The first time I saw him he was being wheeled out on a stretcher and lifted into a van by two medical examiners. Eric was there as well—tall, well-dressed Eric. Eric is my favorite doorman. The sky was a dull gray, absent of any real emotion, leaving that to us. It was raining. But not enough to make you care, not enough to mean anything. Eric had just opened the back door of the apartment building as I rounded the corner. He made a hand gesture, pursed his lips and shook his head.
No. Not yet. Wait there. You don’t want to see this.
I froze. I couldn’t breath. A wave of dread and nausea washed over me as I fought back vomiting. I knew what I was about to see.
Earlier that day, while chaperoning a field-trip with my older son, the sitter watching my 2-year-old sent me flurry of texts. The texts included words like “FBI”, and “murder”. There were the words “medical examiner” and “crime scene investigators”. She wrote about a distraught man sitting outside, weeping. She wrote that something terrible had happened.
I read all these things while standing on the banks of the Long Island Sound, digging for clay.
He’d been dead for days.
They shut the doors to the van, thanked Eric for his help and drove away. Eric and I stood alone in the rain, watching the van become smaller and smaller. And then he was gone. Just like that. The dead man was gone.
“I spoke to him almost every morning. He was a nice guy…” Eric looked down at the ground, kicked a pebble and shook his head again.
I gave him a hug.
That whole tiny moment—the bleak sky, its hesitant rain; the look on Eric’s face; the hand gesture he’d given me; the van and the man’s corpse—would continue to haunt me for the remainder of the day and well into the next. When I shut my eyes, it was there. When I went to bed, it was there. When I took a shower, it was there. It was a picture—an image—filled with everything and nothing. I simply couldn’t shake it. I couldn’t unsee it. And I wanted to.
Is this what painters do? They have an image that they can’t unsee, so they create it in hopes that it will stop haunting them? The day had dropped this moment into my life and my memory kept repainting it, looking for something new, something different, something less final and horribly sad.
But I am no painter.
I kept looking for color.
I have no memory of there being any color.
If only the sun had been shining.
What I’m about to admit isn’t something I am proud of. And it’s probably not something most people would choose to admit in writing. Perhaps, if you were reading this in a book, you might forgive a character for doing what I did. Because we forgive fictional characters. Fictional characters can do irresponsible things. They can make poor, cringeworthy decisions and we forgive them for it. Even when fictional characters are based on real people, and actual events, we forgive them. It’s comforting to be able to say, “Yeah, but it’s not real. She didn’t really do that because that would just be crazy.”
But I am not fictional. I am me. And so.
I’m going to try something different. I’m going to write this next part in the third person. I’m going to refer to myself in the third person in hopes that maybe you won’t judge me as harshly for everything I’m about to tell you.
Also: every time I try and finish this post in the first person, I cringe and give up.
After seeing his body, she became obsessed. She decided she needed to know as much as possible about the dead man. She couldn’t let her last and only bit of knowledge about the dead stranger be that of a receding medical examiner’s van on the grayest of all days beneath a rainfall that didn’t matter.
Who was he? How had he died? How old was he? Was he lonely? Did he love someone? Did they love him? Where was his family? Did he have one? Do they know? Did he kill himself? Was he murdered?
Was he lonely?
She needed to know more. She dug around on Twitter, searched the “nearby” option. She keyed in and searched their shared address. Twitter made her amateur sleuthing way too easy. Before long, she’d found an article written by The New York Post about a “mysterious death” in a “high rise” (not true) “luxury apartment building” (debatable). They stated that he had been found bloodied, with cuts to his face. They reported that his apartment had been trashed, but there had been no sign of forced entry.
“Was this all true?” She wondered. “Had a murderer been in their apartment building?” (Spoiler alert: No.)
But the most useful (and incidentally the only factual) bit of information The Post gave her was the dead man’s age and name.
She had his name.
She came up with scenarios: He was a jock and got too aggressive while drinking with a girlfriend. She had scratched his face and hit him and he later died from an accidental drug overdose; He was a gay man who died at the hands of an angry lover; He committed suicide because, at 46, he was still single and alone; He had gotten into a fight earlier that night, stumbled home drunk, and not knowing the extent of his head injuries, never woke up; He died of a heart attack due to excessive drug use.
(This is what happens when a person relies on The New York Post for information.)
Truth be told, she wasn’t sure why she’d become so invested in knowing more about the dead man. Perhaps it’s because she had seen a very intimate detail of this man’s life—his death. This was something most people wouldn’t and probably shouldn’t see. But she couldn’t let him go, not yet and not in that manner.
The first encounter with the man simply couldn’t be one of his very last.
She had been to many funerals over the years. She had lost friends and family. She knew what it was like to lose someone unexpectedly and tragically. But funerals were staged events. She had time to prepare for them. The funerals she’d been to were designed as a way to say goodbye to people she had known. She shared memories with them, memories of them being alive. She’d seen them smile.
But she hadn’t prepared for this. She didn’t have any memories of this man. The only memory she had of this man was that of his death. She felt a certain amount of intimacy for the man.
The strange thing about being alive today, during the age of social media, Facebook and an exhaustive amount of connectivity, is the ease of which we can dig around and find out way too much information about a person. Because before long, she knew the name of his mother, his stepmother, father, brother, sister, and many of his aunts and uncles. She even knew the name of his pastor. She knew where he’d gone to college. She knew what his favorite sports teams were. She flipped through the snapshots he’d taken while vacationing in Italy back in 2009. She got glimpses of his life through the eyes of countless friends and family who loved him deeply. Their mourning poured out onto Facebook for anyone to bear witness to. Even her. Their tributes and memories of the man left her weeping.
He was loved, so very loved. And he wasn’t alone.
What she came to know about the dead man was that he came from a huge, loving family. He came from a family who believes wholeheartedly that he is in the hands of God now. She learned that he loved living in New York City even though his family and friends lived far away. She now knows about his amazing smile and how it lit up a room. She learned that he looked sharp in a suit and was very successful at his job. She learned that he was unbelievably kind, a quality apparent in the wrinkles that framed his eyes.
She learned that he would be missed by so many people, so very many people.
Even her. Even though she’d never seen him alive. Even though she never would.
She is no longer haunted by the image of the dead man and the van and the lack of color on the grayest of all days. She has set the image free.
Michele, this is so beautiful I can’t even handle it. I’ve been reading your site since around 2002 or 2003, back when I lived in Williamsburg. I always love your writing, but today you’ve captured a particularly home-hitting sentiment so honestly. Love.
This was fantastic. I love it dearly. It should be printed somewhere.
A Target employee here was in a terrible wreck and I had found out she was fighting for her life. I did what you did – dug up every bit of information I could find about her. Then she died and I had learned so much, I suddenly felt like I really knew her…and her death hit me strangely, like I had lost a friend.
Thanks for sharing.
Thank you both from the bottom of my heart.
It’s nice knowing I’m not alone in my selfish quest to know more about someone I didn’t even know. I did feel selfish. I felt badly digging into his private life. But I also couldn’t help myself. And then I found that I liked him and his family even from afar. And I forgive myself a little bit for it now because I (maybe foolishly?) think that given where I ended up, how I ended up feeling about their son/friend/brother/cousin, they might not think I’m all that bad for it. I dunno.
Becca: I remember you! Thank you for reaching out again. Much love to you, old friend.
I don’t know why you would be ashamed or embarrassed about this act of empathy and kindness and acceptance. You are a loving person, Michele.
Well, I invaded their privacy to a stalkerish degree. Guess that’s why. The road to stalking is paved with good intentions? :]
I feel like what you did is more like the work of a diarist and biographer. Even if an unofical unauthorized biographer. It’s not like you used government or law enforcement or banking databases. So, maybe stalking (I don’t know the legal definition). But it isn’t really invading privacy if the information is out in the public realm. And you were seeking to understand, not seeking to exploit or hurt.
Hm…well, I can’t deny it now, I suppose, not after reading this…
You see, I think we had a “falling out” a while back, over what I believe was a misunderstanding of one another, and truly, I’ve always been sorry about it. Perhaps you have no clue about what I’m referring, so — if that’s the case — please disregard these comments.
Whatever the case, this post further solidifies my sadness about that falling out of sorts, that time of misunderstanding, since I once again can TOTALLY RELATE to what you’ve written.
I do this same type of thing too, the research into someone I read about in our local news who has died in a wreck or due to a murder — to the dismay of my fiancé who feels that I shouldn’t take on the weight of the world so to speak, but it’s intrinsic to who I am, so there you are.
I also cry in large crowds of people banning together, like when people cheer at marathons, for example, or the national anthem at a sporting event. Many things you’ve written feel like…ME at my core. Like I totally “get it.” I don’t get the interest in the sewer system, but almost everything else I can relate to. ;-)
And when I get married, we’ll also have the same last name as one another, so there’s that too.
Peace, my lady. I am not sure I even remember? Maybe I do. I do remember you tho! Congrats on your upcoming wedding!
Sheryl: I have said as much before, but I adore you.
I often think that blogs and social media, and comments on web sites, are all such rich fodder for writers seeking to understand human experience. It’s a wonderland of information for people who want to write fiction with poignant and “authentic” characters.
This is one of your best pieces of writing, Michele. I agree with Sheryl 100%, you did nothing stalkerish or wrong. You sought understanding and human connection in a very real, heartfelt way.
You are one of the most loving and kind humans I have the pleasure of knowing.
Michele, such a nicely written story. Thank you.
Michele, this is going to sound totally crazy but I know what you’re going through. The death of Cory Monteith has made me feel like this. I wouldn’t consider myself a super fan, I watched Glee once a week on a Sunday when it was on TV. The thing that has hit me the hardest about it is the fact that he was alone when he died. No one should have to die alone.
It’s been making me think about my own mortality. Wondering what people will say about me when I die. Cory seemed like such a nice person, and I have been worrying that no one will have anything nice to say when I go. I’ve been making a big effort to reconnect with old friends and do something meaningul with my life.
You have written this so well and I feel so clumsy writing about a celebrity on here.
Sending you love across the pond from England, Sam
Oh, don’t feel crazy or weird. I get that completely, Sam. All of it. Our mortality and caring for a celebrity. I’m glad you took the time to share your thoughts. It makes people feel less alone. That is always a good thing. So thank you.
This is beatiful.
You are such a kind person Michele. I`m glad I discover your blog.