Remembrance

When people die, they just go away. If there’s any place a soul would go, it’s in your memories. People you remember are with you forever.

–Kaim Argonar, from Lost Odyssey. Written by Hironobu Sakaguchi & Kiyoshi Shigematsu

This is always a bad week for me. Always. And this one is probably worse than usual.

It’s my birthday tomorrow. I just got my first birthday message, from a good friend in Kolkata, India–where it is my birthday already. I’ll be 23. 10 years younger than Alexander the Great was at the height of his power and his too-early demise, 2 years younger than Shakespeare was at the offset of his career, 3 years younger than John Keats at his death.

These are all frightening numbers. The first because I will never conquer the known world, and so–no matter my age–I will never be an Alexander. That is perhaps for the best. The world is not starving for want of pretenders to that Alexandrine mantle. We are glutted on conquerors, and most of them incompetent ones. The second frightens me for arrogant reasons, because I am enjoying so much success so soon. I think I may be among the very youngest published writers in the past decade (the only person I know who beats me is Christopher Paolini, but please correct me if/when I am wrong). That’s a lot of pressure, but I tell myself I have 2 more years before I’m expected to write on the level of The Taming of the Shrew and Titus Andronicus. (I know no one really expects that). The third number is most frightening. There has never been a better poet in the English language than John Keats. Five-feet-high and scrappy, a surgeon by training cut down by tuberculosis, reduced to the sickbed and elevated to the station of poet. Every line he penned is golden and perfect and pure. He is a better poet even than Shakespeare, but perhaps only because his attitude fits my world view more precisely than the Bard’s ever could. Keats is sad, his poetry all composed from within the ambit of his sickness, and it shows. His world is beautiful, but fading fast. “…for many a time,” he says, “I have been half in love with easeful Death…” Easeful. Soft.

Sad. No Dylan Thomas he, Keats embraced entropy and the winding down of his own clock, going quietly into the night and an unmarked grave. A nameless tombstone for the purest poet who ever lived. Does that seem right to you?

Three years to go. Three little years to achieve something worth doing. I know I will never be Keats, but I’ve not quite come to peace with that. It’s why I always feel old, knowing that countless millions have died in childhood and youth achieving more than I will ever do. Those who know me will know that I am not a religious man, and so cannot be content with a quiet life, well-lived, in the hopes of divine reward. I yearn to do, to make, to build now, but I know that Shakespeare’s concept of immortality-in-ink will be barred from me for the simple reason that I am only so good, and not good enough. I am not Alexander, and–to paraphrase TS Eliot–I was not meant to be.

But I have said this is a hard week, and my arrogant desire to be like John Keats (preferably without the dying, thank you) isn’t the half of it. My grandmother died eight years ago this Wednesday. The day after my birthday, but as birthdays in my childhood were such protracted affairs, so often it feels like she died on my birthday. We were very close. She had the flu, could not attend my birthday party because of it. She called me during that birthday party but I couldn’t stay long on the line, promised to call her back in the morning.

I never did. Never could. And it killed me. And it kills me still.

I was on my way to the phone to call her when dad called to tell mom the terrible news. I was on my way. I had just used the money she’d given me to buy a game, Mistwalker’s Lost Odyssey, and I wanted to thank her for it. I knew she wouldn’t have approved, but I had been so excited for it I don’t think she would have minded. I never got the chance. I never got the chance. The next years were rough: take the ordinary tribulations of a rude high schooler, drunk on his inflated understanding of his own intelligence and stir in the cell-deep psychological misery that comes from such personal loss and you have a Michelin Star recipe for a bad few years.

I am better now, returned to something like the person I was before by the passing years and the numbing distance that implies. But every year, my birthday comes, reminding me again and again how little I am like Alexander, like Shakespeare, like Keats. Every year my birthday comes, and every year the anniversary of her death, of the phone call I’ll never make.

And it breaks me, this year most of all. This year because I am so much to tell her, so much to celebrate with her and my other, vanished family members. So much to share.

And I never can.

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