I was 16 when I read John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines, and scoffed at the line “you never love people as much as you can miss them.” That was crap, I decided, in the stereotypically teenage way of thinking all sentiment is trite.
That was before I turned 18 and got into a Facebook debate with a boy who was a friend of a friend; before he became my dear friend and something more than that; before he was stolen out of my life by a mental illness so severe, it took parts of his memory, encouraged self-injury, and rendered it so I’m not sure he knows my name all the time anymore; before I had to learn how to miss someone.
He saw me. He saw me before I was a whole person, before I had a career or a clue, and before I knew how to tell someone I loved them, even when I know I did.
“Rainesford Stauffer,” he’d say, waggling his eyebrows and using my full name. “You can do this, you know?” He’d say it about everything: About college tests, about eventual moves, about hard-to-handle bosses. At the risk of turning a human being into a lesson, he taught me how it felt to love an imperfect person, and how it felt for love to be greater than just the romantic sort.
So, it makes sense that he’d be the one who taught me how to miss someone.
I didn’t think missing someone would feel so complex, but the bizarre cocktail of grief and love and knowing that the grief doesn’t entirely belong to me make it feel loaded. I was not the last girl he dated before he got sick; I’m not a family member. What right do I have to lay claim to missing this person this much? The loss isn’t all mine, but how I remember him is. I tried to keep hold of him with the firmest emotional grip I could muster, even as it seemed he was slipping further and further away, listening when he wanted to talk, and trying to make it clear — with the flawed and fractured best intentions human beings have when trying to help one another — I would always be around.
When his extended family became caretakers and technology use was impossible for him, I checked in with them and other friends, offering whatever meager help I could from hundreds of miles away. It felt, as if as simple as hitting delete, he vanished, with no way to look back in retrospect except memories. I prayed, an utterance it feels strange to admit while privately wondering how God could let this happen, but felt necessary anyway. I mourned what felt like a loss, but somehow wasn’t as clean-cut as I assumed losing someone would be.
There’s also a selfish belief lurking within me that if I don’t talk about it, if I don’t remember it, my chest will shatter open and spill it all out, and one day, I’ll forget how it felt when he looked at me.
It’s simple to take missing people for granted in the 21st century, because, supposedly, we have a guidebook on how to do it: Facebook Memories pop up to remind all of us about summer vacations or anniversaries or badly-filtered Instagram photos in college dorm rooms. But those seemingly superficial ways of preserving memories, like blurry photos and silly recordings, get accidentally overlooked as social media fodder instead of something precious. They give you something to hang on to when your memory threatens to betray you with time and the missing feels too heavy to hold in your body.
I did with him what we accidentally do with the best people: I took it for granted that he’d always be in my life somehow. Not in the we’ll-always-be-together way, but in the way that makes it impossible to fathom a person won’t be part of your life. There are people you can’t see the whole picture without, as though someone cut out a space in a photograph that will always look wrong without the missing piece.
We never took photos, because we both hated having our picture taken. When we were going out, we didn’t really tell people. We operated off the grid, a decision that felt aloofly well-informed when we were 20 or so, about five years ago, feels suspiciously like that empty space in the metaphorical photo. Because his technology use is limited, there is no social media stalking to see what someone is up to, no random texts to say, “Hey, how’ve you been?” There are no imperfect photos of imperfect people finding their ways; no off-the-cuff, goofy rap songs he recorded into my voicemail. I deleted them, because I assumed I’d always be able to hear him riff on the headlines of the day in song form any time I wanted.
There has been more than one time that I’ve woken up stricken with panic: Did this person know I loved him? Had I even known? Was I too worried about playing it cool or getting my feelings hurt to utter, out loud, how much he meant to me?
I don’t know if having those old messages, those paused moments in photo form that never got taken, would’ve helped me learn how to miss someone. I wish I had tangible editions of what I see when I think of him: A picture of him sitting on the corner of a parking garage, arms crossed, grinning, the last light of summer pouring through the sky behind him. The message he sent after I graduated college and panicked, where he told me to “just breathe.” Now, I don’t believe having them could hurt.
Missing someone is, perhaps, more complicated than loving them. It leaves you with what never got said alongside what did. You move on, and you feel guilty for being happy, even when you know the person would want you to be. You carry them with you even when you step forward into new passages of life, new people, new moments they’ll never know about.
He told me once that we don’t get to pick what changes our lives. I think he was referring to God and religion. But I think of it in the context of him. The cruel reality isn’t just that we never get as much time as we think we will, but that so often, that time looks nothing like we thought it would. We spend some of it missing instead of loving, and having someone entirely evaporate out of your life isn’t a sensation that can be prepared for. It opens your heart to everything you might have missed before, whether you want it to or not.
It makes me want to scream: Take the stupid picture even if it never sees the filters of Instagram, even if you hate having your photo taken. Keep the movie stub tickets and the random voicemails. Keep things you could delete. Because someday when something is over, you’ll want anything to prove that this person was real, that it happened. The pictures won’t hug you back or fill the void but it will be so much better than having nothing, and feeling that you’re remembering it alone.
It’s a lesson no one wants, but years later, my finger hovers for a moment before I hit “delete.” I don’t dodge photos. Because missing him has taught me how to miss and love moving forward: cherishing imperfect moments and preserving them, and mostly, living them as fully as he did when he could.