Mourning in the Digital Age (pt. 1/3)

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.  Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

–Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dirge Without Music

Winter has always been a season of loss for me. The three most impactful deaths in my life all occurred in winter, after all. On a historical and spiritual level, the season is inherently tied to death to begin with, given that for our ancestors, a harsh winter could spell doom. So I suppose it’s only natural. Lately, as I think back to those three I’ve lost, something has struck me in how I’ve processed each one, and how the digital age has changed how I’ve mourned them.

My first exposure to death, true death, was the loss of my cousin Sammy at the age of nine. I know that prior to his death, there were a couple of pets here and there that had crossed the bridge, but my grandmother and mother kept me insulated from what death truly was. It was an abstract concept to my child’s mind. People and animals lived, and then they went away. Less a feeling of loss, and more an absence, and I was already used to people being absent in my life. In that hopeful, childlike way, I thought little about the difference, and overlooked that while absent people may return, the dead do not. At least not in any conventional way…

At the age of five, I was granted an opportunity that not many are given in life: a trip to France. In fact, trips to France became a yearly affair in my childhood until I turned sixteen. My grandmother, being the black sheep who dared to move to America, returned every summer to visit her sisters. Once I was old enough, she decided to take me along. I am grateful for the experience, and for being able to bond and make memories with my family overseas. To say that I will value and treasure those memories forever is an understatement.

It was during that very first trip that I met my cousin Sammy. He was already in his twenties, and as I was like a lost duckling constantly imprinting on strong male figures, I immediately became attached. He enjoyed having me as his little shadow. I was so young that my memories of him are more vague impression than the clarity I am accustomed to having now. I remember my grandparents would often leave me in his care so they could go do “adult” things with my aunts. He would take me to get ice cream. We’d play with his shepherd dog. There were some sheep that lived in a field behind his house, and he’d take me to see them, too. He was a baker, and delighted in making treats for me. To this day, I haven’t tasted an eclair that matched Sammy’s. His sister, Karine, would come over and we’d listen to American rock and I’d translate for them. All such happy things.

Sammy had a love affair with American culture. In fact, a good chunk of my French family and friends thought that America was all Cowboys and Indians. That American life was “live fast, die young”, a la James Dean. Popular culture had trained them to believe all of America was Hollywood, all day, every day. Sammy was no different, and he yearned to see America for himself. He was thrilled when my Papa sent him some real, genuine cowboy boots and a fringe jacket.

At some point, a plan was made for Sammy to come visit us in the spring. I was beyond excited! Every day when I came home from school, I’d ask my grandmother how many more days were left until Sammy arrived.

Until one day, something was different.

Even as a young child, I’ve been sensitive to things. The whole day felt off, from the time I woke up. I remember asking my grandmother if everything was okay that morning. All day, at school, I felt “odd”. I know now from experience that my intuition was screaming at me, but in those early days, I just thought I had a weird stomach ache.

I remember that arrival home from school clear as day, though. I walked through the door and saw my grandmother sobbing on the couch. Somehow, even as a kid, I just knew, and the first and only word out of my mouth was “Sammy?”. Her wails confirmed that horrible feeling I had dealt with all day. And that was the moment that I understood death for the first time. The finality of it. The loss.

A mere three weeks shy of his first visit to America, Sammy was killed in a head-on collision by a drunk driver. From what I remember of the details, it was dark and raining. He was headed home from the bakery later than usual that night. Apparently, there was evidence that he tried to avoid the car as it veered into his lane, but to no avail. He was only 23, buried in the cowboy boots we gave him, a last memento.

Trips to Is-en-Bassigny were never the same after that. No more treats, no more ice cream. Karine and I still listened to rock music but there were a lot of tears instead of laughter. Always that elephant in the room of who was missing.

Sammy’s death is what brought about my cemetery obsession, that good ol’ taphophilia. After my grandmother took me to the churchyard to visit Sammy’s grave for the first time, I began to walk there myself every day. I sulked amongst the monuments and slabs of marble and granite, surrounded by my ancestors. I sat cross legged on the cool stone of Sammy’s ledger marker and chatted with him. I collected the little snails that inched across the graves, and carefully avoided the hornets that nested in the fresh flowers (though I did get stung badly once!). Even at the age of nine, I recognized there was a peace there I had never felt anywhere else. It was there, too, that I began reading names to honor the dead, though I did not know of the tradition at the time.

Every summer that I returned, I kept up this macabre little tradition. My grandparents allowed it. Maybe they didn’t know what else to say or do for me. My aunts were alarmed, and some expressed concern, but they were waved away. At some point, I started bringing sea shells and pebbles to put on Sammy’s grave. Again, being a child, I had no concept of memory stones and that tradition. I just did what felt natural. It’s interesting to think how innate the memory stone is to the human condition.

It has been sixteen years since I last placed a shell on Sammy’s grave. I wonder if they’re still there, or if they were swept away by the groundskeeper, or aged by weather. I don’t really have much to go on except hope that they’re there. I only have my memories, as the precious few pictures I had of him are long lost.

Sammy lived and died just before the digital age. That first loss came before the era of cell phones and widespread internet. There was no Facebook, no instant messaging. Long distance calls and Polaroids were all we had then. I can’t flip through my phone and conjure up selfies with Sammy. There are no Facebook memory reminders about the things we did. My memories of him exist only within my heart and mind. Distance echoes of a laugh, a smile, a look. As Conrad Aiken writes in his poem “La Belle Morte”, they are now but “ghosts of remembered sound”.

I find myself conflicted. Had he died two years ago instead of 23, I’d have so much more to look back on. There would be more evidence of Sammy and who he was in a digital footprint, preserved for as long as the infrastructure allowed. And yet, in a way? I prefer those distant echoes, those ghosts. As I would learn later, with the loss of my grandfather and best friend, mourning in the digital age is a doubled-edged sword.

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