Lessons of Grief

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The day that it happened, the United States Postal Service unveiled The Simpson’s collectors’ set—a five-stamp commemorative booklet featuring Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie, each set against solid, neon backgrounds.

A father in Cheyenne, Wyoming took a hammer to his daughter’s cell phone after learning the girl, thirteen, sent and received 20,000 text messages in a single month. Their bill totaled $4,756.25, as their plan did not include messaging.

A man in Waco, Texas was arrested in his hotel room after stabbing his roommate, who allegedly farted, while hours south, a sea turtle named Allison was fitted for a neoprene ninja suit after losing three of her four fins. The accessory reestablished normalcy amongst her peers, moving one Sea Turtle Inc. employee to later tell reporters, “Now that’s a sea turtle doing what a sea turtle does best.”

Britney Spears told a Vancouver audience, “Drive safe, don’t smoke weed, and rock out with your cocks out.”

Facebook gained its 200 millionth user.

New York Magazine published The Michelle Obama Look Book.

And Public Enemies unveiled its first full-length trailer.

But before any of that, in the early hours of morning, my friend Kevin waited on the sidewalk outside his split-level home in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Upstairs, in the tub, his former girlfriend lay dead.

Kevin had suffered what doctors would later call a “psychotic break,” or a state of “psychotic dissociation,” or they would say, very simply, “he was not aware of his environment,” but all that really meant was he stabbed his former girlfriend twenty-seven times in the neck and upper torso with a kitchen knife I’d once used to slice up lemons.

“I don’t know what happened,” he told the police over the phone, but he was sorry—he was so sorry—and he was scared, and would they come?

He said, “I’ll be waiting for you outside.”

Five blocks away, I lay sleeping in my apartment above a law office, dreaming of the ocean or undercurrents, the way mountains can rise from nearly nothing and in their landscape become everything, and while I could later imagine that police cruiser driving first down Washington St. and then Lincoln Avenue—see the early morning commuters clicking on their turn signals and pulling over along the shoulder—I didn’t see that car or its kaleidoscope of color.

I didn’t hear the noise.

I slept soundly, and that cruiser continued moving—quickly traversing the space between us—and then the whole morning was quiet, and my friend Kevin stopped waiting.

*

For three years, I’ve done nothing but write and think of Kevin—how it felt to lose my friend, how in losing him, I lost myself—and I have written, too, to Kevin: monthly letters that arrive in his maximum-security prison and detail my everything, because I know it’s what he craves most. Not his freedom, necessarily, but to know a life not stuck in stagnation. He seeks a break from the mundane, a way to feel inspired, a letter that says, I miss you, and I remember, and I care.

This, however, is not about my friend Kevin. This is about Emily, the girl he killed, who was a girl I never knew, a girl I never even tried to know because she was three years younger and that, somehow, mattered. We were students of Gettysburg College, and Emily was a lanky sophomore, just declaring a major the week I met her. I was a senior who spent her evenings in bars, in restaurants, in the pub near the downtown rotary, ordering beers and sweet red wine. I was drafting an honors thesis, applying to graduate schools, and because in Pennsylvania Emily couldn’t even sit at our table if we ordered alcohol, in one of the only memories I have of her, she’s standing beside Kevin at my twenty-first birthday party as a waiter leans down gently to tell her she cannot sit at our gigantic table.

“I’m sorry,” he says politely, “but this lady’s ordered a flight of beer.”

It was never that I was purposefully indifferent to Emily, but that her inconsequentiality was all I knew. Emily was young, with so many years and experiences ahead of her, and in the worlds I’ve since imagined, she’s working as a foreign diplomat, or she’s on a plane above an ocean. She’s heading to northern Africa to teach English in a clean, bright classroom, and I see her in pencil skirts, her hair held up in a neat, tight bun. That final year in Gettysburg, my attention was on my studies, my friends, the places I hoped to go. In nine months’ time, I’d leave Gettysburg, and leave Pennsylvania, and I’d cross the country or an ocean or go to I don’t know where, but in no way did I anticipate it mattering who Emily was or might have been.

This is what I can thought, whether I feel comfortable admitting that truth or not.

She and Kevin had been dating off and on for months the night he killed her, and I didn’t think of her in the three years that followed because it seemed to me all but impossible. There was a wall of grief around my heart; I could not stand to build another.

Instead, I let those years pass slowly, quietly, subtly, without ever contacting her friends or family. I never bothered to reach out to anyone who cared about her at all. I tried so hard not to notice her absence, in fact, that time’s accumulation seems to me now devastating. Three years is the same amount of time, I’ve learned, that it takes a newborn baby to understand puzzles, sort objects logically, recognize emotions, form conscious friendships. Three years is how long it takes a peach pit to become a fruit-bearing tree, how long it takes an average American male to propose, how long a beta fish typically lives.

Three years, and because I didn’t want to think about what Kevin did or, more specifically, who he did it to—not really, anyway—I spent that time instead studying thunderstorms, reading Hemingway, touring the Philippines. I spackled a wall and caulked a bathtub and pitched a vinyl tent in a western desert. I learned Tagalog and saw a waterspout, bought a handheld blowtorch and roasted ducks, and Emily, of course, did not a single one of those things.

In a small town in Illinois, I split dessert with the nation’s best juggler.

In a small town in eastern Iowa, I kissed Flava Flav on his stubbly cheek.

In an island in the South Pacific, I sat on a bar stool while a woman ran a bamboo shoot across my body—again and again and again—and I waited as she blew in, as she blew out: her attempt to undo a curse. “Has it been there long?” I asked, bewildered, and she lowered her eyes, not knowing my language.

Three years, and every night I climbed into bed always hoping there’d be no energy left to dream of Emily, but of course I always did: no longer were my dreams of dresses or even homes, of men I’d truly loved, but Emily, always Emily—I saw her taking notes in some sun-lit classroom, or writing stories, or reading books. Other nights, I dreamt I was hovering somewhere above her, descending a rusting fire escape, running barefoot down the sidewalk to arrive in her darkened bedroom before the letters could arrive in the soft, brown mulch. Those testimonies to her memory, to how much she truly mattered.

I stood beside her body, still alive and flush with sleep, and tugged gently at her smooth, white wrist.

“Come with me,” I always said. “Come now—there is no time.”

Miles away, on the battlefields of Gettysburg, from all that danger, we sprawled out on our backs to stare up at the bright, white moon. We imagined patterns in the stars, and I pointed my finger upwards, saying, Ursa Major, Ursa Minor.

The dreams always began the same—with darkness and a patchwork of stars—but in every dream, I stayed beside her. In every dream, I kept her safe.

“Just a little longer,” I always said, and together, we waited for night to end.

*

I was the last person Kevin saw that night—the last person before Emily—because he walked me home and then he killed her; he wanted to make sure I “got in safe.” And while I am aware—and always have been—that Emily’s trauma is not my trauma, that her murder is not my own, I find in these past three years, I’ve grown increasingly desperate to learn and know her.

These urges come to me naturally and in the most inconvenient of places: while waiting in line at the carwash, while listening to a country song about a gravel road. If I were a braver person, I might attempt to see her family. I might ask to meet her brother. I might drive to rural New Jersey to sit beside them in their living room, a ceiling fan spinning in lazy circles, and maybe then I’d manage to learn her, so as to undo my former indifference.

“What’s her favorite food?” I’d ask, and then I’d ask if we could make it. We’d stand together in their cool, clean kitchen and spoon cubes of bread over chicken cutlets.

But even after these three years, I remain too terrified to contact her family. I remain too scared to drive through her state. My association—and continued association—with Kevin seems nothing if not awful, especially when I think of her family.

I think of them and I think, Shit. I think, What are you doing, writing the man who killed her.

But the problem remains simple: the Kevin who killed Emily is the same man who first walked me home. We passed a 7-11 and a Chinese restaurant and a pet shop that sold canine tuxes and wedding dresses, made-to-order dog bones and plastic booties. I stood before their storefront and I pointed to their display—Do you see those tiny laces? Can you imagine that yellow raincoat?—and Kevin laughed, nudging me along.

“It’s late,” he said, “let’s go.”

Kevin was calm that night, collected, normal, although I’d later wish he wasn’t. He was acting so strange, I’d want to say, because at least that would make some sense. But the Kevin who walked me home was the same one I’d always known, and while I’ve felt a variety of emotions these past three years, anger has never been one of them. To be angry, it seems to me, would be to imply I believe he had control over what he did. And the truth—scary as I find it—is that I don’t believe he did.

I think it was chemical in nature. I think his mind honest-to-god broke. He’d been suffering for months from severe depression and suicidal ideation, all the while repressing everything—not speaking with a therapist, not taking his medicine—and I think it took its toll. I think he finally snapped. Worse yet, not one but three mental health evaluations all confirm what I find horrific: that a person can lose their ability to act on what they know is right or wrong.

That emotion has that power.  That so, too, does instability.

*

What I know now as fact: Emily suffered massive hemorrhaging, fingernail-shaped abrasions, marks “consistent with manual strangulation” in addition to her stab wounds.

There was discoloration on her eyelids, cuts on her forearms, hands and wrists.

There was blunt-force trauma to her head and neck.

There was evidence of a struggle.

At the time of her death, she was wearing blue velour sweatpants, a tie-dyed hooded sweatshirt, and a gold t-shirt that read “Forever,” and for the longest while, this information—what I read as public documents in the Adams County courthouse—was the most I ever knew about Emily, both before her death and after.

I know her better now.

I know from her online memorial, for example, that Emily liked watermelon. That her favorite sport was swimming. That in high school, she participated in the Model United Nations, and in a photo I’ve found online, she’s waving a flag at Liberia’s table.

She was vegetarian, a Cancer, a member of Amnesty International.

She pitched tents to raise awareness for homelessness in the middle of our college campus, and in the sixth grade, she wrote a letter to our president. I like to imagine what she said.

I know Emily liked art—most recently, creative writing—and she was slowly learning Arabic. She was apple-cheeked and a brunette and spent her summers working at Dairy Queen, twisting vanilla soft-serve into plastic cups. She owned many pairs of bright glasses.

But I am afraid to ask for more. Instead, I browse her online memorial and the non-profit organization her parents founded in her name. The Emily Fund, it’s called, and their slogan is, Do one thing.

“Choose one or a few dates during the year to raise awareness about the social issues that most move you,” the website reads, and then there’s a pop-up calendar with 60 dates: ideal opportunities for making a difference. “Find the cause that matters most,” I read, and then I consider them quietly:

March 1: Energy Day, day the Peace Corps was founded in 1961.

July 26: Americans With Disabilities Act signed in 1990.

December 1: Antarctic Peace Treaty established in 1959.

Pick a cause, I think. Do something, except I never do. Every time I see them, I’m startled into lack of movement: how there are all these things I could be doing while I otherwise just sit around and think of her.

Elsewhere on the page, I can browse photographs of Emily, whole pages in an online archive. I can learn her retroactively, and many nights, I do: I see Emily eating a marshmallow from a stick in her Brownie uniform, or clutching her skirt on a sandy boardwalk. She’s sitting in a pile of leaves. She’s hooded in a bright green jacket, the fur trim pulled tight around her face. Her mouth is of the expression of someone who will live a long, safe life, her eyes wide and full of color.

It is the world of Emily that I never knew, that I never even tried to know. They are the memories that are all anyone has of her anymore, and it’s as close as I will ever get.

She was nineteen the night she died. Five blocks away, I was asleep.

*

In the only other memory I have of Emily, she’s drinking red wine from a Solo cup in my apartment, just six months before her murder. It’s Halloween, and she’s Kevin’s new girlfriend—a purple fairy with nylon wings. I ask her to take my photograph. I nudge her, hold up my camera, and say, “Please?” I say, “Would you mind?”

I pose beside a referee, a soccer player, and a banana.

Of the many photos of that night, Emily is only ever the glittering black wings in the background of my posing. Me, beside a cupcake decorated like a spider. Me, beside a pumpkin. Me, dressed in yellow, a flirty bumblebee in black high heels.

And now—years and a thousand miles away from that night, that town, that world—I think of Emily and wonder.

How did she like to eat her spaghetti?

Did she ever have a dog?

I wonder now if Emily had been to Europe, or if she ever wanted to, or what color she might paint her toenails if she was around to paint them now.

In the most difficult moments, I find myself hoping that Emily at least saw the Pacific Ocean before she died, or Yellowstone, or the Grand Canyon at the very least. Recently, while on a cross-country road trip, I stood on the edge of that dusty basin, all the endless red rock below, and thought, I hope that Emily saw this.

This is what happens now. I feel sadness about everything. I have no idea, of course, what Emily did or did not see, because of course I have no reason to mourn a woman I barely knew.

“It’s not like you were friends,” someone told me once. “So it’s scary, sure—that proximity—but you don’t have a claim in all this sadness.”

As if sadness is an entity one seeks desperately to call one’s own.

*

I grieve, Emerson writes in his often-quoted essay “Experience,” that grief can teach me nothing, and perhaps this is my greatest fear: that more than Kevin, more than Emily, more than any inherent violence, I fear that these three years—which have had very little and yet everything to do with me—have ultimately imparted nothing, have caused no wisdom to arrive, that the destination where I now find myself I would have reached without this trauma.

That rather than a journey of knowledge or insight, I have instead suffered my way into a significance that has nothing to do with me. Has nothing, and means nothing, because it was simply something that happened, something I’m attempting to make some sense of, and instead I’ve wasted years obsessing and imagining and reimagining everything. Because even after all this time, I still don’t know what most needs saying. I still don’t understand what happened. Or how or even if I could’ve stopped it, had I tried.

Kevin will never write to me about Emily, although I now try with increasing frequency. You can ask about anything, he writes, but it’s too much pain to think of that.

Instead we talk about books and movies and philosophy and television. Sometimes, he sends me stories I only ever find difficult. In them, a woman stabs a man, or a man writhes across a table. Blood soaks deep into the wood, he writes, eventually pooling in a loaf of bread.

It’s hard to say what I find most troubling: his cryptic stories or what I’ve done. Both of us, it’s clear, are searching for understanding. We both suffer from a lack of peace. Our brains are playing tricks because we can’t make sense of what has happened. And so we find ourselves obsessed: Kevin with what he did, and me with why he did it, and now, who he did it to.

He is attempting to make sense of what remains nonsensical, so I don’t tell them that they bother me. My health seems the least of our concerns. I worry mostly about his, and whether he’s getting the “support as needed,” as it states on his prison intake file. He will not tell me about that world and when I ask, he ignores my questions.

What else can I think to tell you? he writes. Yesterday we got watermelon!

As humans, we seek a resolution. We want to say, Here’s what I’ve learned. But there remains no way to explain how even if I’ve no stake—even if I barely knew that girl at all—I think of her all the time. I am rendered heartbroken when I see her face and I’m rendered heartbroken when I think of her family.

Or when, in April, the buds are reborn—because their death is only temporary—or when the people who love her most change their Facebook pictures to hers in tribute. And for those weeks, it’s like she’s there: she’s commenting on a Snoop Dogg picture, or she’s inviting her friends to a barbecue.

You have to listen to this! she writes, and it’s so unsettling because of course she can’t.

But it’s these moments—however hard—that I remember what is true: that the heartbreak of who I’ve become will never equal the loss of what Emily was. It will never equal whatever they feel: the people who bothered to get to know her.

But this weight deep within my stomach? It’s not just for Kevin and it never was.

It is for her, always for her.

I grieve for Emily, absolutely.

 

 

**Read also:  Vela’s interview with Amy Butcher.

Images credits:
Girl, by Greg Humphey
The Girl in Red, by Nicolas Nojarof
Minnesota Girl, by Shena
Red Girl in the Snow, by Paul Heneker
Red Umbrella, by Roberto Trm
Woman in Red Jacket, by Shawn Carter
Paint the Town Red, by Diana Mehrez

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About Amy Butcher

Amy Butcher is an essayist and author of the forthcoming memoir Visiting Hours (Blue Rider Press/Penguin, April 2015), of which this essay is an excerpt. She earned her MFA from the University of Iowa and has recent work in The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times “Modern Love” column, Gulf Coast, Guernica, and Brevity, among others. More at .

Comments

  1. Great work Amy, this is moving and has brought quite a few things in my life into perspective.

  2. Stones are destroyed and created. Some erode away over eons, others are smashed before their time. The tragedy is not the act of destruction, but to forget the different layers of rock, how it feels to hold in your hand, its weight.
    Know Emily.
    Remember her.

  3. I read your other essays with regards to the murderer and you seemed very biased because he was your friend. It’s nice to see you write from the perspective of the victim for a change.

Thoughts?