I don’t remember the last time I had to communicate truly hard news to anyone. The kind where you want to give them a minute, let them know the context is heavy, ask if they’re really ready, if they’re sitting down. Maybe back when my parents first split up? But that’s from a different time, and has a different context. Nothing really prepares you for this.
“Ok so… um, yeah, Dan Beil is dead.”
It sounded so strange, the heavy words dumping inelegantly out of my mouth into a pile on the floor for the other person to gape at, again and again. But all the euphemisms, the “passing away”s and “no longer with us”s were too featherweight, too soft, too meaningless. It was right there, just a big giant unavoidable fact.
In honesty, they were words I had fully resigned myself to say, sooner than later. I felt like I had already gone through the stages of grief, back when things had ended, when I saw where things were headed, when things were too painful for me to keep going. And though I heard echoes of sadness within my resignation, they mostly reverberated around empathy for his family, for ANY family, going through the unimaginable… how it must feel to witness his downturn, discover what had happened, pick up the pieces afterward. I had been involved in messages the last few days, heard indirectly how it played out. Never asked precisely what happened… my mind painted its own picture, the actual details didn’t matter, the truth was already there.
Still, there is a realness to saying a thing out loud.
I don’t have a lot of experience with death, which I suppose I should be thankful for. And for a person that was no longer in your life, but who was in your life so instrumentally for a significant period of time, what does death even mean? The end of a relationship is like its own mini death, but yet the person is still around, knowing the same people, living in the same city, breathing the same air. The strange finality of death is knowing that, even though you’ve already witnessed the end of a chapter, this is the end of the story. It won’t be them you randomly see on the street, or hear about from a friend. No new memories could ever be created again, with me or anyone else.
It’s funny what moments stick in your head when a person is gone. They’re usually very small and specific moments, a tiny shared emotion that catches at the edges of your memory, and for me they play out in a strange sequence, out of order and out of context, like a freeform slideshow, like an art movie flashback scene with no plot.
Drinks on a freezing cold NYC rooftop. Battling Pokemon at the neighborhood fire station. Sweaty gardening in the backyard. Homemade saccharine sweet cocktails with girly names. Plucking hair from the shedding dogs and watching it tumble into drifts in the backyard. Late night conversations on the porch under the string lights. Cracking up over the oddities of goat’s eyes with the car salesman. Emotionally half carrying him out of a bar at our shared birthday as he once again let himself get too drunk. Crying on the couch alone after a fight. Begging him to just eat a few pizza rolls, so all his calories weren’t just from alcohol. Joy from the look of caring softness in his eyes, and despair when I knew those eyes weren’t really seeing me.
They say that we all contain darkness and light. The existence of our darkness does not invalidate the beauty of the light, but in some of us there is darkness that even bright light cannot touch. I imagined all of these darknesses and lights could be woven together like a tapestry of our lives, and what beautiful and terrible patterns would have emerged in this one. Even in the three years we were together, there was so much joy and anger and laughter and sadness and love and pain. I wondered if those years would look any different than the rest if you could see it all sewn together.
I made the choice long ago to remember the ways a person has shaped who I am, even if we have parted ways. Every person you let into your life is a mirror you can hold up to yourself, their darkness and light reflecting different parts of you. The more deeply you see someone else, the more deeply you are also able to see who you are.
I remember falling in love with this city as I was falling in love with him, every day feeling like a new discovery of myself within the exploration of this new, incredible place, resonating with me on a deeply personal level I wasn’t expecting. I chose my new home here because of him.
I remember traveling the country together, speaking on stages, cheering the other person on, socializing at the after-parties, sharing drinks and stories and laughter and feeling like we could take on the world, providing after-care when the other person over-indulged. I crafted my on-stage personality and built my professional community network alongside him.
I remember working at home together, endless discussion of code and community, looking over his shoulder at reviews and dissecting company policy and conversation, asking questions and learning and growing, talking him down off another ledge of professional confrontation. I became the frontend developer and technical leader I am because of him.
I remember the hours cuddling on the couch together, being forced to watch Parks & Rec until the show transformed from annoying characters to beloved friends, following the drama and intensity of Game of Thrones, watching cartoon dragons and ponies and cats and lemurs. I experienced so many moments of quiet contentment and giggly joy with him.
I remember the agony of trying to craft a life together, alongside a person who was in so much pain, feeling, sharing, over-intaking the intensity of those emotions while still trying to sort out my own, and ultimately having to sever those ties. I learned so much about autonomy, boundaries, and the strength and limitations of love through my time with him.
I am still not sure how to deal with death, but those are questions for journaling and therapy. And I am still not sure where this all falls in my emotional range of grief, resignation, sadness, anger, neutrality. But I wanted to make sure that this was here, and that the darkness and light were remembered.
Dear Dan: You were a light to many people in many ways throughout your life. And you were in darkness and pain and loneliness in ways we maybe didn’t all understand. You were just so very human, as we all are. We managed to have our closure, a final visit over the summer, just to talk and eat and clear the air, and to see the state you were in even then made all of this even more true to me when it happened. All I can say is you will be missed, and I hope the end of your story brought you a measure of peace.
Linking to his obituary in the Star Tribune as well, for posterity.