Published in La.Lit on 4 September 2020
Once again, the dead were announced in bold, black print. This time it was thirteen; last autumn it was thirty-seven. Many continue to perish in faraway places. And let’s not forget the thousands who dropped out that fateful day. There are those who die quietly. Many of these deaths are unremarkable. But a few are chronicled in great detail.
I stumble across one such account inside a second-hand bookstore – David Reiff’s memoir about his famous mother’s final days. I flip through the first chapter. The son describes the way the doctor breaks the news to his mother, Susan Sontag – another cancer, this time it’s terminal.
They spend the year swimming in a sea of death. That year – Susan Sontag’s last – was the same year I moved to her city, New York. This insignificant detail, this coincidental connection, compels me to mull over the trajectory of our lives. The spring she received her death notice was the same spring I was offered my first job. In autumn, as she moved closer to death, I discovered a new way to live.
I sink into a brief contemplation. How Susan Sontag and I, at one point, had lived in such close proximity, although at two extremes of existence. In 2004, she was 71. She wanted to live to be 100, the son reminisces. She had vanquished two previous attacks – breast cancer followed by uterine sarcoma. She was determined to overcome this third obstacle as well, Reiff writes. She refused to believe that she was about to become extinct. But a brilliant mind inevitably disintegrates. A fierce persona becomes powerless in the face of disease.
I think about all of this. I think about randomness, injustice and fragility.
In a way, I get closer to death. In the Killing Fields of Cambodia, I follow directions from an audio guide. I learn that an orchard was turned into a graveyard. Multiple mass graves were discovered soon after Pol Pot was ousted in 1979. “450 bodies were buried inside this pit,” a voice speaks. A few metres ahead, I encounter another pit, “…mostly filled with women and babies,” the guide explains. “Notice the Killing Tree next to this pit,” he continues. So named because bits and pieces of brain were found stuck to the bark. Heads of babies were smashed on the trunk before being flung atop a pile.
It was in middle school, inside a library, that I first came to know about Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide. I remember being shocked reading the Time magazine article. But it’s possible that I didn’t fully comprehend the meaning and magnitude of it all. At that age, the world revealed a little bit of itself every day. Those days, I was stunned, infuriated, energized and inspired with amazing regularity. I barely managed to take it all in.
I am more familiar with life now. And that day, in the Killing Fields, I consider the depth of the pits aided by this familiarity. I stare at tattered pieces of clothing collected inside a glass box. Pieces of clothing, explains the guide, that resurface every rainy season from the graves.
I walk some more. Inside the memorial, skulls and bones are neatly arranged in rows and columns. I examine the fractures and holes. I imagine the Khmer Rouge guards picking up machetes and axes. Hundreds of emaciated bodies trapped inside dark rooms. And I am once again infuriated and stunned, but in a way that feels immediate, and bizarrely personal.
They targeted the urban population, those who were more privileged, more educated than most. They pulled them out of homes and sent them to the countryside. They tortured them. They starved them. They brought them, one truckload after another, to this killing field, close to three million of them.
In Phnom Penh, I can’t help it. I can’t help looking at the hostess of a restaurant, at tuk-tuk drivers, at the boy who sells tickets, without thinking, “They must have looked like you. You must be related to them. Your grandfather? Your mother?”
They walked along these same streets. Those skulls and bones, not so long ago, were covered in flesh.
In between the memoir and the memorial, news comes of another massacre in the US. It is Sunday evening. The initial estimate is twenty. At first, I try to disengage. I detach myself from the distant event and step out for dinner.
I had suffered through the Sandy Hook school shooting a few years ago. Just like with Orlando, I heard the news as soon as it broke that December morning. Unable to tear myself away from the television, I followed every small development. I imagined the Connecticut suburb. I thought about the parents. I heard voices of children. What had they been doing? Were they reading a story together? Discussing Christmas plans? Were they excited about snow?
Unwilling to plunge into darkness, I avoid the news on Monday. I do not turn the television on. But somehow, the names are everywhere. On Tuesday evening, I give in. More than once, I scroll through their faces. I notice the hairstyles, a dead boy’s selfie, someone’s half-smile.
It is the manner in which it happened, the abruptness. For them, it was a Saturday night outing at the peak of summer. For the Nepali guards in Kabul, it was another morning of going to work.
The news keeps coming. Towards the end of June, Istanbul’s airport turns into a death zone. A few days later, friends in Dhaka post frantic messages. July rolls by. In Baghdad, more people die. The deadliest attack since 2003 gets the least attention, social media activists chant.
It’s true. We know. But what do we do with the knowledge? What do we do with all this news?
We make plans. We remember and we forget. Sometimes we think of ourselves, sometimes we think of them.
Them. What were they thinking of right before they were murdered? Were Christopher and Juan embracing before they felt the first gunshots? Or was he at the bar getting a drink for him? What kind of promises was Ankur Moktan making to his wife on Facebook Messenger before the bus blew up? Who was having the best night of his life? Who was planning to build a house? What was Faraaz studying at university?
I think of them because I know them. I know the ones who go out. I know the ones who descend from the hills and wait in long lines. I know the ones who wait at airports, the ones who go shopping.
Disease, delusion. Cells, souls. The ground splattered with blood. Last words. Faces contorted in pain. Heartbeats slowing down. Breaths leaving bodies for the final time.
War zones, dance floors, killing fields, an apartment at the edge of a grand city. Airports, restaurants, shopping malls. Bodies moving to beats. Minds ticking. What did Sontag hear as she lay dying? Who was crying? Who was kissing? Who was humming a foreign tune? Who was hoping? What was their last wish? What was their last song?
July 14, 2016