By Junella Zhang, Features & Op-eds Associate Editor
Warning: in-depth talk about death and mentions of suicide.
Death is everywhere. It’s like when you learn a new word and suddenly it pops up on billboards and Reddit forums and casual conversations. It’s in the jokes my history professor makes on Valentine’s Day, the answers to riddles in my first-year learning community icebreaker game, the extra-credit survey for an introductory psychology course with Paul Bloom. Death is in the inhales of an animated lecturer, the murmuring laughter of the raptured audience below, the erratic coughs of a student unwilling to stay home. I can envision their lungs collapsing as they suffer from a perpetual wheeze, their heads shaved and their hands and arms flowering with purple bruises. Their teeth are coming loose. They haven’t eaten in two weeks. And still she smiles; I’m holding her hand, but really she is holding mine.
Toronto is fast-paced and ruthless for a girl hailing from the invisible backwater of Markham. It is a place filled with people of aggressive ambition and corroborated confidence, an environment exclusively curated for those who are capable of saving themselves. I thought it was perfect for me. I was starved for competition and adversity to decorate my otherwise tepid life. My grandfather passed two years ago, but that was my grandmother’s tragedy; my best friend had attempted suicide twice since the
beginning of the pandemic, but that was her story to tell. I had a morbid obsession with experiencing something uniquely distressing so that I would be justified in writing about it.
I got what I asked for.
And ever since, I have been grappling with the psychological consequences, the new philosophies that threaten to reform my first eighteen years of thought. Grief, as an excuse for offensive behaviour? Bereavement, as an equalizer of privilege? Death, as the executioner of purpose? Motherless, a state that I unintentionally manifested through the desire for a more eventful life? If I am left alone long enough in the dark and quiet dorm room, if I am in bed before sunset, if I have convinced myself that no one in the world understands, I can see myself once again in front of a massive, superheated oven with my index on the trigger. A human goes in and a powder comes out.
I’ve become clingy and sensitive and inconsolable. Sometimes I talk to no one in particular, just in case she is there to listen. Sometimes I think too much and find such fathomless complexity to every aspect of humankind that it is impossible to represent myself accurately through written word. Sometimes I want to indulge my prejudices and impulses. Sometimes I can’t fall asleep for fear of losing consciousness and never regaining it, like she did. Sometimes I feel so close to understanding death that I can see my own.
In times of uncertainty, I had always fallen back on the act of writing—simply the act of it, because there is a separate joy to writing unrelated to publication and readership and acclaim. Writing was my closest access to euphoria, my gateway into the profound. I prostrated myself as a vessel to the abstract spirit of Art; I worshipped it as a god. I had resolved myself to die not in peace but with a sense of urgency to continue fulfilling my artistic potential, to die with an unwritten story in mind.
Since her diagnosis last June, I have been anticipating something: a breakthrough? a masterpiece? a revolution of my verbal prowess? I had always, guiltily, allocated some of my faith to the trope of the suffering artist, and theoretically, I should now be a better writer. But I am not. With the entirely novel emotions brought about by bereavement heightening and confusing my perceptions of the world, I have realized my limitations. It is difficult to write anything when reality always supersedes fiction so that nothing is really worth saying anymore.
Now my Torontonian dream hangs in precarity. Every morning I look out at my dorm’s panoramic, twentieth-floor view of the Tower, and every morning it leers at me, a testament to human ingenuity and a taunt to my lack thereof. Maybe today is the day I
can start writing again, I think, and I sit in front of my laptop and word-vomit the most inconsequential, glorified interpretation of the world possible—not entirely unlike what I’m doing now. Then I curl up on the chair and sit quietly for a while, contemplating what I would do with myself if I had not only lost the most important person in my life but also the most important skill. All that is left is the irrational will to defy myself and, like many people do, find purpose in the infinitesimally narrow odds that I will eventually make a life out of what I love.
There is no happy ending to this story, no moment of enlightenment that presents itself as the perfect parting comment. But to write is to reopen our wounds so the reader may heal; come September, come 2033, whenever I rediscover my unbridled love of art, I hope I can revisit this and see not death but something beautiful. Death may always be a possibility and eventually a certainty, but so is art.