I can't remember what I was looking for when I was searching through old emails but one from 2015 came to the surface. I always brace myself before scanning an email from more than a year or two ago. Who was that person anyway, with all those "Hey!"s and "Howdy!'s? Why was I so like Ned Flanders back then? How many greetings do we even say in a lifetime, throwing them out there and never really knowing how they'll be met?
In the email it was June and I was writing to a friend. I was telling them I was going to stay in London for another week so that I could go to the funeral. My brother's partner, the mother of their two children, had died. I closed the email and realised that in just a few days it would be five years since then. Five years. When anniversaries like this happen people say, 'I can't believe it's been five years.' Or 10, or 20. I hear myself saying things like that too – that I can't or don't believe it. A close friend of mine lost a friend who, when out running, slipped and fell, hitting his head. His death kept being shocking, even when – all of a sudden – six months had passed.
I don't know how time is supposed to behave so that we would believe it. Should it move slower, faster, backwards, should it stop altogether? I think what we mean is that we had expected to understand more by now, or maybe even to feel a bit less. But lots of things that don't make sense when they happen make even less sense later on. It looks like we'll remain bewildered and sad for good, and will just grow into it.
What we mean when we say "I can't believe it's been that many years" is "I can't believe that this happened and, even after all this time, it has still happened". Maybe we mean "I can't believe we haven't talked about this more".
Time both contracts and expands around death. At one moment I'm up close – my tiny niece and nephew running around after geese on the lawn outside the funeral home under a grey sky. My brother on the phone, saying, "You should sit down." And the shattering, which then became calcified. But at the next moment, time expands so that you're forced to feel its immensity and randomness and its insistence that you're going to keep on losing people you love. By the time this column is published, five years will have passed since Jeng took her life and we will be on to the sixth, and I won't be able to believe that either.
The American writer Charles D'Ambrosio has a three-part essay called Documents that has been helping me think this through a little. It includes a letter from his brother Mike, who has schizophrenia; parts of some erratic, belligerent letters from his father; and small parts of the note his brother Danny left, in 1986, before taking his own life. Each of these documents allows D'Ambrosio to visit people he can no longer reach. His brother's note is, he writes, "a long document full of self-hatred and sorrow, love and despair, and now I'm glad that I have it, because, this way, we're still engaged in a dialogue. His words are there and so is his hand, a hand I'd held, but, more important, one that left words, like an artifact, that are as real and physical to me as the boy who, at 21, in a November long ago, wrote them." It's like, for a moment, as he reads that letter, D'Ambrosio and his brother exist outside of time and can go on talking. I imagine them arguing sometimes as well, with D'Ambrosio trying to talk him out of it.
In an interview D'Ambrosio also talks about his father as being "like a strange country that I go to visit. He's a world and a weather, a thing to be explored and understood." I like the idea of people as places we can go to, using whatever means we have to get there, rather than being fixed in time. Still, it's hard to get your head around. It's like the person's absence itself is the strange country too and, if you're going to survive, you have to integrate.
But what I'm thinking about today is that you don't have to give in to silence, even when you don't know what to say. There are so many small ways that lead away from silence. A letter, even a garbled one. A song. Naming something. And an anniversary.