Sunday, 3 August 2014
A letter to the friend who died before his time
Dear Zac/Mr Zacharia Dingle,
When I was 16, I received a phone-call that changed life as I knew it. I can still hear those 4, choked up words as if I heard them this morning. 'It's Zac... He's died.' I can still hear some of the friends I love the most dissolving into tears in the background.
You were one of the friends that I grew up with. You feature in half-crumpled primary school class photos, grinning straight into the lens a few rows behind me. You strike the same pose in lots of the secondary school photos too. You were always there, that gorgeous, broad smile a constant presence in my life, interchanging between the background and foreground as the years passed by. You were one of those people who had become an intrinsic human feature of my existence, one of those people who was always meant to be around.
I remember those long, summer evenings that we'd spend sitting up by the garages on the street that I still live in, revelling in the delirium of sun and youth and puberty, sharing silly jokes and pointless conversations about boobs and making weird noises at each other. I remember how unimpressed you were when we ordered happy meals at McDonalds and realised that the mini Barbie doll I got with mine wasn't wearing any knickers. I can still see the comedy, horrified expression on your face when you held her above your head and subtly averted your gaze upwards. I laughed so much at your jovial rant that I spent the duration of the meal spluttering chips in all directions.
I remember all those times waiting outside Media Studies in the last years of school. If you weren't picking me up and spinning me around until I was screaming at you to put me down, you were squeezing my cheeks, whispering funny, crude little things to me. When we had a fire drill in the middle of winter, you wrapped me up in your cardigan, only to come over and ask if you could have it back 10 minutes later. 'I'm freezing my knackers off here!' It was the thought that counted Zac. And the thought always counted with you.
You were easily the most popular person in our year at school, completely adored by every single person who crossed your path. When our English teacher read the closing line of 'Animal Farm' in year 9, you stood up, enthusiastically said, 'that was beautiful, Miss', and initiated a whole class round of applause. You were full of laughter and hope and ambition and opportunity, full of a certain rare and inexplicable charm that could light up an entire room and put everyone in it in the palm of your hand. You were a born entertainer, a history maker, a young, creative, quirky, brilliant man with a heart of the finest gold. You were all of these extraordinary things, and you were 3 days off of the birthday you were so excited about. People aren't supposed to die fresh out of secondary school, but you, especially, weren't supposed to die fresh out of secondary school.
On this day 6 years ago, the world stopped making sense. We were cruelly welcomed to the explicit reality of the human experience, and we were hideously unprepared. We didn't know what to do, or how to cope, or if we'd ever feel truly happy again. We knew nothing except that you were suddenly gone and that life would never be the same again. Hundreds of people came together for your funeral. We laughed and cried and clung to each other and made jokes that you were probably about to walk in from some spontaneous, exotic holiday and wonder what all the fuss was about.
It's more of a sedated wound these days, but every so often, it opens and surges with the same astounding pain: the mammoth sense of loss and anxiety, the crippling sadness that you were so young and so wonderful and so screwed over by the universe, the anger of that terrible injustice. I still cry for you from time to time, especially on days like today. I'm also under no illusion that the insane disbelief and grief that I felt was minimal compared to that of your best friends, your family, your parents, those people who loved you even more than I did. I cry for them too. I guess the greatest misfortune of living is that love cannot and does not immortalise people.
It's now been 6 years since you died, and with every year, time has carried us further away from who we were back then. Even though we're all now in our early 20s, you'll always be 15. I often wonder what you would be like now. Would you still be sporting the bounciest, sheepiest mop of hair in Eastbourne? Would you have achieved some of those big, creative dreams of yours? Would I still bump into you along the street to find that you'd spent your entire day shopping for hula skirts? 'What do you think of this one? I love the swish.'
We'll never get the answers to those questions, but even though you're not around, you're still around, somehow. You're there whenever I hear 'A Long December' by Counting Crows or see a bright red cardigan hanging in the window of a mens' shop. You're present in some of the decisions that I make, your loss a fervent reminder of the fragility of life and the sacrality of people and opportunity and the profound importance of pursuing the things that make us happy. The best we can do to honour people like you is to live fully and passionately and well, to never shy away from loving other people, to embrace life with the same zest and gratitude that you did and to laugh as hard as possible as often as we can.
I know now that we can be happy even though you died, and we have no reason to feel guilty for that. Perhaps it's a different kind of happy, but it's a happy that can still consume us during life's best moments. It's a happy that can still feel infinite. It's a Zachary James Whitington kind of happy. And that's all you'd have ever wanted for us. It was an innate and incredible privilege to have known you.
I'm sorry that my doll wasn't wearing any knickers.
Sleep tight buddy. I'll love you always.