To Veronika Mittermair

Sun Sep 21, 2003 11:06pm

18/09/03

Dear Vero,

At long last I have the luxury of sitting down and composing a note to a dear friend. My apartment is (mostly) furnished and I am once again accumulating plants. And books, which have been stuffed into the bookshelf like guests in the lounge room of a large family reunion – some new, some old, a few well-travelled, some spilling out onto the balcony – all engrossed in deep and avid conversation. I have the house to myself (my flatmate and I tend to keep different hours) but I’m not enjoying the solitude so much that I wouldn’t like to pick up the phone and see if you wanted to come over and watch a DVD, perhaps over some takeaway from the Smiley Lady. I miss the long discussions we shared, analysing ourselves, our relationships, the movies we watched, the staffroom. It will be good to see you again in January, or maybe February. I’m hoping to spend about a month in Vietnam, as well as visiting some friends in Malaysia – let me know if there are any dates you’d like me to work around. It would be nice if Megan could make it three.

I am well. I’ve been incredibly busy the last few months. Once I began my masters it became ridiculous – 60 plus hours a week, not including assignments. I’ve reduced my subject load and scaled back my work hours a bit, and am feeling much more balanced. I plan to return to tai-chi lessons this weekend, and start running again – unlike Jinan, I can do that here without burning my lungs. I’ve had my priorities mixed up; my physical well-being was the last thing on my list. I have time to read and write again. Work is challenging, and study interesting: I’m running an academic English course, and one of my lecturers is overturning some of my assumptions about teaching. I’m very interested to hear more about the self-access centre you are setting up, and how you are going about it. Sounds like the perfect job.

I was very sorry to hear about you and Rudy, especially as I expect you’ve also lost his friendship. At least you’ve made a final decision. I admit I was a little surprised when you said you’d sorted out all your feelings on your trip back to Italy, though I was happy for you both. I had the sense, as you said in your last email, that though you wanted it to work so very much, you couldn’t change how you truly felt. He was perfect, everything you could ask for in a man, so you couldn’t find any reasons within yourself for not returning his love in kind. Perhaps it was that he loved you too much.

20/09/03

Oh fuck. The worst news of my life. You are gone. Electrocuted in the bathroom of your new place in Ho Chi Minh City. Long before I began this letter; over a month ago, only a few days after we last spoke on the phone. My God. I’ve decided to finish this letter anyway. Not because I think you are out there somewhere – like you, I don’t believe in the afterlife – but just because it seems wrong to leave a letter to you unfinished. Letters, like people, have beginnings and ends.

Where to begin. Your death is hard to fathom – it doesn’t seem real. No doubt I’m still in shock. The last time we saw each other, you spoke for us both when you said affectionately that there was no need to say good-bye. It didn’t even occur to us to take a photo. We knew we would see each other again. There’s no such certainty in life of course, we just like to think there is. It’s a useful fiction.

Electrocuted. Electrocuted in the bathroom, a few months after your 40th birthday. What a pointless end to such a wonderful human being. I don’t know the details, though I’ve seen enough dodgy connections while travelling to imagine them. A wet hand; a plug that won’t go in properly; the flashes of energy dancing about the prongs; the sudden earthing of raw, brutal power through a living body. Easy. We grow accustomed to the power we surround ourselves with, forget it obeys only perilous, implacable laws.

I’m resisting the urge to find out everything I can about what happens to someone when they are electrocuted to death. It’s unimportant. It’s a reflex, an attempt to comprehend what’s happened, to find order in a random event. But there’s no meaning to be found in your death. At least, no more than can be found in the ordinary course of things.

Just: Gone.

***

Hours of sad calmness go by. I cook, I clean, do what needs to be done. Life goes on. Sometimes grief erupts, overwhelmingly, and then vanishes again, returning to the centre of my chest like a rock. It grows heavier each time. I can’t control it. I remember you telling me how you defeated your depressive moods. You didn’t try to analyse what you were feeling, or why. You simply let them go. Did a relaxation exercise, or went for a run. So last night, after I found out, I went for a run. It helped, as I knew it would. Simple. Cause and effect. Putting feet, scrubbing lungs, pushing blood. Life goes on.

I’ve always hated it when people are eulogised into sainthood upon their death. It’s often the way when someone dies untimely. Celebrities are the worst instance of this. No one is perfect, and remembering someone as an angel has always seemed to me a despicable pretence, a betrayal of their humanity. I see now that what is remembered is not false perfection, but simply the inherent goodness of a unique human being.

Of all my friends, I admire you the most. It’s terrible, but I can think of dozens of people whom I’d prefer dead. Most of the people I know, in fact. But I speak too hastily. I wouldn’t exchange any of them, even if you would accept the exchange. Their time will come, as will mine. Yours was just far sooner than expected. It should be many years from now, after decades of letters, discussions, and dinners in far away lands, both with me and with all your friends, present and future. You certainly have rough edges, like all of us, but they pale beside the rest of you. Intelligent, graceful, witty, forgiving to those who hurt you – which some did, deeply – generous and loyal to those fortunate enough to count you as a friend; it’s no wonder there were men willing to leave their wives for you. Not everyone you met was fortunate to know you. You’ve no time for the bullshit peddled by many. But even those you clashed with couldn’t help but respect you, even as you saw through them.

I admire you not only as a person, but also as a teacher. You’re not one of those teachers who ‘love’ their students, who try to make everything ‘fun’. You respect your students, and work them hard, and in return they respect and work hard for you. They learn. I remember one evening, after one of those stupid teacher’s meetings, how angry you were at the usual displays of self-centred pettiness. You said you wished that there were someone in the staffroom who led by example, someone wise and experienced, someone to whom teaching was more than just a job. Even when I told you that, in fact, there was such a person, you didn’t know who I meant. You want to be a teacher-trainer. Actually, you were.

***

When a person travels, you meet lots of fellow travellers. A few are different from the rest. You form some kind of deep connection, a bond, which instantly bypasses all the pleasantries, and you speak about the important things. And then, you never see each other again. Oh, you might exchange email addresses, but somehow you have nothing more to say to each other. I remember discussing this with you, in one of our final conversations. I said that if we had met on the road, it would have been the same with us. And so it has proved. Except I find I have so many, many things left to say.

I remember how interested you were to read “The Glow”, the piece of writing I wrote last year on memory and death, how much you liked it. You printed it out and annotated it, looking up the few words you didn’t recognise. Considering your grasp of English, it was quite a compliment when you said that in future you’d improve your vocabulary by reading what I wrote. I remember telling you that some had found the piece sad, which just left you puzzled. We were at your place at the time, and so you went and fetched the printout from your room, to read it again. You still couldn’t find what was sad about it, even when I pointed out the end to you. It said:

‘Things happen. Even if we don’t remember exactly what, they do cause changes in our brains. Neurons reach out to touch each other and are connected. Other connections weaken. Change; growth. Though I appreciate the sentiment behind it, I always feel cursed when someone says to me: “Don’t change”. I want to change; I want to grow. Because one day I’ll stop growing. I won’t cease to change – I’ll be absorbed back into the world from which I was created. But my wonderful, fallible memories will be gone. I’ll exist only in the memories of others, none of whom will remember me as I was. Maybe I’ll leave behind traces in the collective memory, perhaps a book that lots of people have heard of, and a few have read. Connections. I’d like to think so. In the end, it doesn’t matter. What really matters is that, like a child told he has to go to bed, I play and play for as long as I can.’

You asked me how anyone could find anything sad about that, and I said I supposed it was because it suggested there was nothing after death, that when a person dies, they are gone forever. “But of course,” you said, in mild surprise. “That’s what happens.” Your unsentimental, clear-eyed view of life demands no less a response now you are dead. So I will end this letter here, and cease the platitudes about a life cut cruelly short.

You played well, Veronika, and you have changed me. Ciao.

Love, Chris

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