One Man in His 30s (a story of loss)

Once a week my county health department publishes their Covid update- giving a complete breakdown of new positive tests, those in isolation, hospital bed usage, and a list of those who passed broken down into age and gender demographics. I read it every week; my friends and I work with the public, and I’ve got a current medical condition that elevates my risk (that is a story for a different day), so we like to stay tuned into the current trends.

I knew that this last week would be different, steeling myself as my eyes scanned down to the list of those we lost. 13 new deaths, very first one: “1 man in his 30s.” I felt the tears welling in my eyes, the letters blurring as I stared. It hits a bit different when it is someone you knew, someone who was a fixture in your life. It was strange seeing him listed like that, anonymous and completely devoid of the context that made up who he was as a person. Just another statistic, one more tally that made up our local history of this event. How could a life be chalked up to those 5 simple words?

His name was Kahn. He and his mom had moved from South Korea when he was 2 years old, finding their way to the tiny town that would become the backdrop for so many of his life stories. He had just turned 31 ten days before it happened- a birthday we never got to celebrate because he had just gotten sick. He left behind a mom, two younger brothers, a wife, a young son, and a plethora of friends who loved and adored him. He and my husband had been best friends since they were five years old. He was more like family though; the two men had been like brothers for as long as I had known them. We had all lived together on multiple occasions and were there for all of the big life events, and many of the small insignificant ones. He could drive me absolutely insane sometimes, but in that special way that family has.

When his son was born, my husband was the first person in the room to meet the new bundle of joy. He and I are expecting our own little girl in a few months- and I have always pictured Kahn being the first person knocking on our door to greet her, so excited that his best friend was finally joining him in the world of parenting. Even now when we walk through the baby isle at Target my husband will point to something “Kahn said we really need one of these, he swore by it,” and it’s a bittersweet moment because up until we lost him, he was giving us pointers for the next step in our lives. Their last conversations are still steering us in the direction we should be going.

His loss was sudden and unexpected. When his family got covid we didn’t think much of it; it seemed everyone we knew was getting sick- even we had been in quarantine for exposures just beforehand. But while his wife and son got better, he noticed his breathing wasn’t quite normal. He went to the ER on a Wednesday and was diagnosed with mild pneumonia- nothing serious, they said. Over the next two days he went back to the ER once or twice because he was still struggling to breathe. Even then, we weren’t as worried as we probably should have been. We thought he would bounce back like everyone else we knew.

Then on Saturday night we got a message from his wife: they had to call 911 because he couldn’t breathe. Within 5 hours of getting to the hospital he was gone; before the sun even had a chance to rise Sunday morning. His wife wasn’t allowed to see him until it was over. There is nothing more heartbreaking than the stream-of-conscious thoughts of an unexpected widow trying to process the jolting loss of her husband.

The thing that no one tells you about loss: the initial news isn’t the worst part. That is the moment the world cracks and swallows you whole, the part that shocks your system and leaves you reeling. But the truly difficult part is later- after the announcements are made, the funeral is over and your loved one is put to rest. The worst part is in the little moments afterwards: when you suddenly understand that you have to spend the rest of your life missing them. It’s in the moment when you look around at the ruble and realize that you will have to rebuild, you will have to create a new normal in this place known as ‘after.’ Grief is nothing new to me, and yet each time it makes an appearance that old friend looks different. It is unsettling to feel so unmoored, to reach for your phone before realizing they won’t be able to pick up the line. It’s overwhelming to face your mortality through the loss of someone you always knew would be there for you.

My husband said to me, “I keep waiting for him to get back so I can tell him this crazy story about someone I know who died. And then I remember. I keep seeing funny videos that I know he’d like and start to send it, but then I remember.” And that’s what your life becomes for a while; these instinctive reactions to reach out before reality comes crashing in on you like a tidal wave. It turns into a desperate attempt at self reflection: what should I do with my life now that I know that it could be over just like that? What would he tell me right now if he could?

The thing about Kahn: he didn’t always have it easy, but he never let that stop him. It didn’t matter how many times he got knocked down or how hard the blow had been- he always bounced back up and tried again. Over and over. I admired that tenacity, we all did, though we didn’t fully appreciate it until it was too late to tell him. The other thing I always remembered: he had an uncanny ability to laugh about everything. Granted, sometimes it was a cynical chuckle, but there was still a smile. He was always able to find the humor in any situation; sometimes I wonder if that’s why he was always able to get up and continue trying- because laughter keeps you from breaking a lot of the time.

So I sit here this morning full of profound contemplation; a tiny urn of his ashes sitting sentinel across the room as I type these words. What do we do now? Where do we go from here? How do we make sense and find meaning in something that feels so utterly pointless? It seems only fitting to carry the lessons he taught us; not through any lengthy speeches, but through his everyday actions. It is important to remember that these moments we get are precious- you could have 100 years, or a mere 31. You never know when the last time you see someone will truly be the final time, so pay attention, listen, and slow down long enough to appreciate it. Start on all those little projects and goals you’ve been dreaming about. Even if you fail, there is something so deeply satisfying about knowing that you tried. So write that book, play the video game, start the business, create the art, play with your kids, walk the dog, curl up with your spouse and a glass of wine just because it’s a Wednesday. Remember the small joys that mean the world. What solace will your family and friends have if they lose you tonight? What are your daily actions saying about who you are and what matters to you?

And if things go sideways, like they inevitably will sometimes- remember that ‘one man in his thirties’ who never failed to pick himself up, dust himself off, and try again. All with a slightly mischievous smile painted across his lips. Remember the man who deserved so much more of the world than he got. Here’s to you, old friend. You are loved, you are missed, and you will be with us forever.

Praying for Vegas, Crying for Us All

My cousin survived a mass shooting. But not all of the people standing beside her did. She stood trapped in a sea of panicked people as bullets rained down, ending lives with no rhyme or reason, not knowing if one was meant for her. She kept asking herself if this was really happening, how was it possible. Would she die like this? She thought of her three year old son back home, thought of how he might wake up in the morning suddenly without a mother, untethered from the soul who gave so much of herself to him. She thought of her little boy and swore that she would not die, not there, not yet. But no one in that crowd was granted the luxury of a choice.

People fell beside her, people screamed, people cried out in fear and pain, and people died. But she lived; my cousin survived the worst mass shooting in modern United States history. Her and her friend managed to make it to a barricade, climb over and run like hell, praying they would not be the next to fall. She made it out, but not everyone standing beside her did.

This morning I was able to talk to her, I was able to tell the world that my cousin survived. But there are many others facing a stark reality that their loved ones will not be coming home. Call it divine intervention, call it luck; I can’t make sense of it anymore. I cannot fathom what could have possibly led that man down the path he chose. I cannot comprehend what compelled him to take those weapons up to the 32nd floor and shoot to kill. These people were innocent. My cousin is innocent. She is a beautiful young woman with a 3 year old boy. She works hard and has a genuinely good heart. She did not deserve this. None of them did. 59 lives were cut tragically short. 527 people were injured. And for 22,000 others, their injuries may not be physically visible, but the scars will still be felt, changing them from the inside.

We are no strangers to violence, it seems our society is built on it. Yet we usually view it from the distance that our television or cell phone screens grant us. The pain and fear are palpable, but dulled through the lens of the media. We hurt, we decry the senseless actions, and yet it doesn’t actually touch us. The reality does not soak in. When I woke up that morning it was just a devastating news story, one in a long line of the hatred and pain we have been seeing for years. When I woke up I read the headline to my fiancĂ©, commenting on how sad it was. I didn’t know until I was at work that she had been there. I didn’t know that she had stood in that crowd and feared for her life, picturing her child as bullets sliced through a peaceful night. I didn’t know that I had almost lost her, a piece of my family. I didn’t know until a few hours later. And then I cried. I cried and I panicked, I was scared and I raged inside as she told me what happened, what it was like, the way they were trapped, left at the cruel mercy of fate. I couldn’t breath, I couldn’t process it; my family, it touched my family- the terror sliced straight through my heart. I tried to be calm, but all I could think was that as I got ready for work that morning she could have been laying in a dusty venue in Vegas, staring sightlessly as the sun rose into the sky, ushering a new day she wouldn’t belong to anymore. So I cried. I sat at my desk and cried messy tears at what so many had lost.

My soul hurts. I can’t make sense of this tragedy. I wish I could say that I was not angry, but I can’t. I am furious at the senselessness of it all. My heart is pounding against my ribcage in a rage. This anger is driven by fear. I am terrified of losing someone that matters to me. Hate will not solve this; love is the only light that will show us the path we must follow, but how do we find it? Tonight I am exhausted and lost, floating through a world I wish I didn’t recognize. The truth is that it looks no different than it did yesterday. To most people this was just a sad, senseless story. We know this world all too well, we’ve heard this story time and again. The difference for me is that I have never been so close. I know we will never make sense of something like this. We will never find a satisfactory reason to explain away what took place that night. We must learn to be content with the knowledge that some things will never be understood. But that does not mean that we ignore it, that does not mean that we must shrug our shoulders and accept that this is the world we will raise our children in. A world where their mother can go to a concert and never come home. I do not want to live in a world that witnesses this violence and looks the other way after the headlines have ceased.

Tonight my heart is broken, my soul is worn and frayed. Tonight I sit here with no more tears left to cry, trying to make sense of a world that will never look the same to me again. Tonight I ache for all of those hurt, for every person who won’t be able to come home, to hug their children or tell their parents that they love them. Tonight I grieve for what we have lost. And yet I must remember that there are still small miracles to be thankful for. I’m thankful that more people were not hurt. I’m thankful that my cousin is at home cuddling her baby boy right now. Tonight I hold on to small miracles because I know that I will fall apart if I don’t cling to them. Tonight I am thankful because she lived.

She drowned in the moonlight and was strangled by her own bra (a tribute to the princess who taught me how cool it was to be a nerd)

I like to tell people that I was a nerd before nerdisms were cool. I had the glasses before they were ironically chic. I scaled my own mountain of books, I carried the love of fictional realities, a knowledge of Star Wars and astronomy. I adored history, I checked out so many books with each trip to the library I could barely see over the pile as I carried them to my mom’s car. I played with my microscope far more than an other little girl I knew (in fact, I was the only little girl I knew who owned one- stolen from my older brothers and jealously guarded lest they ask for its return. Lucky for me, their interests turned more to the automotive side rather than observable science). I even went so far as to do ‘math puzzles’ for fun (something I still find ironic because I grew into a woman who still cringes at the thought of even the simplest math without a calculator- I still subtly use my fingers to count out a tip at a restaurant). I knew I was a bit of an odd little duck, and yet, I always had a pressing desire to fit in. So I did what every self-conscious young girl does; I hid the pieces of myself I thought others wouldn’t understand. It can be a lonely existence when you closet away your deepest obsessions out of what amounts to simple insecurity as a child. I’ve always been odd, but it took me awkward year upon awkward year to embrace it as I discovered other like-minded indivdiauals who carried their passions like a badge of honor, an invitation to others who shared that love. 

Growing up and leaving high school, I met more diverse people than my small town had to offer. Suddenly I found people I could have interesting and different conversations with. One of the first things I found I could bond with my new ‘nerdy’ friends over was none other than the epitome of geek culture: Star Wars. I own every movie (with special features), though it’s been, admittedly, a long time since I have watched some of the originals. My friends carry their storm trooper tattoos on their arms with pride as we all tromp into comicon together. Star Wars was a jumping off point for me, a doorway into a world of acceptance that I deeply craved when I was growing up. Filled with intriguing characters and a rich storyline, it also brought new fodder to my always active imagination. And right there, in the center of it all was a young actress named Carrie Fisher. 

It is always a sad day when the heroes of our past prove to be mere mortals. Hearing of her death felt like a punch to the stomach this morning. When she had her heart attack on Friday, I was convinced that she would be okay. After all, she had spent her life being a fighter. Nothing was going to get her down. No, she was far too tough for this life, something so simple would not be the end of such a strong, charismatic woman. And yet, I could not run from the truth for long.

I’ve read some of her books in the past, in fact, I fell in love with the quirky attitude in ‘Wishful Drinking’ only a month ago and couldn’t stop talking about it. I listened to the audiobook and couldn’t get enough of the hilarious delivery and energy that she threw into her work. She was not just an actress; she was a fellow writer, an odd duck, a woman who was unafraid to share her experiences if it would assist someone else from following her troubled road. She spoke of difficult topics with a self-depreciating candor and vital humor that allowed room for more open conversations about topics that were sadly swept under the rug for far too long. She was who she was, a princess of the stars in more ways than one. And she never apologized for that. She owned who she was with a bravery that I am still learning to find within myself.

What hurts with her death is the feeling of camaraderie I felt towards a woman I have never met (well, apart from sneak peeks at a comicon, but that doesn’t count). She was undoubtedly an odd little ducky; and yet, that is exactly what drew me to her. Because I am an odd little duck too, a duckling that spent far too long trying to find her way. She inspired me to embrace who I am with humor and dignity, to smile at the people who don’t understand the type of person I am, without feeling like there is something inherently wrong with me. She taught me to have open conversations about difficult topics with people who have a new perspective to offer me. She taught me to have compassion for others as well as myself. I was, perhaps, more of a fan of her words, rather than her acting (though that was also inspiring); but it was her truth that she shared without apology that genuinely intrigued me. She embraced who she was and reminded me that is okay for me to do the same.


So tonight I send this tribute to a woman who I never knew, but who had an impact on me nonetheless. This is for the princess who showed us all the stars. This is for the woman who proudly proclaimed who she was to the world and never asked for forgiveness. This is for the woman who showed us the true power found in humor and honesty. This is for the actress who helped inspire a cult following; one who helped me find others who carried a freak flag that looked just like mine. This is for the woman who built cultural bridges that we all can cross if we are willing to open outselves to the passion of the experience. This is for the woman who reminds me of the little girl I was, secretly playing with microscopes and staring at the stars.


May you find the peace that you so deserved in life. May you find comfort in knowing that you have made a difference; we all mourn our mutual loss tonight, though for many different reasons. Thank you for the lessons you imparted, for the brave and open way you fought your most personal fight. Thank you for all that you gave the world, it is a better place because of your presence. Thank you for the laughter, for the insight, and most of all, for the courage to be completely true to oneself.