyish good looks dazzling even as they’re frozen in time now. What was that smile hiding? We may never know now.
Seeing two of the most influential people in my life in the same, suddenly-aged photo shook me. It really sucks that Arthur and Hardin were the ones to go, because they made me refine my talent the most at age 17. I dissected literary works with both of them — Arthur for fun, Hardin for work — and in turn, they were also the two hardest editors I’ve ever had. I’ve often thought of them as I work to become successful in the journalism field. Now, I’ll never get the chance to properly thank them.
Arthur was the one that edited all of my satirical speeches for Speech and Debate, and sent back draft after draft of my college application essays even while he was balancing freshman year coursework at the University of Pennsylvania. His persistent encouragement and belief in me was a light while other peers made fun of my dedication to journalism.
Hardin was the only English teacher that didn’t incessantly praise me. He insisted I wasn’t arguing enough of a point in my rhetorical analyses of “Heart of Darkness” and “Crime and Punishment,” so much so that I once burst into tears in his office, feeling insulted and invalidated by his brisk way of talking. It was probably good for me to hear harsh criticism. Yet Hardin put a hand on my shoulder, clenched his Aaron Eckhart-esque jaw, and told me that a good writing voice was defined by substance more than style. I still think of those words every day as an aspiring journalist.
I’m aware it’s cliche to praise both of them. People have been sharing memories and fond commemorations of Hardin and Arthur. They were intelligent — inspiring — thoughtful — ‘good people.’ Do we ever speak ill of the dead?
That pisses me off. Who the hell is that perfect, that untouchable? For if they truly were untouchable, would they not still be blessing the earth with their perfection?
Sure, there’s been criticisms. Not everyone was a fan of Hardin. Some thought he could be cold, pushy, dismissive. There’s less bad things to be said about Arthur, but I’m sure we could find some. Something? A valedictorian that pushed himself too hard? I come up short. Even Hardin’s presumed flaws don’t mean much when you consider he apparently didn’t find himself worthy of staying on Earth.
At the end of the day, when I take my nightly walks, I find myself tensed up, angry that they just exist as manifestations of the past now. And in my memory, they also exist as people I looked up to and will never have the chance to catch up with to mark my progress.
There are books on how to process death; I don’t know if I have the right to read them yet, because these were deaths I would’ve felt more strongly four years ago. At least time has softened the blow; they aren’t a part of my everyday life.
But their deaths remind me that time has passed. I’m no longer 17, rosy-eyed, dreaming about the day that my writing will be praised throughout the earth. Hearing about their deaths has made me detachedly realize the extent of my own immortality project back then. I used to be determined to write for fame and legacy, so I’d be idolized long after I’m gone. I wanted to escape death for myself.
Now I feel obligated to write, desperate to make a difference in a world that reveals its pain to me each and every day through journalism. Desperate to alleviate pain and somehow, conquer death of the spirit. Because can’t that save a life like Hardin’s? And properly commemorate a life like Arthur’s?
In any case, I wish death could still prevail as an academic term. I don’t know how to process real, gnawing, sensory grief. Has it hit me in the full yet? I’m not sure. One part of my being screams, “No!” and is in denial. Another part feels the stabbing in my heart, but can’t register they’re really gone. And yet another wonders if it’s an insult to go on living, as if they’d never mattered and because the rest of the world is going to move on. Hopefully it doesn’t get any worse than this.
Nonetheless, I’m trying to piece together the right way to contemplate my own mortality, the feelings I’ll have as I’ll grow old and they won’t. I feel lost.
Death is now real. I think I’ll be using another synonym for change.