The past spring, my fourteen-year-old cousin died huffing keyboard duster. Her sister found her in bed, nostrils taped shut.
I picture it, the rooms of her house nightsodden. Her young legs gathered like cream. Note-to-self marked on one arm. Cream growing slack.
My cousin was not a substance abuser. Clear away what you first imagined: she did not sneak out of her bedroom window at night to touch boys or cuss at her parents or nurse a secret self-destructiveness. She was curious and misinformed. Her mother spoke to her on the phone earlier that evening. She asked for Chinese food for dinner.
Her name was Aria, as in that elaborate melody found at the peak of an opera. An aria is a complicated vocal line that tells a story. Before the nineteenth century, an aria was not seamlessly integrated into the show—an aria upended the drama an audience had settled into, wagered on. It woke people up.
My mother was the one to call me with the news about my cousin. My mother works in the medical field, so her explanation was exact. Instant cardiac arrest or possibly asphyxiation. Her tone reminded me of the time we visited Bodies, a traveling scientific exhibit of corpses that were preserved with polymers and filleted in medically enlightening ways—how she and I ducked between living and deceased people, and, halting in the middle of an explanation about muscles in the jaw system, she pointed to one dried face and whispered, “This girl still had her wisdom teeth when she died.”
When your mother calls to tell you there is a death in the family, it feels as though you’re a water bug skimming along and suddenly surface tension shatters beneath you.
Aria’s life was extraordinary. Her mother trained animals for a living, filling the family home with dogs, cats, monkeys, raccoons, and rats. Her father, employed by Dolby, taught her the creative power of technology: picture making and photograph manipulation. Aria was seven chapters into writing a novel. She wanted to be a surgeon.
Those last two facts I learned from a special report on NBC4 News. In the video clips, wearing hot yellow light, her mother and father sit side by side and appear combed and beautiful, warning parents to warn their children about the no-second-chances of huffing. Aria’s father’s voice sounds like metal shrinking in the cold.
My parents attended Aria’s funeral. My mother texted me every day for two weeks after Aria’s death.
At the time, I was running a writer’s conference on one of the San Juan Islands in the Puget Sound and I was sleeping poorly. My body conducted un-worded pain. I woke each morning feeling as though an imp had stitched my eyebrows together. My eyes bubbled out in pain like a cartoon’s.
At the conference, I had a dream. It was not revelatory; it was like an ancillary song.
I am in a museum. It is expansive and white. The museum floor is very clean. You could eat off of this floor, but it would be disrespectful because nobody eats in a Holocaust museum. I am hungry. The lights are respectfully dim. Everyone has forgotten their lunch. The lights are becoming dimmer. A woman named Anna approaches; I assume she uses the old-world pronunciation. A woman named Anna arrives with her two children. She is a survivor or a ghost. We walk. She shows me a picture of her house on a wall in the Holocaust museum, and as we mourn the loss of her third child, she stops crying and says, “But I’ve been living as if I’m a sad person, and I don’t think it’s supposed to be this way.” Soundlessly, her back breaks in two.
When I woke up, the island was covered in snow.
Gathered in the kitchen, my family discussed funerals in the event that I or my siblings—my parent’s children—died as Aria did, with all the warning of a flash flood. Would I like there to be music? Are there any stories I wouldn’t like told? What should be said regarding what I believed about God?
I had no answer. I began to search sleeplessly for ways to say what I thought God might say about my death, the death of my siblings, and everyone. I took pills for insomnia. I read the complete works of Rilke—
I’m still a novice in the realm of pain,—
so this enormous darkness makes me small;
But if it’s You—steel yourself, break in:
that your whole hand will grip me
and my whole scream will seize you.
A body transforms to accommodate pain, and mine did. Headaches burned through my forehead until I could feel them on the outside of my skin. I gained a little weight.
I read about Japanese theologian Kazoh Kitamori, who wrote in the aftermath of the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and who believed that God entered human suffering through Christ so that he could be in the vacuum-sealed space of our pain. I read how the Chinese theologian Choan-Seng Song calls this the painlove of God, noting that when speaking Chinese, one says the words love and pain in the same breath: thun-ai.
I thought that if painlove were a human feeling, it would feel like a friend of mine once described her loving sadness, as a heart like a split plum. As in, it hurts to love you this much. As in, it hurts me to love you but I will choose it this way.
Or perhaps the feeling is more specific, extreme. The simmering, hive-covered skin of a mother giving birth. A roar from a mother when her child’s life is seized.
During those weeks, I attended to church the way one attends to a Holocaust museum: shell-shocked and self-controlled. I lit candles. I remembered Aria.
Aria’s mother and mine, along with several of their friends, started video chatting once per week online. A long-distance support group.
I began to date a practicing Catholic, which I am not, but which I find a smart and robust faith.
On one of our dates, we began to talk about suffering. Catholics have a nuanced theology of suffering that I haven’t studied in any depth, but as she spoke, the posture of her belief reminded me of Rilke’s poem, of how the human narrator begs to—in some sense—suffer God; of how knowing God, who is love, is painful; and how this is also what Christ experienced in its fullness when he was crucified, knowing (himself) God, who is love, which is painful.
Over pizza, my girlfriend and I listed worlds of pain: blushingpain, starvingpain, numbingpain, surprisepain, deathpain, painlove.
I tried to impress her, misquoting William Blake’s line: I want to learn to endure the beams of love.
It is some endurance.
As a cut scars over and a heel callouses, a body transmogrifies to accommodate pain. Christ’s wrists and ankles are deformed even after his rebirth. This ruination seals him as the Christ. Without this deformity there is no love.
My headaches waned but did not subside.
What then? My mother crocheted a grinning monster of yarn designed to encase a tissue box. A papery flight of tongue for licking snot and tears—just the thing that would have made Aria giggle or holler.
In a Mexican folk teaching, each person dies three deaths: when your body dies and the physicality of you loses meaning, when you are lowered into the ground and disappear from sight, and when there is no one left alive to remember you.
Aria will not die thirdly for a very long time.
Nor will many. Because we will continue to enter the dimly lit museum and the church and remember the dying and the gone. We are, in no exaggerated terms, the survivors. We live as a sad people. It seems that it should not be this way, and it is.
But we might accommodate—which is to say, house, and then become, and then change—this pain.
With all the transmutational power of a song.
Tyler McCabe is the program director of the literary quarterly Image. He has served twice as a reader in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s annual poetry contest, and his nonfiction has been honorably mentioned in Best American Essays. He has humorous work up at the Toast and a chapter forthcoming in a Bloomsbury Academic book about Breaking Bad.