Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Real Death and Fake Death

You wanna know what my first exposure to death was?

It was when I was about eight, maybe nine, it's difficult to remember now. My dad, the toughest welterweight I know, walks in the door home from work, a little early if I remember correctly. He saunters in, obviously a little distressed, and then something happened that I hadn't seen before or since. He started bawling. He broke down and cried worse than I did when Andrew dropped those blankets on me which caused me to headbutt a bongo hard enough to sprout a hockey puck on my forehead. I was in more shock now than I was then too. Why was he crying? He was my dad, dad's get mad at you when you cry, I didn't even know they could cry at that age.

Well when I found out what he was crying for I realized I probably would have done the same thing. His dad died. Of cancer. He didn't get a chance to say goodbye.

As for me? I didn't cry. Yeah, I found it weird too. I wasn't terribly close with my grandfather, but it wasn't like I never saw the guy. We visited Wisconsin all the time and he was a fantastically humble and caring man who made sure we always got some McDonald's when we came to town. Compared to my parents, classic “we're not going to McDonald's because we hate you” parents, that was a thrill. I guess I just knew that my grandparents would die. Insight like this is how you skip kindergarten. So I didn't cry, even though, I couldn't help but feel like I should have. I should have been more saddened by this.

You wanna know what my other first real exposure to death was? Well it sure wasn't real, I can tell you that much. My brother played video games, and he liked your standard shoot 'em ups as much as the next guy. But when that boy bought Resident Evil 2 he unleashed terrors upon me that I still regard with a particular zeal that would suggest I don't take them lightly. The death wasn't so bad when it was him killing zombies on a screen. But after he turned the screen off and I closed my eyes to go to bed, that's when the real creepiness sunk in. I had nightmares. Zombies would come in and eat me, or worse, my family members, leaving me alone with the hoard. Luckily I could wake up and escape death, but I remained humbled by how lost I would be if ever put in such a situation. It was traumatic. I woke up crying many nights, the thought of being eaten by my own kind fresh in mind, fearing that my realities and fantasies would switch and that one day I would wind up in Raccoon City, awaiting a slow and agonizing end.

And thus you have it: real death and fake death.

Like the lot of us, I grew out of it. I now enjoy blasting zombies to bits and killing off goons with no mercy or ounce of restraint just like all of us do. I play Grand Theft Auto and I still laugh when I punt a guy with my mock Hummer. That shit's funny to me. It isn't real, we tell ourselves.

But weeks like last week really show how unreal things can turn.

I, like everyone, returned home this past week. Springfield greeted me with sickness and lifeless cold air, as was exemplary of the fine, loving city. But also crawling through the streets of that sprawling heap of worthlessness were my family and dearest friends. I got to catch up. I got to relive the old days. I got to remember how fat we all had it, back when life was an object we endlessly toyed with before we realized that life was just a hibernating bear that would wake up and show us all its vicious teeth.

As Nick claimed on Monday, the week sortof culminated with Marcus Rodriguez's You're Welcome. A party that was so cool it had a name. Music albums have names. Movies have names. So did this party. It was a great time and an opportunity for a lot of us to check a lot of names off of the “people I have to see before I leave” list. And I have to be honest with you, Malik Hines wasn't a name I had on my list. In fact, I thought it possible that he and I wouldn't cross paths again. Painful the way that thought came to fruition Friday night.

When I arrived at the party, nothing was up. Malik wasn't dead. He wasn't really alive either, he wasn't really anything. He was less than an afterthought in my head. Someone I used to know but now never thought about. But within minutes of arriving at Marcus's house, the news was broken to me and all of that changed.

I just kind of stood there. My mouth fell a little bit. I wasn't overcome by grief and 
sadness, but I was certainly now incapacitated by shock. After a few brief seconds of grasping the situation I muttered a characteristic, “wow, are you serious? Oh my God. ….That sucks.” Not sarcastic, mind you. Just unfulfilling. You can't really do it justice. Nothing anyone could have said could have defined the situation because no one could have known what to think at the time.

I knew Malik Hines. I knew him, not well, but I knew him. We first met, oddly enough, through writing. We were both “staffers” on the State Journal-Register's The Voice. Chace Jordan was too, for a while. I recall a particular meeting in which we joked about making a black-oriented version of The Voice, one that would talk about Fubu jackets, and not Ugg boots, for the holiday fashions and other silly comparisons of the sort. We would call it The Deep Voice. I thought that was pretty good. I was a grade above him: a sophomore when he was a freshman. Now I was a small kid, but Malik was the boniest dude I knew. So being a sophomore, I made it a joke to go up to him whenever I saw him in the hallway and beat his ass. Not really, but I would jokingly act like a tough guy, pushing him against a locker, and he would go with the joke, “AUUGHH, Eliot! Leave me alone, oh shit!” I would let him go, both of us laughing. I'd walk away thinking “I appreciate how he goes with that” and him probably thinking “what a fucking weird dude.” It was obvious that he was one of those kids at our school without enemies. He was just that type of person.
My junior and senior years were times where I didn't interact much with him, it wasn't called on or necessary. I obviously saw him around though. And he was starting to come into his own. Not that I knew better than anybody, but it was obvious. He was developing his own thing. He had a girlfriend, Brenna Williams. They were a mushy couple. But I won't forget how much joy shot across either one of their faces, should they pass the other in the hallway. Malik was someone who appeared to have his sights set on having fun and was doing a damn good job of it. Somewhere down the line, he and Brenna split. Don't know when, don't need to know when. But he always maintained his light personality, and was one of the few people in school I could go to if I had a really stupid comment to make and needed someone to hear it, before the days of Twitter. One day I felt unreasonably compelled to ask Malik, “hey, do you listen to Lupe Fiasco?”
“Yeah Lupe's the man. ...Why?”
“No reason. Just felt like asking you, you seemed like you would listen to Lupe Fiasco.”
“Yeah well I do. I love Lupe Fiasco.”
“You're really just asking me though?”
“Mm, yeah.”
“You're weird.”

Yeah, he was more than ready to start a conversation, but I didn't. Just didn't feel like either of us had time for the other. We had our own lives. As different as we were, I was happy enough to find one thing we both loved. That was just the kind of relationship I had with Malik Hines. Not much there, but from what was there, it was nothing but positive.

All of this came like a tidal wave back into memory that night. What? All that, gone in a pile of scrap metal and upholstery? Then came darker thoughts. I hope it was quick. I hope it was painless. I hope he was stoned beyond his nerve endings. Picturing a kid as animated as Malik just lifeless and just, not there. It was harsh. It wasn't suicide. He wasn't driving drunk. He just... died. I couldn't stop thinking about how unexpected it was. Malik was just a person you wouldn't think would die young. Not that anyone can be pegged as that. He had enough charisma to be notable and pleasant, not enough of a persona to be a traumatic public tragedy. Those words may sound harsh, but I'm just saying he wasn't going to the NBA and wasn't the next Lupe Fiasco, that's all. It wasn't the star quarterback of SHG, just some kid you figured you'd be able to see again. After digging through the pages of respects paid on his Facebook wall, I found the last status he ever recorded. “Parents are so pointless.” Hm. That's not necessarily a note you want to leave on. But it's so normal. Just a kid, feeling ready to be independent. Just like all of us are at some point.

And I kept going back to my dad, at a loss because he never said good-bye to his father. And as little as it's worth now, I KNOW the last thing I said to Malik was a good-bye. It was my last day of high school, I ran into him. Hell, I may have made a joke that I'd never see him again. It may have been true even if Malik had avoided the crash. And you know, that car accident was the furthest thing from his “fate”. It was just a thing that happened. You look at it now and think “this is something that happens in fantasies, but not reality. Not MY reality.” His close friends are stricken with morbid grief. Traumatized. His acquaintances have the wind knocked out of them. Disbelieving. Waiting for Malik to come back from being sick and for things to go back to normal. Distant acquaintances that know him little, like myself, are shocked. Lost for words. Searching for words to describe the feeling, lack of reasoning, lack of causation, lack of blame or conscious realization. This was a death that negatively affected everyone. Be it an overwhelming amount or the little bit that comes from viewing it objectively and realizing that tragedy can hit and nothing can be counted as a cause or reason. Sometimes, things just go horribly for no reason at all.

That's real death. The kind that comes and leaves you hollow and then goes. The kind that you realize will happen to you one day, albeit we can hope for better circumstances. Tragedy is every bit as much a part of life as triumph is, and unlike triumph, tragedy usually cannot be undone.

But how many times have we seen this before? Done this before? We have slain mercilessly the three-dimensional depictions of human life. Why? Because Grand Theft Auto tells us to. A 3-D depiction can look realistic, but the most important aspect of death is lost: emotion. Cold, untamable, raw emotion.

A couple years ago, a kid at Sacred Heart-Griffin tried to kill himself. He didn't, but he came irrevocably close. The incident is still viewed as a tragedy and he lost more than those months of rehabilitation. He now has lost certain motor functions that he will only gain back with years of hard work. Next time you get up and walk somewhere, unassisted, remember how lucky you are. Those around him realized how lucky they were to still have him. The rest of us realized just how easily tragedy can strike, but also we saw how it can bring people together. Anthony Enlow's story meant a lot of things to a lot of different people. He gave them the shock of losing a friend, and essentially a second chance at cherishing his life. I think that made all of us a little more compassionate. Everyone who absorbed the story behind Anthony learned to value what we have, and care about those who may be in need of a friend.

So what was to gain from the loss of Malik Hines?

This question plagued my mind as I reflected on what happened that afternoon. The only thing that could have prevented this was less unfortunate circumstance. That's it. While the class of 2011 grieves and searches for answers, I've found something that I think I wouldn't have found without Malik. Reality. Sometimes, it can leave you in the cold of an endless dark November, mouth agape, wondering which deed you did that was deemed bad enough to be responsible for this. Sometimes, your question will go heard, yet unanswered. There will be silence. And it's sad. It's just fucking sad.

But it doesn't end there. There isn't eternal silence and sadness. You go home. Out of the November cold. Into a house that still feels warm, a feeling that's almost off-putting in its comfort. You lie down and fall asleep. You go to school the next week and things feel almost like normal, until you see that empty desk in your English class. But it's not really an empty desk. Sitting there are the shock and sorrow that you met on Friday, when someone you knew and loved turned into something you would miss terribly and remember fondly. You aren't the only one who sees this. Your classmates see it too. It's tough to look, so you look to each other, and you understand. The lunch table seems smaller that day. The food is more unappetizing than usual, and you could swear it was quieter, even though everybody's talking as they normally would. But you go home that day. Your mom makes dinner. As you sit at the table with your family, you taste the dinner but also what it means to be able to taste such food. Food cooked by your mom in the warmth of your home with your siblings who, rather irritable, have been alright this week. You just last week gave thanks for so many things. But this week you're more thankful to have those things than you ever were.

Malik Hines will be missed by countless many. One thing that comes to my mind is his laugh. So genuine. And his voice still rings vividly in my head, despite not hearing it all too often. But don't let that be the end of it. As the calendar turns from November's uninviting frigid wind to December's welcome winter bluster, don't forget to look around you. What we have is so great. So beautiful. So wondrous. So delicate. Before we look forward to the future, let us not forget to cherish the present, because that's really all we're guaranteed. Someday, each one of us will die. It will come to an end eventually, and I am determined to not take life for anything less than what it's worth. This is what I've come to realize from Malik's untimely passing. I may not have known Malik Hines too well, but I will never forget him.

All of that makes me forget, though, the souls I've stolen when plugged into my Playstation. They're meaningless. I realize now that I've known that all along. Fake death has its place. Fake death is the comedy. Real death is the tragedy. I think for all intents and purposes we should allow ourself exposure to both. I always have kept these separate. And there's value in both of them. Fake death is fun. Fun to imagine, because it isn't real. It's the fairytale ending where everybody comes back in the end. Just make sure you know the difference between that and the frozen concrete of a tombstone in December.

Malik, buddy, rest in peace. Or better yet, live it up, wherever you are. The memories we have of you keep you alive, somewhere. And I know without a doubt, wherever you are, you have a smile on your face. And that fact allows me to go forward with a smile on mine.

--Eliot Sill


  1. You write really great blog posts, but you make it incredibly hard to follow up sometimes.

  2. Should be sent to the Senator as an article.