Learning about death online is surreal. The first mention hits like a sick joke: there’s the pang, then the heat, then the hard lump of doubt you suddenly find in your gut stubbornly reminding you that the virtual is not the real. But then the comments keep flooding in, and old friends start texting, and your desperate messages go conspicuously unanswered: “Are you there? Is it true?”—nothing. Nearer to death, one can sense the coldness emanating from the gap left in the world, feel the air gently tremble as the hearts of loved ones break; from a thousand miles away you can only text back “I don’t know” and frantically hit refresh, hoping for information.
I first met KerryErin in 2005, shortly after my high school graduation. We had many mutual friends who were surprised that we didn’t know each other: we’d been in the same grade at Huntington High School and had many of the same interests (that is, we were both teenage hippies), but we’d never crossed paths. She’d been expelled in her junior year after the principal discovered a weed pipe in her backpack; I kept my own marijuana consumption under far more secrecy. I don’t remember how we got connected—whichever friend arranged it is probably dead now—but we met one warm summer afternoon at the stone circle in Ritter Park. Believing (wrongly) that it was a date, I brought her a tiger lily. We walked aimlessly about the city talking, and then never stopped being friends.
Anyone who ever met KerryErin was, I’m sure, immediately charmed. (Anyone who wasn’t should be regarded as suspect.) Her beauty was obvious and undeniable. Friendliness and benevolence spilled from her like water from a mountain spring: bottomless, overabundant, seemingly impossible. The world she moved in always seemed to overflow, to admit—as her speech did, carrying that extra syllable she unconsciously sang at the end of every sentence—of a little extra that served as a mark of distinction. She lived with an aristocratic grace and generosity that made her always seem out of place, beaming as she did like a light from the darkness of her circumstances. Lodged in a neighborhood full of blight, her house on 20th Street seemed always to be crumbling, facing one catastrophe after another—but she planted the grounds in flowers and filled the house with friends, and life streamed constantly out of her little castle at the bottom of the hill. And this life, as with everything she made and did, was bottomless, overabundant, and—in the soul-devouring, happiness-crushing miasma of Huntington, West Virginia—seemingly impossible.
I’ve never returned to Huntington much after leaving it in 2006, but every time I have I’ve met up with KerryErin. It was always as if no time had passed: we’d stay up talking until the dawn’s rosy fingers began to creep across the sky, reminiscing about old friends and speculating on as-yet-unhatched plans. Our lives played out in uncanny parallel. In our younger years, we’d update one another on our travels: hers with the Rainbow family on the festival circuit, mine among the freight-hopping anarcho-punks. When I eventually landed in a punk house in Louisville, she was living on a pepper farm scarcely an hour north in Columbus, Indiana. We both fell into trouble and clawed our way out, emerging stronger and more dedicated than ever: I became a student of philosophy, chasing relentlessly after the beautiful, the true, and the good, she became an addiction counselor, helping steer others away from the trap into which she had fallen. Over the last few years she had gotten married and I’d become engaged, and we were both moving into our thirties with a sense of purpose, hope, and determination. Or so it seemed to me.
However KerryErin’s life ended, we should never forget the truth: that she was a beacon in a world of fog, something solid when all tends to mist. With her loss, the world has become unmoored. The hard work of tying things down—which she effected simply by existing—is the arduous task that we who knew her now inherit.
So then, friends: to the ropes. And may we learn to work with that grace which is not natural to us, but which so bountifully was to her.