“I want you always to remember me. Will you remember that I existed, and that I stood next to you here like this?”
“Always,” I said. “I’ll always remember.” —from Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
In January, my friend Daniel died.
He was 27 years old. He had just gotten married six months earlier to a man I didn’t know. He was a writer—and an incredibly talented one at that.
He died in a high-rise fire in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC. An apartment many floors below him had caught fire. The owner of the apartment came home to the blaze, and fled. Between human error and sheer terrible chance, the fire doors that should have segmented the fire all failed, and it spread.
On the 6th of January, I rolled over in bed at 4 a.m. I couldn’t sleep.
That morning, I found out about Daniel from Facebook. Because I was halfway across the globe, my morning was everyone else’s last night. The story travelled over news networks, social circles and suddenly arrived at my front door, in the pitch black of a January morning.
It’s a familiar feature of our news-driven community: the constant Google-searching, the refreshing of websites, the avid search for more details. But even with the information, I was alone, in the dark, very far away from any world that used to include Daniel.
I wrote to a mutual friend who knew Daniel well, and I told him what little I could of how I was feeling, I needed to debrief with someone who understood. He wrote back to say that he had spoken to someone who knew Daniel’s favourite books. Books have always been my life raft, and this experience was no different. From that list, I picked Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami, and threw myself into it, hoping to be saved.
Norwegian Wood is a novel narrated by Toru Wanatabe, a man looking back on his college days in Tokyo. Amid complex personal relationships, civil unrest, and multiple themes of mental illness, there is a thread that dates back to high school. Wanatabe speaks of his best friend Kizuki, and Kizuki’s girlfriend Naoko:
“Kizuki and Naoko and I: odd, but that was the most comfortable combination. Introducing a fourth person into the mix would always make things a little awkward. We were like a TV talk show, with me the guest, Kizuki the talented host, and Naoko his assistant. He was good at occupying that central position.”
The idyllic high school friendships are shattered when Kizuki commits suicide on his 17th birthday—after playing pool with Wanatabe—and suddenly Wanatabe and Naoko are left without the central force that held them together.
“I tried hard to forget, but there remained inside me a vague knot of air. And as time went by, the knot began to take on a clear and simple form, a form that I am able to put into words, like this:
Death exists, not as the opposite but as a part of life.
It’s a cliché translated into words, but at the time I felt it not as words but as that knot of air inside me. Death exists—in a paperweight, in four red and white balls on a pool table —and we go on living and breathing it into our lungs like fine dust.”
I knew Norwegian Wood was Daniel’s favourite book, which is much of why I read it. But reading it after he died produced a lot of echoes, both healing and terrible. For example, during college Wanatabe meets a girl in his drama class called Midori, and when he goes over to her house for dinner, a fire breaks out down the street in a three-storey building.
“Hey, maybe you should gather your valuables together and get ready to evacuate this place,” I said to Midori. “The wind’s blowing the other way now, but it could change any time, and you’ve got a petrol station right there. I’ll help you pack.”
“What valuables?” said Midori. “Forget it. I’m not running away.
“Even if this place burns?”
“You heard me. I don’t mind dying.”
There was a comfort in reading this book that he loved so much. His friends said that he could recite entire passages of it, that he made everyone he knew read it, and as I turned the pages it was as if I was reading words that had somehow made it into his blood while he was still alive.
Great books effect an almost physical change in us, something that stays inside our breath and our bodies even after the print fades from our memory. And it’s easy to gain comfort from well-loved books. They exude a certain balm, an assertion that things will be better because this narrative has already somehow held people together.
Daniel was real for me as I read along with him, more real than he had been for a long time. It wasn’t just a resurrection from death: I hadn’t seen Daniel since he graduated five years earlier—a fact that complicated my grieving process. I don’t even know who he was anymore. I’m not one of his close friends. Why am I still crying?
The first time I met Daniel, we sang together—new recruits of an a capella group. Our friendship formed through music. When he ended up stepping back from the group, our connection re-formed to a different kind of music: writing. He was the first person to publish my poetry, in the college literary magazine, Muses. He was the first person to tell me to keep writing.
Grief has a way of separating us at the exact moment we would give anything to not be alone. Death separates us from loved ones, because we are the ones who have survived, who are still here. We are what is left.
For months, I tried to write about Daniel, but the fragments of whatever I could come up with felt incomplete, inaccurate. Wanatabe is a reflective character, and I found a mooring in his observations about Naoko:
“Once, long ago, when I was still young, when the memories were far more vivid than they are now, I often tried to write about her. But I couldn’t produce a line. I knew that if that first line would come, the rest would pour itself onto the page, but I could never make it happen. Everything was too sharp and clear, so that I could never tell where to start—the way a map that shows too much can sometimes be useless. Now, though, I realize that all I can place in the imperfect vessel of writing are imperfect memories and imperfect thoughts. The more the memories of Naoko inside me fade, the more deeply I am able to understand her. I know, too, why she asked me not to forget her. Naoko herself knew, of course. She knew that my memories of her would fade. Which is precisely why she begged me never to forget her, to remember that she had existed.”
I still don’t know how to talk about him. Grief does that—it takes away the certainty of language, the stability of the narrative. It creates gaps in time, like non-linear black holes. We remember what is important about a person by how they have impacted us, and what local change that brought in our lives.
We don’t share the same stories of people, of loss, or grief. But the stories are still there, and they still live.