The longer you live, the more likely it is that your everyday life is inhabited by the dead. You see an old friend, who died last week, disappearing into a crowd. You hear your father, dead last year, cracking jokes you once loved. It's like a zombie movie, only more melancholy — and with fewer obvious ways to survive.
This has been a year of death for me. Last year, right around this time, my father deliberately took a lethal dose of pills and died in his home alone, listening to classical music. And last week, one of my friends celebrated his 36th birthday, then was killed the next day in a motorcycle accident. All the clichés about the stages of mourning are true, by the way. You refuse to believe it for a while; you wait for the news that this was just a mistake. Then you get angry and imagine all the things you would scream at him if he had just once even asked you if it would be a good fucking idea to commit suicide. You bargain with a god you don't even believe in to bring your friend back again, if you'll promise to eat vegan like he did, and get rid of all your incandescent lights.
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I don't honestly know if it's true that we ever reach the "acceptance" stage of mourning, that mythical moment when you see life as a stream troubled by ripples of sadness, and yet flow onward into a future where the dead don't haunt you every goddamn day. My friend Will Korthof used to stay in the cottage in the back of our house — he was a part-owner of our tenancy-in-common deal. Every day since he died, I hear his feet on the steps and think, reflexively, "Oh! It's Will!" But it's not. And yet it is. I live with the dead. Probably you do, too.
When someone dies, it's bewildering at first because it's as if they've gone on a trip. I just saw Will two weeks ago. He was arguing with me about water recycling. How can he be gone forever when he was just here, eating vegan spaghetti and scoffing at agricultural practices in California? I might very well have gone another month without really noticing his absence, because he often traveled.
And yet, despite having just seen the person, you are outraged with sadness. That's because you anticipate missing them as the months wear on. You know that the trip will never end; they are never coming home. You know that all the plans you made will never come to pass, like all the possible conversations you might have had, and the debates and explanations and adventures and awkward silences. Your future will be filled with someone's absence, which wanders in and out of your mind the way the person once wandered in and out of your living room.
My father loved high-end stereo equipment. After he died, I kept seeing one of his old radio tuners from the 1980s in my mind. For my whole life, I'd been listening to his broadcasts — but now, when I moved the knob to tune the station frequency, there was nothing. The signal had ended. But I kept trying to tune it anyway, wanting to hear him apologize, or say he loved me, or list the ingredients in what he was cooking for dinner. There is only static, though. Static forever.
I think our fantasies of zombies and ghosts are ways of explaining this feeling, this sense that the dead are still out there broadcasting and walking around. Just because someone has died doesn't mean they don't continue to shape our lives.
Will was an electronics geek and environmentalist, who combined these passions to create a large intentional community in California called Regen Co-op. Many Co-op members worked with Will at the small business he ran, which helps people transition to solar energy and electric cars. Here is a classic moment with Will, doing a how-to about creating a car charging station in Sausalito, CA:
It's thanks to Will that I have an unholy number of solar panels on my roof and a strange assortment of LEDs and fluorescents in pretty much every light socket in my house. At his funeral, which was packed with colleagues and friends and activist co-conspirators, I heard many people talk about how Will would live on — not just in their hearts, but in their electrical wiring and energy systems. Will changed our infrastructure. He is dead, but he is still here, in the power I send back to the grid on sunny days.
But how can we bear to live among the dead? I think this is also a question posed by ghost stories, which are usually full of pain and horror. How do we cope with all the missing people, the fantasies we have of them, when there's work to be done and people still living all around us? I wish the answer were as simple as burning the ghost's bones with a pinch of salt, after hanging out with the Winchester brothers on Supernatural. If only it were as easy to dispatch my sadness as it is to shoot a zombie straight through the eyes.
Sure, there are comforting rituals and the slow erosion of pain with the passage of time. That's not enough. I think the only thing to be done is to admit that the dead live with you forever, and to find some way to make room for them — while still leaving plenty of space for the people who have survived with you. I carry my dad's wallet with me every day, with his old teacher's union card in it. And right now, I am sitting under a compact fluorescent light that Will installed. These are just small material things, but they represent a lot more than that.
They are my promises to the dead that I will survive, and I will take them with me into the future. I will make their jokes for them; I will cook the recipes they taught me; I will fight to save the Earth alongside their ghosts. This is about keeping up the good fight for all of humanity, but it's also about the little struggles just to stay hopeful after a sad year. So I will take their memories out to see Guardians of the Galaxy, and I'll invite all you survivors to come along too. Those of us who remember the dead are all the dead have left; and that is why we honor them by sticking together, by staying alive together, so that every haunting becomes a possible future.
Hey you, out there — please stay alive with me. There are no zombies to fight. We only have each other.
Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9 and this is her column. She's the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. Follow her on Twitter, or email her.