Rahil was usually the tallest person in the room. The kind of tall that required stooping to hug you. He was basketball tall – from the bottom of his enormous sneakers to the top of his bright cap.
He was never shy of his size. He wore his frame in vivid colors, pink shirts, florescent orange shorts, fabulous caps covered in ferns or flowers. For a while, he sported a shaved head and an enormous beard. It sparked customs officials to pull him aside at every airport, as suspicious of his dark Indian skin as they were of any other person trying to carry themselves through the world with a hint of melatonin.
Rahil inhabited that physicality joyfully – loved to exercise, to dance, to hike and explore the world. But the main reason I’m telling you about his physical presence is because I want you to feel what it felt like to be greeted by him. Rahil – or just Rah, pronounced in one simple syllable like the sun god – didn’t ever meet his friends with a polite hello. Rah’s joy at seeing you reached some place in his body that was so deep and so full that I suspect he had an extra organ dedicated to it. His whole body would welcome you, invite you into his company with excitement. It was hard not to want to sit down with him instantly and just let yourself be saturated by that joy. Doing so was a wise decision, inevitably. Because Rah’s second great gift was his attention. He was fully present with you, lit up by a curiosity that seemed almost obscenely out of proportion to how interesting you actually were.
He listened to you with all of that huge body, his attention sure, his questions pointed, his laugh coming, I think, from that same unique deep organ of his. One of these conversations with Rah stayed with you when it finished, often leaving you with a sense that you were smarter, funnier, better than you had realized.
I think the only time I witnessed him in doubt was when he asked me what kind of engagement ring he should buy for my best friend. I wasn’t much help to him, as I’d never talked to her about it. But he worked it out for himself, and his proposal was beautiful – a whole ball of red string patiently unspooled on their apartment floor to spell “dis oui” (say yes) in the middle of a heart. It rained at their wedding reception, but they danced outside anyway, holding each other close under a clear umbrella. On the dance floor inside, Rah and his friends made it feel like the whole room was trembling as they jumped side to side in unison to Crank That (Soulja Boy), yelling out the lyrics together and making me wish I had been a part of the friendship group and the car trips and the late nights that made this mad and joyous movement possible.
When Rah’s car rolled on the rainy highway, the accident left most of his huge body unbruised. It was just his spine that was severed as the car tumbled on that slick road, just his spine in just the right place to still his breathing, his heart, his organs, his mind.
The world didn’t tremble when he died. His wife woke up later that morning to her normal alarm, she got dressed and ready for work, and didn’t feel the world vibrating with his loss. On the other side of the world, I didn’t register his death until I got the simple text from her that he had been killed in a car accident the day before and that she was heartbroken.
But once I knew he was gone, I started to feel the tiny shudder in the world that was his loss. His energy had filled a room, but his absence filled the world. It was there in the plane seat next to me as I made my way back to Australia to be with her. It was there in the places he had been, and in the places he would never go. Once I knew that he was gone, I could feel how the whole world had shifted.
After the funeral, after weeks spent quietly sitting with my best friend and her unfathomable pain, I returned to New York and left the spaces where he had been most present, the places that had heard his laugh, felt his touch. I left the space around my best friend, whose body seemed to ripple and shake with the fierce energy of his loss. But his absence came back with me to America, has stayed with me in the seat he doesn’t take at the cafe, stretching across the mountains he isn’t walking through, filling the street scene he would have captured on his camera. His absence remained as real in the places he’d never been as it was in the places he was known, expected.
Rahil, my friend with the huge love for humanity and a bottomless love for my best friend, had died. There could be no philosophizing. There was no meaning to make of his death, no reason for him dying before he’d had the chance to grow old with the people he loved. His loss was just that: a loss. An emptying out from the world of a profound, energetic presence.
Rah died six months before my initial cancer diagnosis, a year before we learned it had spread, two years before we learned that my brain was filling with tumors that would multiply and grow and crowd out the ideas and the personality and the memories firing through my neurons. He had been gone for two years before we were told that the doctors didn’t expect to be able to cure me anymore, gone for two years before we learned that the best they could do was try and prevent the tumors from killing me for as long as possible. Gone for two years as Matt and I hope for years together, but know we may only have months.
There is no philosophizing. There will be no meaning to make of my death, no reason for me dying before I had the chance to grow old with the people I love.
But there are no scales of fairness in the universe. Fates are not handed out to us according to what is just or right. We all know this, in theory. But Rah’s death, my best friend’s violent grief, wasn’t theoretical. When I learned I had cancer, I already knew deep down in my own body that good people have suffered fates as unfair and filled with suffering as my own. I understood on more than a theoretical level that the word “unfair” is inapplicable to my fate or Rah’s, to my best friend’s or anyone’s.
There is no making meaning of Rah’s death. I loved Rah. I loved him for his love of the world and the humans in it, for his intense curiosity, for his humility and his ambition and his laugh. I loved him because my best friend loved him, and he loved her.
There is no making meaning of Rah’s death. But he has given me courage at every step as I face my own fate. Rah went before me; I saw how complete the loss of him was; witnessed his absence in all the places he ought to have been; railed at the fact that the one person who could alleviate my best friend’s pain was permanently gone. And I have also witnessed how much he and his love still exists in the world.
I know from Rah that love is a real thing, a corporeal thing. That our brains keep it, store it, share it. Parts of our bodies will always carry the love we shared with the people we have lost. It is as real as cancer, as real as genetics, as real as the tiny branches in our lungs that pull oxygen out of the air.
Rah has become my older brother, my ancestor, my teacher, who stepped outside before me to show me that it will all be OK. Death is survivable, grief is survivable, because love is as real as death.
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
The Summer Day, Mary Oliver
“The people we most love do become a physical part of us, ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created.”
The Long Goodbye, Meghan O’Rourke
“The story of Moses’s death gave me a rich context for dealing with the death of my own Moses, one of the most influential teachers I’d ever had. Rabbi Hyman was truly larger than life… All of us who’d experienced his teaching loved him deeply. Midway into our second year in his Talmud class, Rabbi Hyman was diagnosed with brain cancer…
“I can’t remember who said, ‘You have to fight this. How can it be that you’ll never teach again?… How can we keep going without you?’ And he turned to me with a raised eyebrow and said ‘Leave you? Where could I go?’”
Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life, Rabbi Irwin Kula