Photo of Brighton Pier by my sis, Gemma Lewis
As a child (and even as a grown man), I spent many late night hours absolutely terrified of death. I remember walking into my mother's room at age seven or so and telling her, "Mum, I don't want to die." It wasn't all the Catholic hell and damnation that was drilled into me that scared me, it was the thought of an eternal abyss. Whether there was something after death or not, I just couldn't get my head around the concept of eternity or infinite existence or non-existence. And if there is nothing after death, I couldn't accept that things I'd done, experienced, relationships, achievements and so on would just disappear forever.
For a few years, in my early twenties, I lived mostly alone, didn’t have a steady job and surfed a tonne. When I did work it was either out in nature, in the mud and soil, or with a group of ‘at risk’ sixteen year olds. At that time, I didn’t romanticize my past, and really had no idea what was coming to me in the future. I just knew things couldn’t last as they were but I was completely in the moment. And, at that time, I was also OK with my own mortality. I knew I could collapse dead on a random stretch of the Gower Peninsula to have my corpse pecked to pieces by sea birds and be fine with my eradication from this existence. I put my comfort with death down to me being in the present more than any ever time in my life and not really interacting with many people.
Gradually, life became more complicated for a variety of reasons and suddenly I was back in ‘civilization.’ A reaffirmed cog in the machine. My comfort with mortality began to lapse, as I became sidetracked with ambition, ego, plans, what was and what must be. The only time I returned to that calm was when someone I knew died but it was never as profound and always fleeting, lasting only as long as grief.
I’ve spent the last couple of years trying to re-find that comfort in death and my own eventual termination. Sometimes, I might write a shitty poem and it momentarily makes me feel invincible. Or I’ll catch an amazing wave and ride it to the utmost of my ability and then my ego kicks in and reminds me it was all fleeting and will die with me.
The only comfort I can find in death at the moment, is that it makes sense that it is a natural and welcome end but we need the mystery and the unknown to keep us living. Otherwise, we’d give up all too easy.
I don’t write about my work much. I figure, I’ll wait until I distance myself from it before I start to process it and really write about it. But over the last few years, I’ve known about a dozen or so young people who’ve died. Some I knew well, others I’d only spoke to a couple of times. Some were killed, others killed themselves. ODs. Stabbings. Hangings. I’ve done a good job of not dealing with any of these deaths. I compartmentalized them. Put them to one side. A tragic reality of my occupation.
Two weeks ago, a young man died in the building a work in. I barely knew him. Spoke to him on one occasion. But for whatever reason, his death was the tipping point and has forced me to deal with all the others at once.
A grief counselor came to help my co-workers and I ‘process’ the event. She asked everyone how they have been dealing with grief. Some said they wrote, one guy got drunk for 24 hours straight, another went boxing, one woman cooked good food, another went for a long walk somewhere sacred to her. Then she asked me. I said, I don’t know. I’m numb.
I wanted to say, I went surfing or I tried to hurt myself on my skateboard. When my brother died (in the same way this young man died), I drunk myself into a stupor and was then embarrassed at the aftermath and so bottled future grief even further up. And now suddenly, I feel myself overwhelmed at the death of someone I didn’t even know.
Of all the dead street kids I’ve known this was the first time I went to a memorial. I stood on the sidelines, on a cold Thursday evening, watching gutter punks, heroin addicts, musicians, social workers, skateboarders and others holding candles and shouting ‘Oi!’ to the clear sky above.
Then I walked away. I went surfing the next day. It was big and stormy. A nice salt-water thrashing. And then I went surfing again and again. And I think I began to tap back into the comfort I once had with my own mortality. But also realizing, I actually like my job and I need to become human again in my work.
Finally, I think I understood that life is really this simple:
You must do all you can to keep yourself alive. If you are privileged enough, you have a duty to celebrate yours and other’s existence. And where possible, you need to help others, who are less fortunate than yourself do the same.
Thank You, Zane. Rest In Peace.