‘I live for both of us’: A love letter to my dead best friend | Death and die
At first, I didn’t understand what had happened to my best friend. We spoke on a Tuesday and then he died on a Thursday.
When I first met him, I was standing under the stairs in the math block with another girl. He walked by and I said, “We’re contacting the devil, do you want to watch?” He put his bag down and nodded. The girl and I took hands, closed our eyes, and began to slowly count down from 30. When we got to 11, a bug-eyed teacher said, “What’s going on?” come here, then? We quickly dropped our hands and I looked at my shoes and said, “We were contacting the devil, sir.” The professor stopped and said, “Well…no.” I was 13, he was 14.
As we FaceTimed each other goodbye that Tuesday, we talked about how excited we were to watch the latest set of peep show. We were always talking about future projects. He said he might train as a tattoo artist or consider becoming a Buddhist. I felt like it was OK to stop worrying about him, for that day anyway.
His death changed me for the worse and for the better. During the first days and weeks, I had to learn to survive. I now had this word “mourning” that people would understand and respect. I’ve used it in emails and for leaving conversations. When you are functionally depressed, you are able to manage, but only barely. And there’s always this worry that maybe people won’t believe you’re struggling and need help, because your life isn’t falling apart. All that changed after his death. Now I was no longer able to function and had to rely on the pain. I was forced to tell the truth about how unwell I was, in a newly vulnerable way. Before he died, I used to be bothered by my depression and tried to hide it.
I even hid it from him. When I first moved to London he stayed in Cardiff, but we spent hours on the phone most nights. My roommate said she always knew when I was talking to her because of the laughter coming from my room. Escapism was a big part of our friendship.
He came to visit me and hated the tube and only wanted to go to Camden. We sat in the corner of a red pub that only played Oasis. Sometimes, between the laughs, a look would pass between us and we would see in each other’s eyes that maybe we weren’t happy, but we weren’t going to talk about it. Now I wish we had. The only thing he said, as we spilled out into the streets, was that he found adult life “boring and uncreative.”
Most people I know find it difficult to take their own pain seriously, let alone talk about it. But loss is dangerous and some people do not survive it. Now that I was honest about how I felt, I started taking care of myself in a new way. I asked a friend to get me some cream for the mysterious rash that appeared all over my body, 24 hours after he died. I designated an ugly peach towel in the bathroom as the one I would silently cry into. It was softer and kinder to my eyes than handkerchiefs. I started using dental floss. I ate meals. I took my medication. I listened to an audiobook by The Tibetan Book of the Dead at full volume, even when I knew the neighbors were busy. I downloaded a meditation app and then deleted it to have more memory to play Cake Shop 2. I received a 2m long phone cable so I could comfortably play it in bed without stretching .
I put my endless self-improvement projects on hold (getting arms from Michelle Obama, reading Middle-walk, give up Diet Coke). There was no way I could improve or be productive. I could just survive. When getting out of bed was difficult, I broke things down into three, to make them manageable: 1) pushing back the duvet; 2) put the feet on the ground; 3) standing. It was the most I had ever done for my emotional well-being and I have my friend to thank for that. When you’re the one hurting yourself, you’re never safe. It was nice to start feeling safe again in my own company.
No matter what I did, I still needed him. And in those moments, I had to turn to the living. I began to wonder if I had been cured of my lifelong shyness. Crying openly in front of strangers was such a break with social norms that it was liberating. The shock was so great for so long that it filled me to the top, leaving less room for self-awareness. I cried on the trains and didn’t try to hide it by wiping the tears away, so they pooled in my neck, wetting my scarf.
One day a friend, who was fresh in her grief, asked me what to do. I forgot that no one teaches us to grieve and that there are things I desperately wish someone had told me. My friend was shocked to learn that anger is allowed, loneliness is extremely common, and pain doesn’t stay at the same intensity. I wish someone had told me not to be afraid of the future, because I didn’t know it wouldn’t stay as bad as the first day. I hadn’t realized that my experience could help others. It was my induction into a kind of club where every member lost someone. I started making connections and having conversations that I never would have had before.
Later that day at Sainsbury’s, a red-eyed woman stretched her whole arm toward the back of a shelf to find the milk with the longest expiry date. As shoppers pushed creaking carts past me, squinting in the artificial light, I wondered how anyone got out of bed in the morning. My friend’s pain began to make sense.
When I went back to work to shoot a TV show, I was calm and looked at my shoes a lot. At lunchtime, a slightly sexy older actor made intense eye contact with me, put his hand on his pec, and said, “First loss?” I was annoyed at how wise and fatherly he was. For the rest of the day, he looked at me across the room with a worried, erotically sad look, like I was a big, sexy grief-stricken baby in need of rescuing. I imagined a whole future with him on a hand-built farmhouse, where he would write me a bad play about being sad and I would mend his plaid shirts with string. When work was done, I showed her a bit of my bra strap and pretended it was an accident. There was so much sympathy around me now, and sometimes I wanted to indulge myself.
Eighteen months later, I was eating lasagna in front of Under the bridge when I thought I accidentally became more defined as a person. In mourning, there is no time to want to be like someone else. Trauma means reacting in the moment, just as you are. You must be horribly yourself. As in a novel where the character is revealed through actions, the crisis showed me who I was. I don’t always have to like what he shows me. I now wear clothes that my mother would have hated, things that were too short or too tight. I dyed my hair black, which she said was aging, and grew it long, which she said made my neck look short. I’m much angrier now. It’s okay as a woman to have anger, because my mom pretended she didn’t have any and my dad had too much.
Once you have walked through the loss, you know its landscape. Any loss will remind you of the first loss, as if it were a great river of desire. And I became less shocked. At first you think you’re nowhere, but if you’re lucky you might feel like you’ve traveled somewhere. It’s a very special kind of wisdom, a deep, mystical feeling of having seen the wild edges of being human. I come back from a quest, changed and I have information to pass on to the other villagers.
Five years later, I understand better what happened to my friend. I understand he was trying to protect himself from the pain. I didn’t understand it when I was younger. It’s hard when you’re young and dealing with addiction. We were all heavy drinkers, so it was hard to detect. It was a slow build, like a long note, getting louder and louder. As teenagers we spent afternoons sitting in his purple studio apartment in Cardiff, sipping cheap rum and coke, breathing heavily as it stung our palates, then laughing and trying to act sober on the phone if a parent called. Later, his drinking got worse, but I was too embarrassed to mention it. I saw it as a phase. I was waiting for the plot twist, where he suddenly reveals that he had a plan all along, that drinking was a way to access something else, and a new reformed person would emerge from the other side of destruction. But it was more of the same. And then it got worse.
Now I can write about him, which otherwise wouldn’t have happened. I couldn’t have written about going to my first gig with him, rolling down big hills with him in West Wales, taking hallucinogens and thinking we were made of milk, or how much funnier he was than most professional comedians I know. Before, I was too shy to write, certainly too shy to write autobiographically, and now I can’t stop. I can write about him even though there’s a voice in my head, even now, telling me it’s not good enough. It’s true: no scripture will be good enough to represent it. And I would trade all the words for him.
In the end, it strengthened my love for him. He did not take friendship with him. I still care about him and I know exactly how he would feel about himself dying and me being left behind, with all my other half of our private jokes. I absorbed his features. I eat the foods he liked and use the words he liked and tell our jokes to myself. And I found new ones for us too. I live for both of us. I replaced that person with love. And I can write her this love letter.
Delicacy: A Memoir About Cake and Death by Katy Wix is out now, published by Headline at £8.99. Order a copy at guardianbookshop.com.
If you have been affected by these issues, contact the Samaritans on 116 123 or email [email protected]