I tried to take a nap before writing this letter. I had a feeling it was going to take a lot out of me, and I wanted to be rested. But as soon as I lay down, all I could think about was everything I wanted to try and say here. So it seemed pointless to put it off any longer. I’m sure you of all people can appreciate that.
Actually, a similar thing happened that ugly night between the Saturday you were taken to that final hospital and the Sunday when you officially, technically died. For some reason, I didn’t want to start mourning you yet, not that night, while your heart continued to beat. Stubborn heart. It’s not that I thought you’d make some kind of miraculous return, but…if I had held out that optimistic hope, could you blame me? I hear that back home, the gallows-humor joke (credited to AJ, I believe?) is, “Of all the times he died, this was the worst.” Of course, you — the version of you to whom it makes any sense at all to write this letter — must know that already. Maybe it had been made before, about whatever the last worst “cardiac event” was.
Back to last Saturday night. I couldn’t sleep, and it was all your fault. I’d already decided that I wanted to write something to honor you (I know, shut up), but I wasn’t sure how to do that without making the story about my loss, rather than about your life, and maybe your legacy. I decided it would be a letter (this letter, obviously). Then I still couldn’t sleep, because now, even in the dark, eyes closed, sleep mask on (I wear a sleep mask now), I couldn’t stop sifting my memory banks for stories of you. Trips we took, that duet we sang, plays we did, parties we went to. A lot of this stuff I hadn’t thought much about in a while. But it was in there. And now it just kept coming and coming, and with every memory I felt more like I was coming apart.
I can feel myself making it about me already. Let’s regroup here.
On Sunday I googled you. It was a silly thing, I see that now, but I guess I was looking for…news? So, there you go: your death felt — feels — like NEWS. The precise phrase I googled was “Cole Murray, Chesterton.” And, because the Internet, I saw one of the top hits was the IMDb page for the documentary we made together. Sorry it took me so long to edit that. I really appreciate the way you didn’t bat and eye at my nonsensical plan to try and make a movie with no budget, no crew (save you), and a single digital camera. I don’t know if you believed in me, per se, but I think you believed in the merit of a human story, told honestly. And that the town — our hometown, though you could always claim it more than I — was full of people whose regular lives were, in and of themselves, fascinating.
Well, of course you did. You were one of those fascinating people. And honest? Unflinchingly. Unless you weren’t talking.
Before that sleepless Saturday night, it had been ages since I thought about visiting you in the hospital in…god, like 2003? 2004? I was scared then that you might die. But deep down, I didn’t think you would. The more times you came close, the more inevitable it should have seemed. Instead, though, I think I saw each recovery as further proof of your invincibility.
But here’s what I want to make sure I say: I know that you didn’t see it that way. I might not feel as confident writing that if not for the minor miracle of that time we got to spend together last June. How long had it been? Far too long at any rate, years of Instagram story chats and Happy Birthday texts and not a whole lot else. But then we got that day. In the immediate aftermath of that trip to Indiana, I mostly recalled how fun it was to meet your boys, to watch all the kids as they screamed and danced, then quieted and stilled in front of the fish tank at George’s.
Then you died (well, almost, not quite) and I remembered so vividly the way you entered the high school auditorium that afternoon, sun pouring in from the open bay door of the scene shop, emerging in silhouette, a giant stepping into focus as Kevin and I leaned on the stage’s edge, watching his kids make up a show.
I can’t overstate how surreal it was to me, someone who held that whole place as memory alone, an early chapter in a long book that’s still being written. But, for you, it seemed natural. Enter stage left, backlit.
You spirited me away to watch C’s t-ball game. (Oh guess WHAT — I was on my way to watch my nephew’s t-ball practice for the first time when I found out about the whole “no brain activity” thing. The Universe sometimes, amirite?). We sat on the bleachers at the little league park, roasting in that bright sun, and you told me about stories you were writing and ideas you had. You expressed some hope — excitement, even — about what you might be able to do with your life now that you were on permanent disability. This, of course, after explaining to me how weird it was to be on permanent disability, because it essentially made it official that your days were numbered.
Look, Cole. I don’t want to turn you into an object lesson or a hero. Not when your honest-to-god humanity is maybe the best thing about you. And yet, you have to know that all week long, I have been dumbstruck by the fucking astonishing way that you walked through the world for the majority of your life. What could be more defiantly hopeful than continually planning (and working, and fighting) for a tomorrow that you knew you might not see? I’ve been plagued by the pressure of “carpe diem” for a long time, because I learned young that a long life is not promised to us. But you didn’t wear “carpe diem” like a burden. You figured out a way to live life like it was going to be short, and yet keep forging ahead as a person of substance. Humor helped. That honesty helped. Above all, I think you were honest with yourself. If, on the bleachers last June, or any of the countless times you promised your death to me, I wrote it off as a morbid sensibility, it might just be that I wasn’t willing to be so honest with myself. I didn’t understand that kind of hope yet — hope without optimism. You lived there.
Is it flattering or insulting that I wasn’t prepared to lose you for real? I took your existence for granted. Even though, more than once over the years, you looked at me point blank and told me not to. You were too vital to be dying. I never stopped seeing you that way. I’m not even sorry. It’s just the truth.
There’s this image that came to mind that night I couldn’t sleep. I saw myself — my self, the person I am today — as a tower of bricks. Countless bricks. Every brick is an event, a person, an experience that formed me. As I recalled literal decades of memories of you — I think I was 12 when we met, and most of them, admittedly, are bricks fairly close to ground level — it was as if, with each new recollection, that brick would begin to glow. Before long, there were lights everywhere. It was undeniable: you were such a big part of who I have become.
It’s easy to push the analogy towards catastrophe — the wall is, say, a game of Jenga. You died and now I’m going to come clattering down onto the table. But no. I get to keep my Cole bricks. No one can take those away.
This is the true immortality. We touch one another’s lives, and we create an invisible legacy. I can’t say for sure how your friendship has shaped me, or how your death is shaping me, but I know the shaping is happening. I know that, in all my acts of bravery, defiance, honesty, hope without optimism, and friendship, there is a germ of you.
I know. Gross.