It’s been exactly a year since the bombing in Bali that killed my old friend Rick Gleason and 201 other people.
Is there a statute of limitations on mourning? Should there be? If we stop feeling that skip in the heartbeat and stab in the gut when we think of someone we loved who was killed, have we stopped caring? Should guilt then rush in? Should we try to leave behind our grief, and get on with it? What is left of the dead one, a year after they’ve gone, in the world? What do we learn from their lives, what can we learn? What have I learned?
A year on, I wish I could say confidently that I’ve consciously changed my life for the better after Rick’s death, taken the lessons his life and his sudden death taught me, plowed up some fertile ground. I wish that in the decisions I’ve made in the intervening twelve months, a reflection could be seen of some nebulous tribute to him, and the things we both believed about life. Maybe it’s there, and I can’t see it. When you’re too close to the mountain, you can’t see how high it really is.
I’ve lived my life with death all around me — not in the way that the billions of poor people on this planet do, perhaps, with family members dying slowly in the corner of the shack, or ripped apart under American bombs — but with frequent visits from the reaper, until he became a familiar presence in my life, neither feared nor hated. I have no fear of death, but I resent it, and the curtain it throws around our brief little lives.
My father died when I was about five years old, my younger brother, right in front of me, a few years later. Aunts and uncles, great- and otherwise, died with regularity through my teens, as did my dearly-loved maternal grandfather. The rest of my grandparents were gone by the time I was in my mid-twenties, and then my step-father, who’d married my mother not long after my father’s death 20 years before, also died. I have friends who never lost a family member or dear friend until their mid-thirties, for whom Rick’s death was a shock more singular, and I always wondered how they thought about death. Did they fear it? Do they hate it more now, or less? Do they put it from their minds, and go on with the humble daily things, keeping the stink of terror well hid?
Scars were left on me in the wake of those deaths in my young life, furrows and welts in my brain some of which are even now just working their way into the light. This is as it should be. My great and abiding love for the drink, moderated and benign as it has become in my later years, as much passed on genetically and nurtured environmentally as it may be, certainly has some roots there. My fear and loathing of the very idea of having children, absolutely. My carefully-chosen expatriate existence, yearning contrapuntally as I sometimes do for the deep, cold coniferous forests of my youth. The vigour with which I counter those who I perceive to be attacking me, yes. All of these and more. I have made my peace with the ghosts, made it many years ago, and carry my wounds with awareness and a quiet understanding that what happens is good by virtue of the sheer fact that it has happened, and that to claim otherwise and rail against our experience is to refuse life, and shrink from it. To say no, rather than yes.
But Rick’s death marked me, more than I could have expected. I still feel that weightless skip in my heartbeat, that stab in the gut, when I think of him. One year on, there are more questions than ever, about what my life is to mean to me, and what it has meant. About what is important, what is indispensable, and what is good. About how to reconcile a love for individuals with a deep, heart-squeezing loathing for humanity, and particularly for the sort of people that knocked down the World Trade Centre, that set the bomb in Bali, and that ordered the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. About the preachers and the haters, the ideologues and the god-fearers, the killers and the martyrs, and about how deeply stupid and damaged, greedy and afraid they must be.
And in the end, of course, I’m left with more questions, and I’m left with a rising knot of choking rage and resentment that I consciously push down, squeeze back, and try to transform into something useful, into words and actions that don’t feed the killer monkeys, that keep the bloody chaos at bay, and I’m not usually very successful.
I said this, about 18 months ago, long before my friend’s death :
and I suppose I still believe it to be true.
But Rick’s murder marked me, more perhaps and nearer the surface than any death I’ve lived past since I was very young. I suppose I am a better man because of that mark. I would be a happier man, and one less uncertain and questing, if it had not happened. Would that Rick were still walking around in his loose-limbed way, falling in love at the drop of a hat, laughing and drinking and seeing. Would that he could share a drink with me tonight.
But that is not the way it happened, and I’m still not sure of how to live with that.