For nearly two decades, I’ve been exchanging letters with various pen-pals all over the world. We correspond the old-fashioned way, using regular postal mail. I’ve found it to be a highly enjoyable way of connecting with people of diverse backgrounds who I otherwise never would have met. They often have a tendency to come and go, but there are some I’ve been in touch with for years and consider good friends.
Early last year, I began experiencing severe, debilitating abdominal pain. In an odd twist of fate, one of my long-time correspondents, an Indonesian woman in her mid-40s, started suffering from similar symptoms right around the same time. In my case, a round of tests revealed nothing seriously wrong, and my problem has been easily treated with medication. I got the good news. My friend got the worst.
I know many people survive from cancer and I intend to be one of them, she wrote after learning her tumor was among the 1% of its type to be malignant. She’d had surgery and would go on to endure a round of chemo. In her last letter to me, written this past March, she expressed relief at not suffering all the side effects she’d expected from her treatments, but also acknowledged, briefly and very matter-of-factly, that her tumor had already begun growing back and would probably require more surgery. And then she went on to detail plans for upcoming trips to Singapore and Australia.
One evening at the end of May, I was scrolling through Facebook when several posts from my pen-pal’s friends twisted my heart. She was gone. Just like that. I’d sometimes wondered if she was downplaying the seriousness of her condition in her letters, but I’d had no idea things had deteriorated so severely. She’d been so insistently hopeful, at least when writing me.
The news was overwhelming. I’d already been sucker-punched that day. Just hours earlier, the wife of one of my cousins had died suddenly. Eight months pregnant with twins and only a week away from her scheduled delivery, she collapsed and was rushed to the hospital, where she and her unborn children were pronounced dead. She and my cousin already had a child, a son just short of three. Their family had been excitedly planning for two new members, and now without warning my cousin was a widower and his little boy was motherless.
The unexpected death of one person is a surreal experience. To be hit twice within a matter of hours isn’t something I can easily describe. What are the odds that two people you know, who otherwise have no connection to each other, will suddenly both be gone? Sitting at my relative’s funeral, I felt an odd disconnect from the people around me. Everyone else was focused on this one tragedy, while my thoughts cycled between the two of them. I was oddly, selfishly resentful of being unable to focus on one at a time. Both women were special, and I hated not being able to deal separately with each loss.
I returned home, a little tender, a little banged up emotionally, and resumed my regular routine, though I thought about both deaths often. Looking back on it, that week almost seems like the easy part of those horrible final weeks of spring. Because as much as it sucked to lose two people I knew at once, as sad as I was over it, I never felt there was anything wrong or unacceptable about my sadness. I never worried anyone would find it questionable or weird. Why would they? Sad is how you’re supposed to feel when people you know die. It’s expected, it’s appropriate, it’s something anybody can understand.
But what if you’re sad over someone you never met? Who would understand that? I certainly wouldn’t have. Sure, I’d shed plenty of tears over people I didn’t know killed in major disasters, but in those cases it was the sheer number of casualties that got to me. I’d never been particularly upset over a single individual I didn’t know. Not, that is, until a little over a week after my friend and relative’s deaths, when I woke up to the news that Anthony Bourdain was gone.
I realize this sounds awful, but one of my first thoughts after hearing that news was that if another famous person had to go, I really would have preferred it be anyone else. There’s nothing I love more than traveling, exploring, learning about different places and trying new things. To see somebody doing something extraordinary and wonderful with the very things you’re most passionate about can be incredibly powerful. I never aspired to do the kind of work he did, but it meant a great deal to me that he was doing it. Especially these past couple years, when it’s looked more and more like xenophobia and closed-mindedness have been winning the day, it was a joy to see great television celebrating the good side (while not sugar-coating the bad) of our diverse humanity.
I tried to appear unaffected by the news, but the truth is I was devastated. And unlike with the other recent horrible news I’d received, I didn’t think this was something anyone around me could understand. Certainly I didn’t want to let on to my family how I felt; we’d just lost one of our own relatives, and I wasn’t sure any of them would have been sympathetic in any case. I don’t know how successful I was at hiding my distress – it’s hard to appear normal when you feel on the verge of tears – but if anyone noticed something amiss they never mentioned it.
I didn’t know how other people I knew would have reacted, either. Just as sadness over the death of a friend or relative seems completely normal and expected, to feel this way over someone I didn’t know seemed decidedly not normal, and I wasn’t sure if it would be considered socially acceptable. Morally, of course, I don’t think there’s any question: it’s never wrong, ever, to lament the loss of any human life. But I couldn’t help worrying that perhaps others would view it as somehow inappropriate. That’s a fear I’m fighting now as I write this. In a way I’m tempted to attribute my reaction to Bourdain’s death to lingering shock over the losses of my friend and relative, but I know that would be disingenuous. If anything, my response was in spite of those first two deaths, not because of them.
So that’s where I was at in the middle of June: reeling from three successive gut punches, unsure if it was even appropriate to feel the way I did about all of them. And then I got sick.
Since my late teens, I’ve had a problem with wax buildup in my ears. Every few months, I need to go to the doctor to have them irrigated so I can hear properly. Both the excess wax and the frequent cleanings leave my ear canals highly susceptible to infection. Usually this isn’t too difficult to deal with on my own, but in the middle of June, a routine irrigation left both ears severely infected. It came on so suddenly that by the time I made it back to the doctor I was already in tremendous pain.
I was given prescriptions for two types of antibiotics and painkillers, since over-the-counter pills had had zero effect. The more powerful stuff wasn’t much better. For two nights I was unable to sleep. It was all utterly, unbelievably dreadful.
There have been plenty of things that have happened in my life with far, far worse, more long-term consequences than anything that happened at the end of last spring. But right at that moment, the combination of intense physical pain, sleep deprivation, and having taken too many emotional blows too close together left me more miserable than I can ever remember being.
Aside from the migraines I experienced as a child, I can’t remember ever feeling so helpless. So I sort of…gave up. I just stopped trying to find any relief. It was oddly relaxing, inasmuch as being in unrelenting pain can be relaxing. I just lay there, allowing myself to wallow in misery. What else could I do? If even prescription painkillers couldn’t help, then there was really nothing to fix the pain in my ears until the antibiotics began to kick in. And as for everything else, nothing and no one could ever fix any of that.
If I was writing this for publication, I’d probably be compelled to find some redemptive spin for all this. To say, maybe, that getting sick when I did was a blessing in disguise, that it forced me to step back and slow down in a time of unexpected emotional stress. But no. All it did was make everything suck that much more.
But the antibiotics did kick in, and after a couple days they’d brought enough relief that I was finally able to get some sleep. By the end of that week, I was pretty much recovered physically. Emotionally, things were going to take a little longer.
I was at work a week after getting sick, trying not to think about the people who just three short weeks earlier were all still alive. My mom had gone out of town, and I was taking care of her pets in her absence. I was supposed to feed and water her finch every two days, and I suddenly realized I’d forgotten to give him his water two days prior. I panicked. Had his dish run dry? How long could a finch survive without water? I knew he was probably fine, and even if he wasn’t, it wouldn’t be a great blow to my mom, who’d never even bothered to give him a name. But I was horrified to think there was even the slightest possibility he wouldn’t be okay. Right then, I knew I couldn’t bear one more living thing dead.
The little bird was no worse for wear, but I still felt shaken that evening. I sat on the couch, inconsolably upset, and I thought of my pen-pal, remembering her final letters to me. She’d written of her symptoms, the devastating diagnosis, her surgery, her chemo, her determination to fight. She’d wanted so badly to live. I was angry she couldn’t. And I was angry to be also shedding tears over someone I’d never even met who’d chosen to throw his life away, when my friend had fought so hard for hers. That contrast was jarring, and I didn’t know what to do with it.
I still don’t, but as more weeks passed I slowly began to feel better. Four months later, I’m pretty much okay. Certainly I have nothing to complain about compared to many others, like my cousin, who I’m sure still faces an awfully long road. I had a rather shitty summer. It hasn’t been a great year. But I’m doing all right.