On/Off

Melissa Lynch

When someone you know dies, things become surreal. It’s like you still hear their voice, but now it’s coming from another room – another room in the great mansion which housed your friendship. You follow the voice: to the room where you told secrets, the basement of dirty jokes, the balcony of lingering glances. You search the
ballroom of anam cara, where the two of you once sat late at night, beneath a chandelier of burning candles, and realized you understood each other in a way no one else ever
could. There it is – the voice of your friend. It’s just around the corner. It’s . . .

Jim MacLaren

I lost two friends in 2010. One died on August 31st. His name was Jim MacLaren, and I have written extensively about him here. His death, while heartbreaking, was not unexpected. He had been doing battle with a series of hellacious infections, was paralyzed and bedridden, and probably addicted to synthetic heroin. Yet for all that, he was, and is, my
hero. I gave his eulogy. I wear his bracelet as I type
this. If you want to know more about him, click the links in this paragraph above.

The other was Melissa Lynch. She died in a car accident on December 30th. I was not nearly as close to her as I was to Jim, and yet her death was in many ways more horrifying. She was a rising star in our theatre community, possessed of the actor trifecta: gorgeous, talented and smart. Add to that her blue collar Northeast Philly roots, her earthy sense of humor and occasional truck driver’s mouth, and her deep compassion for the the people in her life, and you have a truly dazzling person. She was 27 and engaged to be married. On the morning of the last day of the year, it began to trickle out over Facebook. Friends blasted with grief and shock posted status updates like: “No words” and “This can’t be real”. I got a text from my wife which began “Terrible news:”

I met Melissa last summer when I needed to find a young actress to portray Alice Robbins, the main character in my new novel, The Deception of Surfaces.
I was producing a short video to be used as part of a
fundraising effort through Kickstarter, and the actress in question needed to be possessed of . . . certain attributes. The book, which takes place in a dystopian Philadelphia ten years in the future, is about (among other things) how we allow our eyes to tyrannize our other senses, especially when it comes to human beings. Alice is beautiful and she knows it, flaunts it even. But she’s also tough and smart (she’s secretly obsessed with Shakespeare). A director friend of mine suggested Melissa. We shot the video in a couple of hours, with me playing opposite Melissa as Alice’s psychotherapist. Melissa did it as a favor to me – who she barely know – in between a catering shift and a rehearsal. A
few weeks later, she played Alice opposite me again in a reading from the novel as part of a series I produced at the ElkinsEstate last July and August. The video is still up at the
link for the book above. I have left it up as a tribute to her, but be forewarned: the subject matter is rated “R”.

At her funeral last Tuesday, the Philadelphia theater community came out to honor her
in large numbers. I arrived early, hugged her Mom and her fiance, dropped to my knees in front of the open casket, then sat in a pew near the family who stood for hours in a receiving line. How bizarre it is, that the grieving family is put in the odd position
of comforting others who have come to the funeral of their daughter, sister, betrothed. Perhaps it is useful to have something to do. I hope I never have to find out. And I will say this about open caskets: they force you to come to terms with how you feel about corpses. I couldn’t look at Melissa’s body or face for very long. I remember thinking that it didn’t look like her. And then my next thought: that’s because it’s not. She’s not here anymore. And it occurs to me as I type this that Melissa was reminding me of our work together. She was reminding me not to be deceived by the surfaces; reminding me that who and what she was is unfathomable and eternal, more Spirit than flesh. And so she was, in some way, with me as I sat there at her funeral.

After a while I retreated to a pew further away, and sat with others from the theatre community. What was there to say? We are usually a chatty group, but we sat quietly among each other before the Mass, soaking up the solace of our shared witness, wiping away tears, grateful to be alive. Afterwards, I was reminded again why I left New York 16 years ago to make my life in this community. We gathered on the steps of the church and wept, and held each other. We could have been a team, a company, a family. But what we are is a community of artists, in love and grieving.

When someone you love dies, it’s like God throws a switch. It’s an absurdly, horribly banal switch, like the one you use for your overhead light. It has two settings: on, and off. On is everything and everyone you know, and have ever known. Off is nothing. There’s seldom a transition, a bridge, an intermission. It’s either on, or it’s off. And in the stark abruptness of that distinction, artists and writers and theologians have found room
for endless speculation. Hamlet dwells on it. The Bible describes it. Bach wrote a Requiem as he approached it.

The only thing approaching wisdom that came to me last year, around Jim’s death,
was this: “why” isn’t the right question. The only question for the living to ask is, “what now?” And as I have been steeped in Rilke, there’s this:

Our effort, I suggest, can be dedicated to this: to assume the unity of
Life and Death . . . So long as we stand in opposition to death we
will disfigure it . . . Death is our friend precisely because it
brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is
here, that is passionate, that is love . . . Life always says Yes
and No simultaneously. Death (I implore you to believe) is the true
Yea-sayer. It stands before eternity and says only: Yes.

from A Year With Rilke, translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows.

Yes. A new year begins. My family is healthy. I am sober. My career leaps and bends unpredictably like a strong buck in the spring. New relationships bloom. And in the cold ground beneath the new snow, the earth has its secret, asleep now, but soon to come. Yes.

Jim and Melissa. Rest in peace. Even as you are still with us, haunting us from one room away.