Last night I went to a dinner-wake observing the one year anniversary of Connor MacMahon’s death. He was the son of family friends who, just upon turning 27 a week before, pulled out in traffic on his motorcycle only to have a car pull out in front of him just as he got his speed going… At least that is what I remember my mother telling me as I listened to the news over the phone while I was in Darjeeling, India, a year ago. In a culture where tragedy is always so close that tears seem indulgent, I had to walk out of the room and go cry by myself on the balconey over looking the hillsides of Darjeeling just so I would not upset our cook, Kanchi, and her drunkard husband.
I had met Conor just once. We had had dinner over at his parents’ house in Boulder upon his return from serving in Afghanistan for four years. His mother made Polish food, the family’s Portuguese Water Dogs watched us intently as we ate, and I remember just having a really good time. He was a few younger than me and was now going to school at CU. I remember it being really good to meet him. And that was it.
When I heard of his accident half a world away, my thoughts and pain went immediately to his parents – wonderful people with a passion for art and horses, in short, my kind of folks. They were good friends with my parents, and always so kind and interested in my gypsy life – even as it plunged my own parents into a different sort of year of grief.
But perhaps what gripped my heart the most the moment I heard about Conor – and has not really loosened a year later – was that he did not deserve to die when we had both been doing the same thing the day he died: riding a motorcycle.
For me, I had been descending the pass leading out of Kalimpong after filming a jam session of musicians at Cloud 9 Hotel the night before. I was on the back of my bike clinging to my then-boyfriend, a dangerous, deceptive human being if there ever was one. We were in India filming his documentary on my money – including motorcycle rental. While he had wanted to be filmed alone or just with the boys on his bike, I had pestered him enough to let me ride with him for a little bit of the journey back to Darjeeling.
I remember the journey on the back of the bike as wonderful. We were so close to trees, animals, people and buildings that I usually had only seen at the snail’s pace of a walk or through the isolation of a vehicle window. The sun and air were warmer on the Kalimpong-side of the Teesta River, and for a moment, as I held on to the back of the man who would later on almost destroy me, I remember the potent, simultaneous experience of love, gratitude and joy.
When was it that Conor died that day? Was it while I was literally hanging on to my illusion on the back of the bike? Or was it later on that night, when I was back on the bus, and the motorcycles kept breaking down on one of the most haunted parts of the road between Darjeeling and Kalimpong? All I know is that when I got back to Darjeeling and phoned my mother and found out about Conor, a phrase – hegemonic, illusory, powerful and something good human beings have been saying since day one – came into my head: “It should have been me.”
I was the one who rode without a helmut. I was the one who was estranged from her family and causing them daily heartbreak. I had not sacrificed my life for four years for war. I had not just returned the prodigal child ready to go to school and take on the world. Why am I alive and Conor is not?
Like I said, this line of thinking is not healthy, but it is historical, and given my sensitive, closet-metaphysical nature, it is a natural thought and pang in the gut to have. I finally came clean to my mother at Conor’s dinner-wake about my feeling of unworthiness, guilt, and sadness, moping up my selfish tears with a cocktail napkin. “I came back,” I managed to choke out, “and he didn’t.”
Conor’s parents looked so old and small a year later. “To better days,” his father said upon his first glass of wine, and we all concurred and drank. He went on to apologize to his wife in his welcome speech, projected by such a feeble voice, for having to live with such a “dark Irish bastard” this past year. But her eyes betrayed her own dark journey. I know those eyes, they shrink and shrivel from so much crying and expulsion of grief and bewilderment. I know those eyes, for I have had them too in this past year. Conor’s father, ever the gracious man, conversed knowingly with me and said that it was good to have me back. It was all I could do to nod and keep my heart from exploding in a quixotic combination of sadness, responsibility, and determination.
After the dinner – Lamb and Guiness stew via an Italian chef, a good friend of Conor’s family – the drinks, the dessert, the shared memories and partial conversations, we all started to leave by beginning with our goodbyes to Conor’s parents. His mother – who in the midst of her grief celebrated the return of my (fragile) blonde hair – hugged me, and my god, it was like hugging a leaf, so thin, quaking, yet still alive. I don’t know how she came around to saying it, but she must have divined it from my half-start/half-stop attempts to tell her something of what I have just told you now. “Take his good into the world,” she finally told me.
And I will.