When Looking Back Is Better Than Looking Ahead

Like many other people, I was surprised at how much I was saddened by the recent suicide of actor Robin Williams. For a person I’ve never met, simply knowing that his life is over feels like a personal loss. Having been so busy with my new position at work, I hadn’t been plugged into the hive-mind on Reddit like I usually am when public tragedies or deaths occur. Once I was able to log into Facebook or scroll through rumor threads on Reddit, I found a sudden and overwhelming outpouring of sorrowful admiration.  Even my brother, who has impressive internal complexity but expresses his emotions to me as often as they hold Olympic Games, texted to tell me that it felt like we lost a great childhood friend. After I finished what I was doing, I marshaled forth a few scrambled thoughts that didn’t adequately express my heart.

Despite the fact that I’m actually very good at expressing certain emotions, such as appreciation and disappointment, I don’t particularly enjoy thinking about death. While this might seem inconsistent with my obsession over the past, death inhabits a different intellectual space in my mind than does a nostalgic look back on the past. Nostalgia is a homesickness for places, persons, or things of the past. Its gaze backwards is usually warm, illusory, and more expansive with each passing year, even if our memory is more and more unreliable as time passes.

Death, on the other hand, is an increasingly bitter and more immediate prospect. Each day that I wake up is one less day remaining in the future to look forward to. The day leaps across the present into the past, where it joins the thousands of other days that have irreversibly moved from potential to expended. At this precise moment, I hope that the scales of my life are still tilted more towards the future than the past, but I have no way of knowing. One day, the scales will be as unbalanced as they possibly can be and there won’t be any more days to expend. This fairly simple fact of existence is true for everyone. Me, my beloved family members, and you, dear reader are, as John Keating put it, food for worms.

Death bothers me because, despite it’s conceptual simplicity, it is completely unknowable. Death is the perfect other. It exists simultaneously as both punctuation and portal. I can’t be dead while still being me, because being me requires being alive and self-aware. I can’t experience death without no longer being able to report or record my experiences. Death can’t truly be known while a person still lives, even if an individual manages to clinically experience one of the reported encounters with a rich existence beyond the white light. In that state, you weren’t all dead, just mostly dead. There’s a big difference.


With all dead, there’s usually only one thing you can do: Go through his clothes and look for loose change.

I count myself more fortunate than others when it comes to experiencing  death in my lifetime. While I’ve experienced an average amount of death in my life, most of it occurred to beloved family members who had lived long and experienced a full life. For most of us, it is the passing of our grandparents that provides our first close encounter with dying. Mine passed peacefully, for the most part. My paternal grandmother lived a long life and passed away in a nursing home. My maternal grandfather lived a long and colorful life, and passed suddenly in his living room. My mother and I used to talk in hushed tones, hoping that he would pass first, on account of the care my Down Syndrome uncle would require that Grandpa could not provide. We also hoped that my uncle would pass before my sweet maternal grandmother, for the same reason. Their three deaths unfolded just as we would have chosen and while I still miss all of them terribly and would love their company, I didn’t feel as though any of them hadn’t lived long enough or done enough in their lives.

In all these ways, I count myself lucky. The death that affected me the most came a year after my graduation, when one of my good friends from high school died in a car accident that, for me, redefined the word “tragic.” Lisa and I had spent the previous year working together on my high school newspaper as co-editors. Starting out as rivals who weren’t thrilled about sharing a editor position, competition and resentment soon gave way to cooperation and general fondness.  We became complimentary pieces and good friends. When my other good friend on the newspaper staff, a photographer, asked her to senior prom, I was slightly jealous because I had wanted to do the same.

Despite the fact that we both came to the dance with different people, we spent half of the night together and lost track of our respective dates. While slow-dancing to “I Swear” by All-4-One with my arms awkwardly draped around her black and white gown, she offered up the idea that we should have just gone together. The sentiment was mutual and I added yet another name to an already long list of people who could have been more to me had I been less of a coward.

I graduated a few weeks later and, as these things often go, we spoke less and less over the summer. I left for college and hadn’t heard from her all semester until I bumped into her at JC Penney’s while I was back home for fall break. She seemed happier than I had ever seen her, going on at length about a new boyfriend in the next town over. Her parents didn’t really know yet and they hadn’t approved of other boyfriends, but she was excited about this one. Her birthday was coming up, graduation was nearer each day, and the world seemed to finally be opening up.

A week later, a mutual friend of ours sobbingly called me at my dorm room to tell me the bad news. Lisa and a friend had died in a horrible car crash while on their way to see Lisa’s new boyfriend. The driver of the other car had taken his infant daughter from her mother and sped west towards my hometown. Both cars collided head-on as he tried to pass a different car near an extremely dangerous curve on a rural highway. All four people died as a result of the crash and in an instant, hundreds of lives were irrevocably changed because of one person’s incredibly stupid decision to drive carelessly.

The friend who had called also offered to give me a ride home, since I had been in a bad car accident myself just a few weeks earlier. While driving my off-white Ford Ranger pick-up on an interstate in Oklahoma City, a red Toyota Corolla carelessly merged into my lane from an on-ramp and bumped the back left end of my truck, just as I was slowing to avoid hitting a van in front of me that had tapped its brakes. Because of that bump, my truck lost its footing, rolled over, and slammed into the concrete barrier of the overpass I was crossing. One second , I was happily contemplating my new life while listening to Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” and sipping on a lime slush. The next second, my world was a cacophonous roar of screeching tires, grinding metal, shattering glass, and fear. Loose change, cassette tapes, and car tools behind the seat began flying about and something struck the side of my face. Then I heard or felt nothing. Just blackness. After dangling in semi-consciousness for a few seconds, I came to and crawled out of my driver’s side window to find my truck precariously positioned on the threshold of a 100 ft. drop onto another interstate below.

I crawled the opposite direction and collapsed into shock once I was able to actually place my feet on solid ground. For whatever reason, I walked away from my accident with only a few bumps and bruises. My lovely friend was not so fortunate. The entire two-hour ride home, this was all I could contemplate. How had I been so lucky? Why not her? Why couldn’t it have been me? Reassurances came from all sides, reminding me that world had order and purpose, but I wanted to hear none of it. Prior to this point, death had been personal and real, but not so cruel. I didn’t handle the adjustment well.

I couldn’t bring myself to view her body and I do not regret that in the slightest. If nostalgia is fueled by illusory memories, then I’m happily deluded having not seen what all my other friends couldn’t bring themselves to describe to me. The funeral service itself was almost unbearable. I cried profusely upon even entering the building and I was directed be a friend to a seat in the back so as to not cause a massive distraction. I remember very little of what the minister said over her closed casket, but what I remember infuriated me. Time passed, I eventually returned back to school a few days later, and I spent the next week rarely leaving my room.

For the next year, I visited her grave every time I came home, always buying or picking a flower to leave behind in remembrance of my friend. When my immaturity, impulsiveness, and unpreparedness led to a series of bad decisions including my dropping out of college, I began visiting her grave whenever I felt lost. I braided two necklaces out of hemp to leave dangling on the tree that grew next to her grave marker. I eventually hung an stained glass sun-catcher from the same tree. Some days, I would sit next to her grave at sunset and talk aloud to her, describing the colors in the sky or something that had happened to one of our friends. Other days, I would stand above in total silence and listen to the wind in the trees, trying to recall the sound of her voice.

Of all the things about Lisa that passed rapidly from my memory, her voice was the one that pained me the most. Within a week or two, I couldn’t recall its particular sound, outside of a few small phrases. What bothered me most was the immediacy of it all. How someone could be so suddenly and permanently gone. How quickly the world could dim. How soon my memory started to fail me, as if it almost wanted to forget — as if it had to forget to survive. It became a race against to preserve and enshrine in my mind the best and most valuable parts of our friendship. It kept wounds open to do so, but it also helped to form the memories that I needed so that I wouldn’t forget.

The same thing will happen with Robin Williams. The suddenness of his departure has already caused an outpouring of grief across our society because of the varied roles he played. Dancing across the spectrum from Peter Pan and the Genie all the way to brilliant turns in Good Will Hunting, Awakenings, and Dead Poets Society, his performances are ingrained in the cultural consciousness of several generations. Fortunately, we have copious records of many of his best moments and because of the fondness with which we’ll view these, we’ll come to revere him more. We’ll downplay less memorable performances. We’ll frame struggles with addiction and depression as evidence of a grand narrative and we’ll see what we can learn from it. For many of us, we grew up with with his performances and we’ll pass them on sentimentally to children and grandchildren as they grow up.

When we were little, growing up meant having more freedom and fun. It meant never having to listen to anyone if we didn’t want to. It meant staying out later and doing as we pleased.  It meant hoping for fairy tale endings, like the one in Aladdin. As we get older, we realize that’s less and less true. Growing up is about increasing complexity in every moment. It’s about mowing the lawn while contemplating broken relationships. It’s about looking at photo albums, not to help you remember, but to ensure that you never forget. It’s about staring at the moon as it rises and recalling kisses given under the cover of dark, while also realizing that we’ve likely forgotten more than we remember. It’s about planning to pass on the world to others and to live gratefully while still in it.

Sadly, growing up is also about watching people drift away and watching our friends, family, and heroes die. I think of Robin Williams as one of those heroes, flawed though he may have been at times. He was a unique soul who made us laugh with absurdity when we were young while inspiring our minds as adults. He developed into a great actor, capable of fantastic comic performances and channeling deeper meaning into dramatic roles. That duality of existence is what he represents. The tragic and the comic, entwined in the same body. It’s sad to see that disappear so suddenly because it’s so rare to begin with.

We feel this even more acutely for our friends and family, who are also unique and as we age, they too are exceedingly rare. The initial pain of loss subsides into a more complex array of emotions. Those emotions, in time, also subside into a new normal pattern of existence. A lived one’s absence is felt, but so is their continued presence in our minds.

Our memories of the past, full of nostalgia though they may be, are also structured by these people we’ve walked alongside in our lives. As our scales become more and unbalanced towards the past, our recollection of it is a reconstruction of those we remember best. It is a great luxury that we can look back, each time with more fondness, and thus keep these loved ones alive in our memories.

Over time, I stopped visiting Lisa’s grave as often. Because her death occurred at the head of series of events that turned my world upside down, it became symbolic of how unfair life could be. Over time, as my life improved and I moved away from my hometown for the last time, I was at peace with her absence.

We come to love a person, for whatever reason, knowing full well that the time allotted with them is finite. If a relationship survives jealously, slighting, animosity, distance, or disappointment, it still must fall victim to time. This is unavoidable, but it is not without hope. Time might take someone away from us, but time also allows us to sustain the echoes of their existence for much longer than their life allowed.

At first, I held my friend’s death bitterly and with great confusion. Time allowed me to slowly work out my feelings until the bitterness flowed out of me like water. On its way out it carried away many details both great and small, like the sound of my friend’s voice or the particular color of her eyes. But I clung to several other wonderful details and refused to let them go. Yes, death happens. Yes, it’s a natural part of life. Yes, most people have a reassuring answer why it had to happen around you, but we need not resign ourselves to it and weep at the sieve in our minds that claims to be our memory. We can take great comfort in having been able to love the person at all. And we can remember.

We grow, we live,  and we watch our friends, family, or heroes die. We miss them, not for the grand shadows they cast in death, but for how they made us feel glad to be alive. And so, if looking to the future carries a vivid promise of our certain end, then looking to the past carries even more vivid reminders that we existed.

Certain songs or places become bookmarked in time, thus ensuring that we’ll never forget how it felt to dance with and hold in our arms someone we loved and now miss. Because of this, they are never fully gone from us. A certain scene in a film becomes much more than skillfully recited lines; it becomes a great artistic beacon toward which we aspire and in doing so, we never forget the actor who gilded the scene with greatness. Those who have left us still live on in a hundred different minds, revivified with every fresh recollection, ready once again to remind us how wonderful it is to live and to love.


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