“On the death of a friend, we should consider that the fates through confidence have devolved on us the task of a double living, that we have henceforth to fulfill the promise of our friend’s life also, in our own, to the world.”
– Henry David Thoreau
Been thinking a lot about death lately, y’all.
Don’t trip though, not my own (at least not in the self-destructive sense; been free of those thoughts for a minute now 💪🏾#mentalhealthawareness).
Really just been thinking about death in general. As an inevitability. As THE inevitability.
For the past five years I’ve been researching for and writing what I initially thought was a single epic novel about four very different people living in Miami between 1979 and 1989. And by epic, I mean the literal noun definition of the word, not what drunk ass Lazaro thought about Lebron’s posterizing dunk on whoever was stupid enough to get in his way:
ep·ic /ˈepik/ (noun): a long film, book, or other work portraying heroic deeds and adventures or covering an extended period of time.
Calling any of these characters heroic may be stretching it, but the story (working title: Riders in Disguise) does explore the effects of the entire ’80s decade on the people involved.
The central character, Rig, is a child growing up in Liberty City during Miami’s Cocaine Cowboy era and a burgeoning crack epidemic. Three other characters fill out the narrative: Tina, a young Puerto Rican newspaper photographer; Ralph, a Vietnam Vet turned homicide detective; and Tommy, a former accountant made unwilling drug trafficker.
About two years ago I realized I was writing more than just a single novel (paused at 600 pages and had just barely touched 1984 🤦🏾♂️). So I started aiming for two books, maybe even a trilogy. Then—early this year, when I hit 1,000 pages and still wasn’t close to done—it dawned on me that I was actually writing a series. Ultimately my aim is for the collective story to reflect, as accurately as possible, a combination of Miami’s structural history, the history of its people, and my own experiences growing up and residing in this crazy awesome city.
But I’m still not done with the damn thing and—after half a decade—I think it’s perfectly reasonable for people to question if I ever will be. We shall see.
Back to Death, that old bastard.
Fairly deep into planning Riders in Disguise, I realized one of the main characters was going to die. It was a sinking feeling, that realization. I sat back in my chair behind my office desk, stared at my computer screen in dismay and said out loud:
“Holy shit, they’re gonna kill [SPOILER].”
Yes, “they’re gonna kill,” as opposed to “I have to kill.” To be clear, a main character getting Game-of-Throne‘d is just one of many horrendous things I had to describe while writing Riders in Disguise.
But, I mean…I had to. Really wasn’t my choice, after all.
At a certain point in the story-writing process, the narrative and characters take on a life of their own. They come off the page and become fixtures in your mind, inhabiting the same realm where actual real, physical people and memories also exist.
You get it though. It’s the reason you always cry when you watch that movie or TV show episode that always makes you cry. You’ve connected with the characters enough for them to be real, to you.
At that point, for a writer, things just start to happen, independently of your imagination. The inevitable just starts doing what inevitable things do.
The character in Riders in Disguise whose murder I was forced to write (R.I.P. [SPOILER]) was born in my mind, but death has been as real in my life as I’m sure it’s been in yours. I’ve lost two friends to a senseless act of violence, another drowned in a canal, grandparents to age, two uncles to cancer and dementia (respectively), a cousin to the supposedly-rare-Stevens-Johnson syndrome and most recently (also to the supposedly-rare-Stevens-Johnson syndrome) the wife of my best friend, a woman I’d personally been friends with since the 3rd grade.
I write this with the sting of that last one lingering in me like venom. She was special. They were all special. I have deeply and wholeheartedly mourned (and still mourn) everybody I’ve lost. Including the character in Riders in Disguise.
I shit you not, I teared up writing that death scene.
When it was over, I paused and took a moment to accept the gravity of what I’d just transcribed; acknowledged that the character’s death would ultimately affect not just the future of the story but everything that happened up to that point. Like a literary nuke dropped smack in the middle of the timeline.
It’s hard for our brains to make sense of that, I think. The fact that one intertwined story can end while the other strands move on to the next scene. It makes sense on the movie screen, but in real life?
See, essentially—at least to the people who care about us—death holds much, much more weight than the life that preceded it. And I get that. Death is almost always abrupt, and the fact that we know nothing about it or what follows it gives it a seemingly insurmountable advantage in the publicity department. It’s The End. The Final Word. The Grand Exit.
But as any literary critic knows, the ending of any story is only the beginning of your telling of that story. It’s the starter pistol going off at the beginning of the 100-yard dash. The referee tossing the ball up at mid-court during an NBA tip-off. The moment someone in Houston says “We have liftoff” and those rocket boosters start billowing smoke.
Because it’s pretty much impossible to really actually say what a story is—what it’s true impact is, what it’s rightful place in the literary canon is—until it’s finished.
It was a weird feeling, mourning a fictional character. To have someone feel like a real human being, smell real, sound real af. It was even weirder to go back and edit all the chapters leading up to the character’s death, knowing when and where it would all end. The irony of it all though is that—in death—the character felt even more real and alive to me than ever. Because of the inevitability of it all, an inevitability totally separate from my own will.
Eventually, I had no choice but to just accept it as the new reality within this narrative.
Eventually, I had to accept that it was just an inevitable part of this particular story, and therefore inarguable. Which I’m finally starting to see is one of the simplest truths of reality.
I used to think of death in terms of how people die. The frequently violent hue of the process; the feelings of loss and sadness emanating from every connection point. And I still acknowledge that all of that is part of the package since death is nearly always—by nature—thrust upon us, unwanted.
But the more experiences I accumulate, and the more Death’s ugly mug makes an appearance in my life, the more I start to see it as one end of a binary code that is nothing more or less than the most basic rule in our universe. A necessary side to the coin of existence.
Death is a by-product of Life, just as Up is a by-product of Down.
Hating it accomplishes nothing, and truly understanding it is as impossible as overcoming its own inevitability.
So I choose, instead, to think of Death simply as the end of a story. And really, nearly everything in life comes down to the story. My story, your story, our story. A story kept immortal by the existence of humanity’s collective memory, and our innate love of tales. History, science, math, the arts, our every way of life has been born from tales built on top of other tales. Tales we tell over and over again, with the hope that they’ll lead to grander and grander tales.
And therein lies our savior.
Stories, our stories, are the one thing death can’t touch. Ever.
They go on as we go on. As the collective story goes on. And in the end, when every strand has been explored and it is all truly over—even then—the tale will have still been told.
It will still have existed. Always.
So there you have it, Death, you shady s.o.b.
Sure, you’ve got your inevitability. 👏🏾 Dalé, bro, it’s all yours.
Us, though? Us? Sheeeit.
We’ve got our stories, bay-bee.
We’re effing immortal.
Uncle Osborn, thanks for giving me like 20 nicknames, and providing the house where a bunch of my favorite childhood family memories took place.
Greg, thanks for being the first (and only, for a while) kid to be nice to me at 9th grade spring football practice.
Justin, thanks for making me be your friend, even when I was being weird about it.
Karen, thanks for putting your instinct aside and loving your friend enough to let me in. Wish we’d had more time to let it grow.
Grandma, Grandpa, I love you so freaking much. So much good doesn’t happen without you two’s existence.
Uncle Roger, thanks for loving my aunt, and for your part in getting our family over here.
Jonathan, the most ambitious of us all. I wanted to see your name highlighted on MSNBC one day cuz, but alas…
Sara, thanks for hitting me in the face with a dodgeball that day. You were the longest friendship I had. Epic tales always start with a simple moment.
I promise to tell your stories until mine ends ✊🏾