Re-membering: a Topography of Tom

First Date

Tom had picked me up after his soccer game. He was fresh from the shower, his shaggy hair still slightly damp at the edges. He looked so beautiful. It was a Monday evening, three days after we had met. It was the first time we went on a date. 

Tom and I sat on the big rocks at East Shore Park, on the edge of Cayuga Lake. The sun sank lower and lower, almost touching the surface. One big orange beam reflected on the water, a pathway towards the sun. Our bodies sat close to one another but we didn’t touch. 

We had danced those first two nights away until the sun rose hot over our bodies pressed close to one another. Sweat had broken down any barrier between us. But as we sat on those rocks we were still timid, unsure of how our bodies related to one another without the music, the alcohol, and the movement of so many other bodies around us. From this moment on, silence became something that was never a discomfort between us, just another way of knowing. 

Once the sun had set over the water we walked down the railroad tracks to Stewart Park. We found a bench under a willow tree. Tom pulled the classic first date move of slipping his arm around me as we sat down. I smiled and kissed him. “I was trying to figure out how to keep this going, you know?” he said with a sheepish grin. I kissed him some more. I was also trying to keep it going. 

As the stars awoke to the darkness and speckled the sky with their dying light, Tom and I settled into the evening dew damp grass to watch them. We were as mesmerized by the stars as we were by each other.  


I showed Tom my drunk stride—long lunges to steady myself— as we walked back along the railroad tracks holding hands. Tom laughed so hard as he tried to imitate me that he missed a rise in the tracks, tripped, and fell flat on his back. His hand still gripped mine. I squatted to the ground in hysterics, barely able to get out the words to ask if he was alright. He groaned, ashamed of his clumsiness. “Great way to impress someone on a first date,” he laughed. 

After his death, the memory of this fall haunts me. 

Brain Death

During the last summer of Tom’s life he made a sculpture of a neuron in his parents’ backyard. The sculpture—a tangle of wires—was mounted on a metal pole in the rock garden Tom has been building. It was a strange philosophical contemplation of his study of neuroscience; though he explained each part, I didn’t understand how this tangle could be representative of the ways in which my brain and body communicated with one another. I have always struggled with abstract art and abstract body parts.

Tom once told me—after we had already non-verbally agreed that we were falling in love—that love was merely a chemical reaction in the brain. The neurotransmitters signaling a chemical release. He searched my eyes after he said this and admitted that science was not a satisfactory explanation for the way he was feeling.

Air-lift

After Tom fell, his body was airlifted by helicopter from the parking lot of a giant grocery store in Ithaca to a larger hospital with a trauma center in Pennsylvania. The paramedics must have taken him first by stretcher from the place where he had landed, to the ambulance on the street, to the parking lot, to the air. His life charted a path in those hours, from air to ground and back to air again. 

Those moments that he spent in the helicopter are somehow, in my mind, the most vulnerable. More vulnerable or intimate even than the surgeon’s hands removing his internal organs. His body naked, strapped to the stretcher, his palms up as though waiting for life to seep back into them. It is a position of the body which feels as though it should not have been seen by anyone other than me.

Pieces of him were flown again, returned to air as they traveled to their respective recipients—bodies steeped in waiting. His heart, his lungs, his kidneys, they flew in different directions and landed in the warm body of someone else. 

Who sat with him in the helicopter? The thought of his body alone or in the hands of a stranger digs a cavern in my chest. The tears have run down my face, through my pores. They have washed blood and tissue from beneath my lungs into my core. In my stomach, there remains a fear that although his brain was already dead or dying, he was somehow cognizant of my absence, of the absence of a familiar body next to his—that he was alone in his dying. 

In his book, When Breath Becomes Air, the neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi writes of his own process of dying from a brain tumor. In a way, he suggests that death is nothing more or less than air. Ramona Ausubel says something similar in a short story titled “Poppy,” when she writes “That’s what happens when someone dies I said. That’s when you get to have them everywhere.” 

I have at times been comforted by the idea that when a person dies, their cells, breath, blood, and bone become an inevitable part of the air. Their being is no longer distinguishable mass; rather it is invisibly scattered anywhere and everywhere. Their bones are either burned and then thrown to the wind, or decomposing in ground, a slow release back to air. 

That some pieces of Tom are still alive in the bodies of others means that his becoming air has been slowed down even further. As parts of him die within the bodies of others, he will be released. Death may exhale breaths of Tom for longer than my body is here to receive them. 

Water’s Edge

Stewart Park sits on the edge of Cayuga Lake. The water there is, at times, filled with wood made smooth by the drifting and lapping of our lake. 

It is the place where the weeping willows drop their branches all the way to touch the grass: a reminder to be flexible, malleable to the world’s weight, to let your body droop down and touch the supposed stability of ground. 

This water’s edge is where I came as a child to swing through the air and run through sprinklers. This water’s edge is where my mom came as a child to see the strange zoo that used to be kept within the perimeter, the llama that launched spitballs at visitors. 

It is the place where I am told gay men used to come to meet one another in secret. They had to bury their love in the rivulets of the inlet. Their love leaked and dripped before being pulled up by fishermen who stand in green waders held tight to their thighs. They fish for lake trout who are fat with condoms, used needles, soggy white bread, and watermelon seeds slipped under teeth and through lips. 

This is the place where my entire school, grades 6 through 12, gathered to celebrate the end of the school year and the start of summer. There is a photograph of two of my classmates swinging on a bench next to the water, the photo made sacred because we lost both of them. She was a slow descent, a tumor creeping around, vining through her brain cells. He was fast and wreckless—a car smashed and flipped off the highway—his body a scramble in the oblivion of concrete. This photo became an emblem of the innocence this place drains from us. 

This is the same place where I ran in circles with my rowing team before our bodies fell into unison with one another: legs extending, breath pushed out of our lungs in forced release, oars cut through the lake in fluid motion. The place where my mom walks loops around the water on still mornings, where my dad runs on dark and cloudy afternoons. 

This is the same place where Tom and I kept falling in love again and again and again to the sinking sunset and the starry summer. We tried to drown the relentless mosquitoes in our kisses, our bodies learning we were filled with blood. We had a special bench under the willows where we’d talk and breathe. Some evenings we played together like children, spinning on the giant metal bug shaped playground feature, everything about the world a blur enveloping us. I remember the way we locked eyes in the spin.

This bench is the one place, even two and a half years later, where I cannot bring myself to sit. I can run through the park with my dad, but I won’t let my body stop. This water’s edge has become a boundary of motion. I fear that if my body were to become still, I would drown—not in the murky waters of our deep lake, but in my disbelief at the absence of Tom’s body waiting for mine beneath the branches. 

Balance

A teacher of mine explains balance as tension. If I think about balance as tension, the fact that Tom lost his can be understood as a release.

Law of falling bodies 

As defined by the Galileo Project, the law of falling bodies states that in a vacuum all bodies, regardless of their weight, shape, or specific gravity, are uniformly accelerated in exactly the same way, and that the distance fallen is proportional to the square of the elapsed time.

The law of falling bodies states that if I had somehow touched Tom’s body as it fell through the air, the outcome would not have changed.

The law of falling bodies ignores the rotation of the earth, ignores the effects of gravity, ignores velocity, ignores resistance. 

The law of falling bodies does not discuss the way in which the body lands, the way certain parts of the body may hit the ground while others are momentarily suspended.

The law of falling bodies does not tell of the way in which the sound of bones snapping can be a delicate rainfall. 

The law of falling bodies does not describe the outcome as a sort of death. It does not chronicle the brain swelling up against the plates fused in infancy. It does not chronicle a heart-stop.   

The law of falling bodies distills an equation only for the way in which a body falls through space.  

The law of falling bodies states that no matter the specificity of his body, Tom was always going to fall in the same way, at the same speed. The motion was inevitable. 

That his arms were a wing-span, 

that there was a point between his ribs where I traced onto his skin the barely visible circles and waves of my finger print, 

that his eyelids fluttered open and closed while he was sleeping, 

matters only, in the end, to me. 

Porch of Death

The summer of Tom’s death was a summer spent on the porch of death. In stagnant evening air, in fresh rainy dusk, and under dark starry nights, M and I spent endless hours sitting on the porch that Tom fell off of. It was a sort of vigil. We stayed in the heaviness. We had nowhere else to go. 

We drank cheap cans of beer and smoked spliffs. We were careful: we got just fucked up enough. We did not go near the edge of the porch. We sat with our feet firmly planted. Sometimes we talked. Other times we just sat there in silence, bearing witness to the porch, to death. 

When I sat on that porch, I stared at the ugly neon lights of the parking garage a few buildings over. The lights blinked and shifted from color to color. I wondered if those colors were the last thing that Tom saw in his living. I wanted to know that Tom had seen something beautiful as his body fell through the air. Those lights were not the kind of beautiful I had hoped for. Rather, the part of Fall Creek that flows behind and beneath the porch is the kind of motion that I hope Tom saw in his dying. 

Sometimes I think about the arc that his body must have made in the air. I wonder if his body actually flipped. I think it must have in order for his head to have hit the place I think it did. I wondered, while sitting on the porch of death, if by chance Tom had seen the stars shimmering along the stream as it moved towards the lake, as gravity flung his body to the ground.

One night, while we were high, I told M that I thought Tom had been alright with dying. I told him that I was confident that Tom had accepted his own death. I told him I wanted to be able to accept it too. M replied in the way only he knew: gently, he reminded me that it was alright to not be okay with Tom’s death, it was alright that I was fucked up over it. We could be fucked up together on the porch of death. 

In a way, this is the conversation I repeat in my head day after day. I am endlessly trying to figure out if I should accept Tom’s death, as I think he did, or whether I should just go on being broken over it. In this way, I hold Tom’s death in my palms, two opposing weights of tragedy and release. Holding his death in this way is as gruesome as it is beautiful. 

In many ways, I still find truth in what I said to M that evening on the porch: I want to find my own release and my own peace within the action, the motion that was Tom’s death. In my inability to choose acceptance, I am still trying to catch him. To catch him, put him back together, put myself back together. At moments, I find some sort of balance in which I neither accept or “get over” his death or my grief, nor am I paralyzed by the reality of him being gone. In those moments, I am no longer sitting on the porch of death searching for his every last molecule. 

Measuring

A person’s pulse is the measurement of the number of heartbeats occurring during a sixty second interval. It is a counting, a reckoning of the blood that is in circulation. It is, above all, movement. 

June 3rd is a mark on a scale of time.

This year, June 3rd came and it meant that a year had gone by since Tom had been defined as dead. On June 3rd I felt the same feeling of floating in an empty molecule of salt. I wasn’t sure if I felt this way because June 3rd had come again or because I knew that I was supposed to feel something about this specific amount of time passing and him still not being here. 

On June 3rd of the year before he died I was on the island of Cyprus, resting on the ocean between Greece, Turkey, and Syria, so many miles away from him. He sent me a message that said miss you very much. That message might have been sent on June 2nd or received on June 4th, depending on our respective locations in space and time. We spoke to each other between time zones.

I have trouble knowing how to mark Tom’s death in time. I don’t know what counts. I could define it as the moment his skull hit the concrete, or the moment his legs were thrown off balance and his seat on that porch balcony turned into the summer air. I could define it as the day, month, minute, second that his neurons died from the lack of oxygen moving through his body. I could measure the time that passed between when his heart left the warmth of his fleshy insides, under the protection of his rib cage and the moment when another person’s blood circulated one full time through it. I could pick a moment and say there it is. 

He fell on June 2nd, but it was late enough at night to almost be the morning of June 3rd. I found out that he was in an irreversible coma—therefore he was quickly declared dead—on June 3rd. I sat in the back seat of a car while my mother, father, and best friend slowly drove me home across New Hampshire, Vermont, and into New York. That was June 4th. 

Before I was in the car I was in a hammock with a friend whom I had intended to visit for several days. We were waiting for my mother, father, and best friend to come get me and my car. My friend and I rocked lightly in the hammock and looked up at the sky. While the clouds moved smoothly across the blue I felt tears slide down either side of my temples; I didn’t know if I was crying because of the steadiness of the clouds’ movement across the sky or because I thought maybe Tom was up there, even though I don’t believe in heaven. And it was still June 4th.

The obituary his parents and brother wrote says that he died on June 4th due to injuries sustained in an accidental fall the previous day. 

I measure time by the calendar year because that is the only way that I know how. Three hundred and sixty-five days which is equal to the time it takes for the Earth to circle the sun. Every time we cycle through this number of days we reach another day that has the same name. I tend to think that this is somehow significant. Many people do: hence birthdays, anniversaries, and high school graduation reunions. I have come to learn that though it has the same name, the new day is not at all the same.

One year after Tom and I first met we did nothing special to acknowledge that measurement. 

Instead, we acknowledged the day when our bodies once again danced together in the same place where we had first found one another in the mass of moving bodies. This was a marker of space, not of time. The days did not have the same name, but nonetheless we had returned. To measure that marker Tom gave me a necklace made of blue and turquoise embroidery thread with a metal seahorse on it. He had been wearing the necklace all night and when he gave it to me it was still warm from the heat of his body. 

One year passed and his mother wrote: we have circled the sun one time since we lost our Tom. 

Different types of cells in the body die at different rates. They die in masses, at a rate of millions per second. Presumably cells are also remade at the same rate. This seems like something that happens too quickly for measurement, but I know that is all relative. 

Why wouldn’t I measure the passing of time by the rate of the death and rebirth of molecules which make up my body?

I used to measure life as the beating of a heart, the time it took for blood to circulate the body once. This means that I was measuring the presence of blood in every vein in the body at the same time and calling it being alive. Now that this brain that I love has died, I am no longer certain of how to separate living from dying. 

Everything is moving all of the time, and sometimes I am scared that because of this nothing can ever be still. In other words, I fear that living and dying are both a form of motion and therefore relatively indistinguishable from one another.

Someone described brain death to me as the annihilation of human selfhood and added that this disrupts the notion of being a whole organism. I heard this explanation and I felt as though I too was falling.

I like to measure things in wholes, in full circulation. Perhaps this is a way of trying to understand myself as being whole? Tom is a body in pieces and molecules. 

Shouldn’t there be a way to measure the ways in which I fell apart? How parts of me died and others remade themselves, when his body became separate organs that were alive even though he was dead? 

And shouldn’t the way of measuring time have changed when he died? And didn’t it? 

Photo Credit: Yaniv Korman

About the author

Rayna Joyce is an aspiring writer and farmer, interested in the intersection between agriculture, social justice, and education. She currently works and lives in Ithaca, NY.

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