A year ago I wrote an essay for a class. The essay was a response to the book Blue Nights by Joan Didion. A meditation on memory and how relationships shape memory and how memory shapes our relationships. The essay was about my best friends, written shortly after I discovered some frightening news about their health. I went on to win an award for that essay from The University of Pittsburgh. I read it aloud to rooms of strangers who cried upon hearing it. The last time I read it aloud was in the hospital, at the bedside of my best friend who was the subject of the piece. Taylor never read the essay for himself, and reading it to him was one of the last things I did.
After Taylor died, I heavily revised the essay to reflect more of my memories of him and centered it around the moment I found out that hope was gone. This is the version I read at his memorial service, as requested by the mothers who loved him.
The Dying of Brightness
By Emily O’Donnell
What is our obsession with memory?
Photographs fill half a dozen binders, overflow out of boxes, pinned to the wall like butterflies whose wings have been stilled forever. Keep them there, so the memory cannot fly away. Keep these images close, easy to reach for, to bring forth from the depths of the unconscious mind. Keep these images in the eye, ready to be seen once more. Our obsession with memory is a fixation upon the image.
Words fill my head, snippets of phrasing and carefully placed lettering, conversations I’ve forgotten. The sound of your voice speaking carefully. Words record the memory when the camera lens cannot. Our obsession with memory is my word on this page.
When we see our old friends, we try to speak of the present but inevitably find ourselves returning to the past. We do not speak of the bad times, only of the good; the rosy glass of nostalgia is easier to peer through this way. We speak of these memories because it allows us to ignore the ever present, painful truth beneath our conversation. The truth is this: we are no longer a part of each other’s lives. We no longer have a present or future together. We only have memory.
Driving up the winding roads of a mountain, listening to Bjork as smoke uncurled from our lungs. Praying to the pagoda as it glowed red in the darkness. Brewing a cup of tea and waiting patiently for the water to boil, he taught me that patience, the stillness in every moment. I can still find him there, when I am not thinking he sneaks up on me and reminds me of his lost presence.
Here is a memory. In New York, I see my best friends. Two men, young still but not as young as they were when I met them over a decade ago. I still refer to them as ‘my boys.’ I still remember them in the days they were young and in love and fighting everyone for the right to be together. I remember them, before the complications of affairs and disease made them older and wearier of the world.
Sitting in the café, I keep my eyes on the window, waiting for a familiar face. Faces that are embedded within my memory, visages printed upon silver over the years of their faces changing, descriptions inked upon a page. In the end, it is neither of their face that I see. What I glimpse through the layers of glass is a familiar movement of the body, long and lanky, belonging to Jason. I see the shorter silhouette beside him, glasses catching the light, sparking my recognition of Taylor. I run to them, leaping abruptly from my seat as my boyfriend is speaking to me. I am a teenager again, and the boys through that window are the first loves I knew.
I fly at Jason, wrapping my arms around his thin frame and knocking him three feet back. This is a moment that has happened before, in other places and times; Philadelphia, Reading, Pittsburgh, New York, as teenagers, as adults, as something in between. I live every moment in one.
Taylor stands patiently by my side, waiting to wrap his arms around me and keep me in that embrace for a long time. This is a moment I have lived before. I know that he will bury his face in my hair, longer now than it was last he saw me, and sigh heavily. He is the one I have known the longest, and the one who once knew me best. He is the one I can remember through all of the stages of our lives, through all of his many faces and phases. He is entwined with my memory in a way that few others can be.
“I can’t believe we are here,” he murmurs these words into my ear. A snippet of memory, a decade earlier he buried his tearful face into my hair and murmured something along the same lines. Only then, he was full of fear and anger. Around us, there was broken glass and the shattered remnants of his car. I held onto him as tightly as I could. I couldn’t believe we were there. Two years later I sat beside his bedside in a hospital room, as machines breathed for him and pumped his blood in and out of his bed. I couldn’t remember the last thing he had said to me, the last time I heard his voice. I couldn’t believe we were there.
Standing with my best friends, I struggle to remember every moment as it happens as I struggle to remember every moment that has already occurred.
The phone rang in the morning, when the light was cold and blue and snow was falling down around my eaves. On the end of the line was Jason. This was also a moment I’ve lived before, a moment I’ve written on this very page.
My throat burned and my chest froze. “Taylor?” My boys. They were my first loves. I was with them on their first date, I was there every time they broke up and got back together. I was the shoulder to cry on, the spirit to dance with, I was the witness.
This was the moment I found out. There was snow on the ground and my feet were bare and blue in the cold. I knelt in the snow and pressed my face to the earth and cried for the loss of the boy I once called my twin soul.
In New York I stood between Taylor and Jason as Bjork sang down to us from above. She was our goddess, we praised her and worshipped her as we sang along. Bells chimed and I took both of their hands as she sang their song. Who is it that never let you down? Who is it that gave you back your crown? It was a perfect moment, and now it is only a memory. I can still feel his hand in mine, can still see him smiling, joyful in his quiet way.
“I no longer want reminders of what was, what got broken, what got lost, what got wasted.” (44) In my jewelry box at home, I have a small glass vial that contains a lock of Taylor’s hair from when I once cut it. I kept it the same way you would keep hair in a locket, to keep your lover close to you. I kept it, through all the years without ever really knowing why. It is sentimental, a preserved relic of the boy he had once been.
I have photos of my boys, throughout the long transition from boy to man. I look at them now and I see them in another light. Their images before and after the disease took hold of them. To cherish the memory of what was is to know that it will never be again.
“There comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue.” ‘Time is of vital import. The solstice is both the death and rebirth of the year.’ Time is of vital importance. Death and birth are inevitably entwined. The blue nights are a warning, a dying of the brightness.
This is my obsession with memory. To know the golden hour as well as the blue of the night and record it upon the page in any way that I know how. This is how I immortalize him. This is how I will remember him, glimpsed through the layers of glass, so familiar and now so far from me.
Early in our friendship, Taylor and I would get into his car and start driving with no destination. It was summer then, the summer of our youth, the golden hazy days of memory. He would turn his car towards the horizon when the sun began to set and we would follow it, for as long and as far as we could go.
We talked for hours, sometimes without ever saying a word. We knew one another inside and out without knowing it. We hold onto that memory now, the memory of what we once were and never will be again. We chased the sun into the blue nights, until we felt the chill of the dying of the day’s brightness.