In memory of our cherished friend, Adam Aaron Gray, who passed away unexpectedly on Sunday, June 14th, during our visit to New York City.
Adam, we are forever walking toward the Brooklyn Bridge. ❤
“You’re here!” he shouted as Adria and I walked down the ramp at La Guardia and into his open arms. A navy and red Herschel pack pinned with an FIT button hung off his back, loaded with yesterday’s clothes and essentials for the day – wallet, metro card, Soda Stream bottle, umbrella.
“Nice rucksack,” I smiled.
“Thanks! I can go anywhere with this thing. I do go anywhere with it.”
“I bet you do.”
We grabbed our bags and weaved through swarms of travelers to the train, laughing when I made it through the turnstile but didn’t get my suitcase through before the metal arm locked shut. I tried swiping my card again a few times from the back side of the machine. I was stuck.
“I promise you’ll get the hang of it by the end of the weekend. It’s all in the shoulder,” he joked, mimicking a swipe through the card reader, then heaving my suitcase up and over the metal bar, and leading us to the train that would carry us to Brooklyn.
I know you were trying to play it cool as you looked over our must-see list for the weekend and categorized our stops with ones, twos, and threes. You wanted us to believe this was old hat for you after a few years in NYC, but I saw the wonder in your eyes too as we crossed the street to the Coney Island Boardwalk, grabbed a hot dog from Nathan’s, sprawled out on the Atlantic shore below the defunct Parachute Drop.
Did any of us really think this trip would happen when you mentioned it at Christmas time, when you vowed to be the “trusty tour guide” for two small-town girls from Michigan in a city of eight million?
So many circumstances interfered in the weeks before the trip. Family medical problems, financial hiccups, scheduling conflicts. The day before our scheduled departure, when you texted, “You guys are going to be in Brooklyn SO SOON,” I still didn’t believe it would all work out.
But the next day, somehow, our bags were packed, our problems checked. Adria and I kissed our husbands and children and made our way to the Milwaukee airport. Sitting in the concourse awaiting the boarding call, we snapped an airport selfie and fired it off to you with the caption, “This is HAPPENING.”
On Friday, our first full day in New York, we traipsed about the city, hopping trains between landmarks and points of interest like Grand Central Station, the 9/11 Memorial, Times Square, Radio City Music Hall, NBC Studios, the New York Public Library, Bryant Park, Chinatown, Little Italy, and of course, Lady Liberty from the Staten Island Ferry.
We walked over ten miles that day, but never felt overwhelmed or rushed. Adam patiently waited at each venue, allowing us to absorb what we could at each checkpoint, trying to capture the spectacle of it all with iPhone photos that could never do justice to this greatest of cities.
On the train ride back to Brooklyn, I scribbled notes onto the back of my three-page tour guide. Noticing what I was up to, he said, “I love seeing New York through someone else’s eyes.”
“SO MANY THINGS to remember!” I replied.
“I hope you write a lot about your experiences here. I did when I first arrived.”
“I don’t know how I could ever put it into words what I’ve seen here in just a day. That little boy in water wings building a sandcastle at Coney Island — he was Every Boy. Or the delivery guy hauling boxes of foam plates through the tiny trap door into the basement of Steve’s Bagels. Or how completely anonymous I was as we hustled through Manhattan, until my hand brushed a stranger’s hand.”
He smiled. “Write it down.”
“I’m gonna try,” I said. “But I wish I could do it like you do – put the perfect words to that place that we all feel, but none of us see – that other plane.”
“You can,” he replied. “Don’t think about it. Just write that shit.”
On Saturday morning, as you jotted down the day’s agenda, I saw your hands tremble in anticipation of Lisa’s arrival. We knew you were excited for us to meet her — that you wanted us all to love each other the way you loved us.
You probably didn’t notice Adria and I smiling at each other as you chopped veggies and threw them into the crock pot so we could eat your “Famous Vegetarian Chili” that evening when we returned to the apartment. It was ninety-degrees in the city, and you were making us chili.
I bet you didn’t even notice the reds and blues of the laundry on the line in your courtyard as we left your apartment. Magnolias blooming along the High Line. Ducks plunging beneath the surface of the pond at Central Park.
You didn’t see Adria roll her eyes or hear me say, “Three-hundred ninety-two!” as you leaned over again and kissed Lisa beneath a floating canopy of Union Square bubbles.
You didn’t know, as I watched you, blissed out with your girl, that I was recalling our conversation from the night before.
“I have so many good things in place right now. Work. Lisa. Brooklyn. I feel like New York is my home now. I’m finally happy.”
That evening in Brooklyn, the four of us ate hot chili and hung out on the third-floor fire escape. We sang along to Piano Man from a homemade CD dubbed UPWP, and argued about which of us made the mix eight years ago when we met in grad school — when our friendship began. We laughed at Adria’s stories about college shenanigans, then FaceTimed with Larry, Luke and Allison, wishing they were with us in New York, telling them so a dozen times. We played Sour Apples to Apples on the living room sofa sleeper as the cats brushed up against our ankles, happy, too, that we were home that last evening.
I don’t know how to write it, Adam.
Brooklyn. The bridge. The lights. Feral cats on the row of garage roofs. All the colors and beautiful people. Bodegas selling crates of discounted Speed Stick and the brightest peppers I’ve ever seen.
The way you traipsed all over the city in white leather shoes that made your heels bleed, all in the name of fashion.
Our last real conversation. The Avett Brothers. Walt Whitman. A Higher Power. The sly grin on your face when you said, “I don’t know exactly what God is, but I think when we die, we’re all going to be pleasantly surprised.”
I don’t know how.
How could I name the breeze through Bay Ridge on the morning you died? Dark roast espresso and the ferment of trash and fat roses.
Or the cool humidity of the Powerade cooler inside Rite Aid. Taylor Swift on the radio. The terror of your blood on the glossy linoleum floor. The minutes between a 911 call and the first cop through the automatic door.
The questions. The calls. The shallow breaths. Yours. Ours.
The moment I knew you were gone — when your spirit left your body on the floor beside a sunscreen display and whispered over me, “Goodbye, my beautiful friend” for the last time.
The ambulance ride to the trauma center. Nurses. Doctors. Papers. Words.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am. I’m sorry. So very sorry.”
A plastic bag with your backpack inside. Your blood on our shoes in the cab back to your apartment.
The final checklist.
- Call Southwest
- contact coworkers and friends
- find a home for Maggs and TS
- gather belongings/papers for Larry
- fridge, trash, unplug, etc.
- lock up
I’m home, Adam. Somehow.
Michigan, where all of this began.
I’ve been at my desk all morning, just cranking this dial, trying to find your frequency so I can tell you what I need to tell you.
That the nurse who prepared you for our last goodbyes said, in her sweet Jamaican accent, how pleasant you were. That she usually has to wrestle the dead, but not you. You were so peaceful you almost appeared to smile.
That I know you always hated your chin, but when Lisa reached out and touched it in that curtained room, I could see how handsome it was to her.
That your building super Jimmy made the sign of the cross three times when we told him about your death, but later still bitched at us for not separating your trash properly.
That all the laundry on the courtyard line after you died was white.
That the cats are going to be fine.
That you were the gold-medalist of tour guides.
That we loved her the second we met her.
I’ll never know how to do this, Adam, how to write this. There are colors on the spectrum only you could see, and I don’t know how to name them. I don’t know how to net the words that bounce between us and within us, how to organize them into something that makes sense for all of us.
I don’t know how to shine up the world the way you could. Make us ache the way we want to ache and love the way we want to love.
On Friday, I stood with you at the base of One World Trade Center, craning and squinting to see the spire – a bright arrow emerging from the quiver of your city. We traced the carved names on the reflecting pool wall, fingered the petals of a white rose, its stem tucked into a letter “R”. We watched the water drop over the ledge, then disappear.
We didn’t speak. There was no need. We held that space together – riding along on another plane of existence, feeling the poem between us.
And now I am the one who must write it.
To read Adam’s poetry, visit his blog, Dropped Calls
If you enjoyed this post, read more personal essay here.
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