I’d started with one incense stick to purge the room. Then I heard about it from a relatively distant friend in disjointed fragments.
Despite having been raised on social media, it was still so strange to receive such important information from a blinking chat message that didn’t quite seem real, so I wasn’t sure if I could believe it at all.
Taking in the news was hard mostly because there was nothing to pin blame on. I researched for more information, hoping to understand the situation a little better. I was prepared to direct my fury at drunk drivers, at icy roads, at speeding. There was nothing. As far as the stories were concerned, it just happened. Without a clear-cut reason, it didn’t seem real.
I could feel my eyes become red from tearing up as well as from burning too many incense sticks. I only started with one, but when it started to burn halfway down it ignited another at its middle. This ignited the others. Drooping and bent forward as if in resignation with glowing red curves, they spilled ashes all over the windowsill. I watched the fine mess pile up like autumn leaves as more and more photos of her smiling face and so many lengthy RIPs filed into my newsfeed.
I spent hours curled up on the bed sobbing for so many reasons.
She was beautiful, she was beautiful, she was beautiful.
The smoke filled the room and I began having trouble breathing through the pervasive, pungent smell. The whole bundle of incense sticks were burning with a fervor. While my rational self recognized the fire and smoke hazard, I continued to breathe it all in as if the smell would take me away from the tragedy.
Everyone I talked to had nothing new to say, yet everyone had something to say. We spoke in expletives and question marks and grasped at any sign of a silver lining. No one has the right words.
Tiny embers began to shower onto the bed and I pinched them out before real danger was imminent. I unfortunately couldn’t save a small burn in the comforter.
Eventually I opened the window wider, pulled up the blinds to facilitate the smoke’s departure, and turned on the ceiling fan to the highest setting. I closed the door shut to keep the rest of the house from knowing about my mistake and my stunned grief.
My hands grew cold.
I felt increasingly sick to my stomach.
I, too, searched desperately for a photo with the two of us in a reasonable proximity. I wanted to show that I was in solidarity with all those who love her, and were in one way or another touched by her. I understand that I was blessed to even have only known her for such a small amount of time, in the context of collaboration on something we both cared fiercely about.
With the smoke dying down I lowered the fan’s setting and examined the incense sticks. I could breathe a little easier, but it was still difficult to be online without my stomach turning and my head buzzing.
Her passing reminded me that death is real, which is more than difficult to grasp at 19. We are not so invincible. We are too young to know what we’re doing, and too old to not take responsibility for what we do.
It could have been anyone. It can still be anyone. It makes me feel like no one is safe, and that only makes me want to cling to everyone even more.
At the same time it wouldn’t do justice to Valentine’s memory if we forgot about her perpetual vibrancy. I always found her incessant passion and optimism for life remarkable. She consistently caught me off-guard with her easy affability and her enthusiasm. This should remind us how to continue living our own lives.
Of course, my shock and crushing sadness at the news of her death can in no way compare to that of her closest circle of friends and family. My heart goes out to them the most. I won’t pretend I knew Valentine well enough to say much more about what I remember of her. I do know that sometimes it takes a loss to realize all we have.
Before the end of the night I carried the soda bottle stuffed with still-burning incense sticks and ran them under the sink. They sighed and more than half of them fizzled out. Now that the smoke had died down, I was content with letting the remaining incense burn on.
This being the fourth death I’ve been personally affected by, I can say that acceptance and “moving on” to me doesn’t mean just appreciating our closest loved ones. That’s a given.
I think it’s a good reminder about the people we haven’t gotten to know so well. It makes you think about all the not-quite-friends we have in our lives, how we’ve impacted one another. Our Facebook “friends” count is rife with these people. I think that’s part of the point of social media: to ease the sense of loneliness that permeates the average human experience and help highlight all the things that keep us connected. When we cross paths we leave impressions one way or another. We might be like fingerprints in soft clay or craters on the moon, and how we perceive and remember each other depends on which we choose to be.