I set out from the west end of Richmond late Saturday morning, following Google Maps bicycling directions from out to Charlottesville. The route mostly meanders around route 250, occasionally winding off down various country roads to keep you from the more heavily trafficked 250 which can be scary at times. I’ve never owned a car, and I grew up in the city, so the rural landscapes I was cruising through, while close to home, were largely unknown to me.
At one point however, I passed down a small country road just off route 250 and a churchyard caught my eye. I immediately pulled over and a flood of memories hit me all at once. I walked up the rows of tombstones toward the back and immediately found one for one of my childhood best friends.
Kate Robertson was one of my close high school friends. We were in the same prom group, we went to the beach together for spring break in college, we spent most of our new year’s eves together in our late teens. Then in 2006 she was abducted and murdered the day before my 21st birthday.
We had just gone swimming together about a month prior, and then I was at a concert on my 21st birthday and one of my friends told me that Kate had gone missing the day before and no one had heard from her. Kate was tough and wild; she was rock and roll. Probably the strongest woman I’d ever met at that point and so the thought that she could be in any danger didn’t even occur to me. If anyone could handle herself just fine, it was Kate. She’d be fine.
It was a few days later that they found Kate’s body and we found out that she’d been murdered. Shortly after the news announced that her body had been found, the man who’d kidnapped her shot himself in his home.
Like most people, I had a hard time letting her go. I felt two emotions stronger than any others: I wanted to be around people who’d known Kate, and I felt guilty all the time. I spent most of those first couple weeks around my friends from high school, a lot of whom I’d fallen out with, or had simply drifted away from. I couldn’t stand being alone, or being with people whose lives were just puttering along as normal. But the guilt lasted a lot longer. I felt like an asshole every time I smiled, every time I laughed, every time I enjoyed anything. I felt guilty that I’d been so sure that Kate was alright and that it had taken me too long to worry. I felt guilty for stupid fights she and I had had in high school and which we’d long since gotten over. I felt guilty about falling out with our mutual friends which kept us from hanging out as much the last couple years before she died. For years I felt bad celebrating my birthday because it was the day after she’d been murdered and I felt like that should take precedence. For the first couple years, I visited her grave on her birthday and the anniversary of her death. I begged or bribed friends to drive me 40 minutes out into rural Virginia to visit the churchyard.
But eventually, like most people, I started to heal and move on. I gave myself permission to celebrate my birthdays again. I stopped visiting the churchyard. I stopped talking about her with our friends. I let time scab over that wound and eventually it stopped hurting.
And then, three hours into a three month bike ride she unexpectedly reappeared in my life. And sat down on the grass next to her tombstone and I tried to explain myself.
I’m not even the man that Kate knew anymore; and if she were still alive she wouldn’t be the woman I remembered. It was then, sitting there in the churchyard that I realized how much of me is brand new. The last time I saw Kate I wasn’t vegan, I didn’t study Shakespeare, I wasn’t a hairstylist. I was a rambunctious kid, whose only meaningful hobbies were getting in fistfights and shoplifting. I felt like I owed her an explanation of the man I am now. Here I was doing this giant project, embarking on this grand adventure, and I hadn’t even told her about any of it.
For the last ten years, I’ve framed every experience through in the context of Shakespeare. But that wasn’t the case with Kate’s death. I didn’t know what to say or how to feel. Most of what came out of my mouth when I thought about it was anger and curses and a desire for violent revenge. I was bitter that Kate’s killer had committed suicide before any of us could have gotten to him.
But Saturday afternoon, as I sat by her tombstone, a hundred speeches of mourning and death came to mind. “Alas, poor Yorick…She should have died hereafter…Grief fills up the room of my absent child…”
How and when do we say goodbye? At what point do we stop owing the dead? When does a word like friend become past tense? How long do you live before you are no longer the person that a ghost knew? Should we leap into every grave and hold our beloved once more and be buried together? Do we ever want to stop being haunted?
In a car, it took less than an hour to get to that churchyard. On my bike it was a difficult, half day’s journey. Twelve years since she died, a half day’s journey to her grave, it made her seem much much farther away.
I’m sorry Kate.
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life and thou no breath at all?