My brother’s friend Peter died a few months ago in a head-on collision on a two-lane highway near the bombsite he worked at in the Mojave Desert. I got the phone call during the third act of the Third Eye festival, and left in the middle of the performance to pick it up. My brother said he was going to the funeral that coming Sunday.
Apparently, a car in the other lane had swerved into Peter’s lane and collided with his when trying to pass a car. He died instantly.
My brother looked for pictures of Peter after he found out, but he couldn’t find any. Peter wasn’t even in the photos when everyone in his class posed during church events. My brother told me whenever there was a camera, Peter went and hid because he hated how he looked in pictures.
“It’s weird, but I think a part of him knew he was going to die,” my brother said as I held the phone, the only warm thing against my face.
The last time my brother talked to him, he asked him where he was going to go after graduation.
“To be alone with the Lord,” Peter said.
He said in the Bible, all the great leaders of faith went to the desert to be with the Lord. He knew that he would encounter God there. My brother was only happy for him. There was nothing left for him in the world. God knew this, so He took him up.
I thought about this in my history of photography class when we looked at photos of Hurricane Katrina. We talked about how they could be aesthetically beautiful, though they were documenting disasters.
The professor asked how the photos could be beautiful. Students responded with “the colors,” since the peeling pink and green wallpaper and the furniture, all thrashed against side of the wall, were complementary. Or that the lines on the car the flood left from high water levels were parallel to the wooden panels of the abandoned houses on the street.
A part of me hated that it was beautiful. I didn’t want the photos to be shown in galleries or praised in reviews on Amazon. How many more were being praised of Haiti? Of Chile?
I wanted to peel off the wallpaper, rip open the cushions on the couches and dinner chairs, tear down the walls and open up the floorboards so all the ugliness could be exposed in broad daylight. Then everyone would see how ugly it was, and it would stay that way.
I imagined how quiet it would have been to take those photos. Where at one point, there were sirens and people yelling to evacuate, it was now quiet. Just like how bombs could blast so loudly the noise itself would seem big enough to erode rock that had been there for thousands of years. They could be so big in the moment, and vanished in the next. The only proof we have of their existence is the trace they leave behind in their absence – the melted rocks, the tender Earth with its layers exposed.
The desert is a suitable place to die, ugly and harsh enough to carry out the deed. When your body soars into an oncoming car, your body is crushed at 180 miles an hour. Running 90 miles an hour against a wall of crashing metal, immutable, but suddenly changing its form in each fraction of a second. Your body flattens, something so innocent – like plate tectonics so thin they could move between each other and cause an entire earthquake.
But in a way, the absence of a person is much louder than his sudden disappearance – or the explosion of a bomb, or a building crumbling from the second floor. Say that grief in the absence of someone could be strong enough to raise the dead. Senses are heightened. Everything else but what is grieved becomes irrelevant. Perhaps it is why Jesus wept before Lazarus woke from the first of two deaths he would experience in a lifetime.
As Peter drove, he was nothing more than a person confined behind a steering wheel in a car that could only drive so much faster than the speed limit. But in absence, he became too large for the car to fit and the metal pried open.
He became as large as the mountains he was driving through.
GEOFF MAK is very tired. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.