The first thought I had this morning was ouch. It's too early. Close on the heels of that was 'I should check my phone and see what time it is.. that carried onto a strange feeling of bereavement associated with my phone and the next thought was the realization again, that my friend Clay was gone. After a moment of that, I realized it was Christmas morning.
Life is precious. I always say this. I always remind myself to live fully and from my heart in each moment. But sometimes the loss of a bright friend is a sharp nail driving it home.
I found out last night that one of my new great friends here in New York passed away over the weekend.
Hard to believe, he was at our Christmas party on Friday.
Clay was a bright man. A dancer. Full of life and living and love. We became friends almost without my really noticing. He helped me move in and then that was it, he'd call or come over and invite me to things and I always felt welcome with him. He loved to be a gentleman, he'd carry my bag and help me up steps and open doors for me. He walked me to work on several occasions and wasn't afraid to adventure with me.
I don't think he was afraid of anything.
I asked him one morning on one of our adventure as we sat in line for Cronuts down on Spring street, as the sun slowly lit the day and the world came awake around us, I asked him, what he was most afraid of.
He thought about it for second, and then brushed it off.
"I'm not." he told me, looking honestly into my face.
"If I'm scared of something, I do it. And then I'm not sacred anymore."
And that's just how Clay was.
I remember our first friend date, vividly:
I had just gotten off of work, just when I began working the secretarial side of my job for Gotham Comedy Cub in Chelsea. I got off of work at 6 and suddenly had an evening to myself. I was all dressed up, because of work and had no where to go. At home I just would have called up one of my friends and gone over to her house, but here, everyone is working and doing so much you must set up friend dates long in advance. So I posted to Facebook in the hopes that if someone had free time they would notify me, and otherwise I took myself on a tour of the city streets. The buildings tall and gray and red, smudged near the distant tops of them against a twilight stained autumn sky. I walked about for over an hour and then I hopped on a train home. I unlocked my apartment door and almost immediately my phone rang, it was my new friend Clay. I picked up and the conversation went something like this:
"How's it going?"
"Are you still dressed up?"
"Yeah." I said, looking down at my gray dress, having just taken off my black boots.
"Do you by chance have a sheet?"
"How about candles?"
You could hear the smile sliding into my voice as I answered.
"Yeah, actually, I do."
"Great. Have you eaten dinner yet?"
I shook my head, before I realized he couldn't see me and spoke aloud my answer. "No. Not yet."
"Okay, well, heres the big question.. are you up for an adventure with me?"
I grinned. Eight words I never got sick of.
"Great, I'll be at your place in an hour."
And the phone line was disconnected.
I remember looking at my phone and kind of squinting and smiling at it, wondering what was afoot.
An hour later (9:00pm) and in comes my friend Clay. We haven't really hung out a lot, he helped me move into my apartment and he came by randomly one afternoon and we talked but that's the bases that I know him from. He gives me a hug and my roommates a hug - that's how I know him, through them and dancing- and then he looks at me.
"You got a sheet?"
I didn't actually. But I took down my curtain and we made do with that. I threw some candles into my bag and put on a squirt of perfume, you know, for adventures sake.
Out on the street we walked to the corner. I don't know if I mentioned that I live in Harlem, I love my apartment, but people on the street won't really look at me, and if they do, it's not usually in a humankind kind of manner. At least most of the time.
But walking next to Clay I felt filled with the promise of adventure, which if you haven't realized, is kind of my favorite.
On the corner of Fredrick Douglas and my street is a Pop eyes fast food chicken chain. There are lot of pop eyes in my neighborhood but this one was our chosen spot.
We went in and got in line and when it came time to order I let Clay do the honers. He ordered everything. And by that I mean everything. Two kinds of chicken strips, corn, beans, rice, gravy, biscuits, and extra biscuits, sweet tea and two kinds of pie.
He waved away my offer of money with a smile and a wave of his graceful dancer arm. He took my bag containing my curtain and candles and went outside while I waited for our food, watching the late night dinner rush of people standing in line for some chicken. The window to the street was broken, I couldn't tell if it was a bullet hole, or that someone had just broken it with something else, but it refracted on the small room in a way that everyone else there seemed not to notice, but I did, with my eyes full of mountains and silence.
Our food finally came and I could barely carry it all. Clay came back in and took it from me, and lead me out on the street.
There on the street corner next to the pile of card board boxes ready for trash pick up in the morning was a trio of over turned, rusted out trash cans. But my curtain laid over the middle one and my candles decorated it.
Clay took the food and I took my seat, on the one far right one. He took his on the far left and began dispensing our feast. It was a wonderful kind of magic.
We tried to light the candles, but it turned out we only had one match and the wind was no match for our tea lights. So we ate and talked without the candles, but they stayed on the table, alive with the story they told.
It was the best friend date I've had in a long time. Sitting on the street corner, laughing over our corn on the cob and who would have the last bite of cherry cheesecake. We hadn't hung out much before, so our conversation felt a little like a real date; where are you from, what do you love, what got you here, when did you move?
All these things came pouring out and in the middle of an especially good bite of biscuit I had a suspended moment of joy. It had been a rough week and that day had been a little hard around the edges. But sitting there on the street on a pair of burnt out trash cans eating our chicken dinner and getting to know this passionate dancer man who would become my adventure partner and great friend, felt right. Felt good. Felt God. I smiled and tried to soak it in, pulling that unexpected joy into my pores, into my heart.
People loved what we were doing. Some stopped and shook his hand. Some walked right by us and tried not to notice. Still others took pictures of us eating dinner there, from cars, from busses and some from the street. A car even backed up the length of the street and stopped to roll down a tinted window and throw a smile out. We took it all, gladly. I think both of us enjoy the fact that we were breaking through that wall that so many people, especially in New York and especially in Harlem live within.
When I found out that he was gone yesterday, it was after a long day of work. I was standing on the street corner in Harlem, waiting to cross the street. A block away from the subway and a block away from home.
It was Christmas eve, the sky was already dark and the white christmas lights twinkled on the trunks of the trees that line my street. I held my phone to my ear and listened to my roommate Katy's voice sounding solemn and far away in Chicago. I had returned her missed call and message that simply asked me to call her, but the sound in her voice as she had left that message had sounded strained and had alerted the alarm bells in my heart and I had a feeling that something was wrong.
But it didn't prepare me for this.
I stood on the pavement waiting for the light to change as I listened to Katy's voice haltingly tell me that she didn't know how to tell me, but that she had found out from Facebook that my friend Clay, had passed away.
Tears began to course down my cheeks but I barely noticed them. The light changed and me feet walked across the busy intersection, but I was barely aware. The half working christmas lights wrapped around the tree trunks in front of our apartment building blurred and melded as my vision went foggy and tears spilled down my cheeks. I unlocked my front door with such a weight in my heart and climbed my steps as it began to hit me.
Clay. Bright. Beautiful, Clay. Gone.
It's amazing what losing someone does to you; how, the waves of not understanding, of almost denial wash over you.
It's hard for me to think that he is really gone. Because he loved so fully and was one of those people who was so filled with life it is almost unfathomable that he no longer exists in the world. That he isn't running down some street in the city, and making some kid laugh. That he's not dancing, because that's the thing he loved the best.
I sat on my floor in front of my christmas tree in my empty apartment and wept.
I touched where he had sat on our floorm not four nights before, playing bananagrams at our holiday party and laughing with us.
I found the candles that we'd taken on our trashcan corner dinner date, still unburned, and lit them and let them burn as I let the grief unfold inside and around me.
Life and death are so connected. It's just that we can see life. We can see it. Watch it swell, round and kicking, in people and watch as they grow. But as they die they disappear from what we can hold and love and speak to. I think it is the silence of death that frightens us most. And the impossible irreversibility of it.
Life to me, has always felt powerful. When you let go into the flow of life, it carries you, if you have the courage to let it. Death feels the same, so connected, the shadow for the light, the two, married forever together, no matter how much we try and separate.
But this pain, this weight I am left with, is my grief. It's mine, so human. But it's almost an honor to bear it, for loving him was my honor and grieving him is too.
I always say to live your life without regrets. Without do overs, without 'I wish I had's.
The very first thought I had when Katy told me, was that I was so incredibly grateful that I told him that I loved him the last time I saw him.
The last night I spent with him was Friday, at our christmas party, he arrived late and I felt such a bubble of joy to see him, I - probably not so politely - left the cocktail conversation I was currently in and gave him a huge hug. Our apartment was filled that night with so many people and so much love. As the hours grew later and people began to trickle out with calls of goodnights in our stairwell, Clay grabbed my hand and to the tune of Charlie Brown's Christmas tinnily coming from my laptop, we danced together in the cleared space of our living room. He felt so alive and so warm and so strong with me in his arms. And I was so filled with gratitude for him in my life.
After almost everyone else had gone, and the dishes had all been washed, he was the last one to leave, he was making his rounds to say goodbye and giving hugs.
When he got to me, he gave me a big hug and a big kiss on the cheek. We firmed up our plans for Christmas, since neither of us were going home we planned to volunteer together at a soup kitchen and feed the other people who didn't have anywhere to go. He gave me one last hug and then told me he loved me. And with no reservation I said those three words that I don't think I will ever regret. I love you, too
I woke up the next morning to this text from him:
It was the last text he ever sent me.
So this Christmas morning, I don't have any presents to unwrap. And I don't have family to cook breakfast for. And I don't have Clay to go and feed the homeless with.
But instead, I have a different kind of gift. One that is fresh and sweet and old as time. One that is mine with each breath I take and each moment I am given, to love, and be grateful for those that I love; to live.
I get this gift every morning I wake up.
I have it right now.
This is the best Christmas Present I could ever ask for.
I don't need gifts.
I have the present.