I went home to my boyfriend and he held me because he didn’t know what to say. Because there was nothing to say. Even though I’d been trying to quit using sleeping pills, I had to take them that night, because the world felt too wrong to sleep in, and when I did drift off, I’d wake up an hour later because the emptiness seized up inside of me and it hurt. It really, really hurt.
When Acacia and I went to the wake, I was scared because I didn’t want to see Marcel’s body, but I thought I needed to for closure. I was also nervous because I’d yet to mend things with everyone like Marcel encouraged me to do. I was walking into a situation where I needed his guidance, and he wasn’t there to give it.
Acacia couldn’t handle seeing the body, so I had to go up to the casket alone. What I found inside was shaped like Marcel and had his bushy brown hair, but it looked like a wax figure. I whispered, “This isn’t you. You aren’t here. You’re gone.” I tested out a tiny bit of hope by adding, “You’re everywhere,” but, not ready for that yet, I repeated, “You’re gone.”
I didn’t realize how hard I was crying until I walked away from the casket. Then I could barely see and I didn’t know where Acacia was, but someone stepped up with Kleenex and open arms—Isabel, my other friend from high school with whom I hadn’t fixed things yet. Our love for Marcel superseded any problems we had at the time.
After the funeral, we celebrated Marcel’s life at a local music venue. His friends and family read poems and letters and played songs. I crowded on the stage with almost everyone in the place to sing “The House of the Rising Sun.” I cried until I was out of tears, but I managed to smile, too.
Afterward, it was hard to get back to real life. I was smoking a lot, usually to keep from crying like crazy, and I felt like I was watching my life like a movie. Acacia and I decided what we really needed to do was drive. It’s what we’ve always done when we feel lost and we hoped that a Marcel-like adventure would help us heal.
A week after the wake, we tucked Marcel’s memorial card into the sun visor of Acacia’s car and set off. Acacia wanted to visit the World’s Largest Truckstop, which was three hours away in Iowa, so we made that our destination, but I secretly wondered if we would drive all the way to the ocean, maybe even into the ocean. The World’s Largest Truckstop was disappointingly corporate, so we exited the highway and aimlessly drove the back roads with Marcel’s picture as our compass. We ended up heading back east, and right before reaching the Mississippi River, we spotted a restaurant/bar called Sneaky Pete’s. We took the motorcycle out front as a sign to investigate it. What we found inside delighted us and would have delighted Marcel. If a man wears a tie into Sneaky Pete’s it is cut off and hung from the ceiling. Additionally, the salad bar is fashioned out of a claw-foot bathtub. After we ate, we went out behind the restaurant and sat on the rocky riverbank—the river that flows down to the city Marcel called home. I smoked my last cigarette and started to feel like myself again.
As much as my trip with Acacia helped, it was only the beginning of the road out of grief. The first few months were the worst. Out of nowhere, I’d find myself so overwhelmed by sorrow that I couldn’t breathe. Once I ran six blocks home from the train because I’d convinced myself I was going to find my boyfriend dead. Why? No reason, except that I now knew that horrible things happen for no reason.
And there was anger, too, because my friend had been killed. Yes, it was unintentional—like happens far too often, the driver of the truck wasn’t paying close enough attention and hadn’t seen Marcel’s motorcycle. But accident or not, she killed him and she lived. It turned out she was a teenage girl, which complicated my anger.
The thing that kept me going through all of these painful feelings was that surprising sentence I’d mumbled to Marcel while standing over his casket at the wake: “You’re everywhere.” I’m not a religious person, but Marcel was a person who lived so largely and was loved by so many that I couldn’t help thinking that he hadn’t been torn out our universe, he’d been woven into every square inch of it. He was in his friends and family, so I took comfort in them. My friendships with Elizabeth and Isabel grew strong again, and I also got to know the two incredible people who’d made Marcel who he was: his parents.
A month after the funeral, I sent them a letter, telling them the story of Marcel’s ring to illustrate what he meant to me. Marcel’s mother emailed me to say that he’d actually told her a bit about the ring the last time he was home and had left it there, so she’d worn it to the funeral. She said that she, Marcel’s father, and his brother had decided that I should have it. I wear it on a chain or a ribbon every day.
The grief that Marcel’s family and friends felt was, over time, transformed into honor, love, and celebration. Isabel took a paper towel that Marcel had written his “Instructions for Life” on—18 points including things like “Take into account that great love and great achievements involve great risk,” and “Don’t let a little dispute spoil a great friendship”—and had them printed on paper towels for his friends and family. Acacia, Elizabeth, and I got tattoos on our forearms to memorialize him—Elizabeth and I made sketches he’d done permanent; Acacia got lilacs because the time of year that they bloomed reminded her of him. Isabel and I joined Marcel’s family at the cemetery on his birthday. We distributed pinwheels to all the surrounding graves so they could “join the party,” and then we accidentally-on-purpose flew a Spider-Man kite into a nearby tree since Spiderman balloons weren’t welcomed by Catholic cemetery, and our party had to include Marcel’s favorite superhero—a character who scales tall things and rescues people, like Marcel did. We took pictures for a blog Elizabeth updates every year on his birthday called Celebrate Marcel. His loved ones across the country send her shots of themselves climbing trees, reading in the sun, or otherwise enjoying life as Marcel had.
On the first anniversary of his death, his parents rented out the music venue from his memorial service. We all went back to read aloud and sing. There was more laughter than tears that day, but this summer, just three days before the fourth anniversary of Marcel’s death, I found myself sobbing at his grave. I had all these doubts about how to continue on the path I’d taken shortly after his death. Not willing to waste more time at a job I hated now that I knew that life could be cut so short, I’d taken one of those great risks Marcel encouraged and quit so I’d have more time to write and be with loved ones. But sometimes I’m filled with self-doubt and pain and I don’t feel like I have the strength to live as fully and bravely as he lived, especially not in the unjust world that stole him from us. Fortunately, in those moments, because Marcel is still my compass, I am always able to find my way to him. ♦
* All names have been changed except Marcel’s.