Racquetball Racquet, 2016


Racquetball Racquet

February 18, 2016

Name: David Goldstein

Age: 43

Tell me about the person who died:

My friend Michael McLaughlin died in 2009 at the age of 38. He was in Tulum, Mexico, on the first day of a vacation with his wife’s family. He went out snorkeling by himself in the bay and somehow drowned. His family saw him being tossed by the waves and kayaked out to save him, but it was too late.

I had known Michael for 13 years. We met as counselors at a summer camp for gifted students, where we were engaged in the task, as Michael put it, of “Giving rich, privileged kids the leg up they so desperately need.” When I decided to move to New York a few months later, I crashed at his pad, a postage-stamp-sized apartment in the West Village that he and his roommate, Jordan, called the Tiny Happy. I look back on those months as one of the happiest, or at least funniest, times of my life. The Tiny Happy was a center of culture for Michael and Jordan's friends, with frequent open mic nights and a rotating cast of people crashing on the futon. We were all stressed about what we were doing in New York—how we would make money, whether we would find love, what we should do with our lives. But Michael brought to all of those fears a kind of fierce, funny love that made everything vaguely hilarious. Michael wrote later in life that “In the Tiny Happy, comedy was love.” I think that was true, but not just in the Tiny Happy. It was true of Michael’s whole life. The humor that permeated his soul wasn’t a defense against bitterness or cynicism. For him, art was a kind of sharing, the constant possibility of potential friendship. 

He was a prolific and phenomenally creative artist, who hadn’t yet achieved the recognition he deserved. He was a talented puppeteer whose plays included puppet versions of Sartre’s No Exit (Tagline: “Hell is other puppets”) and Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus (in which, when asked by the devil to name the thing he most desires, Faustus shouts, “Shower me with Jujubes!”). His thesis film, Shadow Puppets of Doom, stands as a masterpiece of the puppet horror-comedy genre—although granted, it may be a genre of one.

We became close to each other’s families—I have spent many happy hours with his parents and siblings, and mourned with him when his father died. We vacationed together with our spouses. His widow remains one of my best friends. He surrounded himself with the kindest, gentlest group of people you could hope to meet. I was privileged to be part of that group.

Tell me about something that reminds you of the person who died, and why?

At the summer camp, Michael urged me to try racquetball. I’m not much of a sports guy, but I fell in love with the game, and it became one of my favorite activities. When we lived in New York together, we played a couple of times a week at Columbia University, where he was getting his MFA. Playing with Michael was wonderful because we never managed to work up much of a sense of competition; we spent most of our games laughing. We made valiant attempts at other gym-related activities—I think we dragged ourselves once or twice around the indoor track and played a single ludicrous game of basketball—but always came back to racquetball. After each game we would go out for dinner or a drink, or just walk around campus discussing art and life. We debated the movies he was trying to make and the dissertation and poems I was trying to write. And we talked endlessly about love and relationships. So those racquetball games were often preludes to scenes of intense intellectual and emotional connection. 

After he died, his wife gave me his racquetball racquet. I’ve since moved to Canada, where everyone plays squash, so the racquet sits inside a basement closet.

What was your experience of grief like after your loss?

Because of the unexpectedness of his death, I experienced a moment where life goes from being totally fine to totally not fine. This moment came in the form of a phone call from a mutual friend of Michael’s while I was at dinner with friends and family. I knew, somehow, what he was going to say before he said it. Just the texture of his voice was enough to tell me that Michael had died. As the knowledge entered me it took over my entire body. I could barely stand or speak. But at the same time, I felt one step ahead of myself in the process. Since somehow I already knew what had happened, it was as if I was already grieving, and I was feeling myself respond to the news.

If you had to describe your grief as a literal landscape you've been passing through, what would it look like and feel like?

Many people talk of water when they talk of bereavement. In this case, it’s inescapable. Michael died in the sea, but he also strongly associated himself with water. He always had a deep respect and love for water, but knew its power. On our first trip together, we went backcountry camping in Point Reyes National Seashore in Northern California, near his childhood home. We didn’t have a permit, and I was worried we would get stopped by rangers. In the middle of the night, I awoke with a ranger’s flashlight shining, I was sure, directly in my eyes. It turned out to be a full moon, which washed the beach in cold light, and spotlighted the gray fox breaking into our packs. We ran up and down the beach for hours. After he died, we scattered his ashes out over the sea near that beach.

Did anything surprise you about your experience with grief?

I’m sad that for all our history together, I find myself forgetting more and more details about him as his death gets farther away. His existence, which was so rich and complex, gets winnowed down to a handful of representative moments, quotations, gestures. I suppose it's just the nature of memory—how can you keep a whole other person in your consciousness?—but it still feels like a betrayal.

How did your people in your life support you in your grief?

My grief experience is unusual, especially in the case of losing a friend, because of Michael’s strong and intimate community of friends stretching back to childhood. When Jordan, who was not just his roommate but also his best friend from high school, died in 2002 of cancer, this community supported each other intensely. Michael’s death galvanized us in the same way. We were sad that we knew how to do this so well, that we’d already had the experience of losing a friend. But it was also comforting to know that we knew how to take care of each other. We were really able to mourn as a community in a way that I think was probably common when people lived in small towns and knew everybody. In concert with his family, we held memorial services in New York, where he lived, and in California, where he grew up. We talked frequently, and gathered on the anniversary of his death to mourn (we still do this when possible). Our lives have taken us in different directions but we still share an unwavering bond.

How did people who were grieving the same person respond to the death compared to you?

At one of those gatherings, a year after his death, two of my friends talked at length about how angry they were. Hearing that made me realize how little anger I feel about Michael’s death. Immense sadness and compassion, but not anger.

How did your private grieving relate to your public mourning?

There was no division. Because the community was so present and intense, the public display of mourning around his death was just a natural extension of what we were all feeling. Those public markers—memorials, scattering the ashes, gatherings, conversations—become a visible manifestation of private trauma. And with those people there never has to be a discussion—there’s always an understanding that his loss is there, and that it shapes us. Since we don't have to talk about it, we do, quite often, in an easy and fluid way. His death and my memories of him are integrated into my sense of self. My grief feels permeable, moving through me and out from me. Some part of me thinks of him almost every day, in mostly tiny ways. He’s simply present.

How did your loss and your grief change you?

Much of what I do is touched by his loss. My son is named after him. All of my artistic work is done with him somehow in mind. I recently sat down to start writing a new series of poems. A slew of water imagery suddenly poured out on the page, and I realized I was writing about Michael again. And it’s not just an artistic influence. I often find myself channeling his humor, especially his penchant for creating absurd monsters. He wrote a series of radio comedy sketches called “The Rubber Monster Factory”. Whenever I act out a funny monster for my kids, it’s his voice that comes out of my mouth. 

David B. Goldstein is a poet, critic, and food writer, whose books include Eating and Ethics in Shakespeare’s England and the poetry collection Laws of Rest. He lives in Toronto with his family, where he teaches English at York University.

Racquetball Racquet is excerpted from the Grief Landscapes project.