Memento mori


In dedication.

Words by & artwork by Marta Faustino

When we sat down as a team to choose which articles would be part of this issue of Novelty, I put forward the idea of contributing a piece on mortality and death. I was still unsure what form it would take but the words were already developing in my mind following two defining moments that happened recently.  

The first of which was the shocking news that you were suffering from lung cancer. At the sound of this news, I did the only thing I knew what to do: I repeated this story to all of my friends until I could talk about it without crying. And then, when I finally could, I went to visit you.

During the 24h visit, we caught up on the 1,5 years we hadn’t seen each other, played cards, showed each other holiday photos. In the midst of that very hot day, in the end of August, I took the role I thought I should take: the easy-going friend, the one who’s there to share a laugh with and entertain you. For my part, this was a fairly easy role to take, we only had a day anyway, I’d cried everything before coming in and, somehow, visiting put my mind at ease. I had in my mind that you’d be in horrible shape, and it must have been such a disproportionate image that when I saw you, nearly house bound, on oxygen, suffering terrible and excruciating coughing fits, scared and in pain, I still found you looking better than I thought I would. I had no idea of how I would find you but I must have been mentally training to face an apocalyptic scenario for what I found to be a positive rendez-vous. I drove back the whole 7 hours trip feeling optimistic and elated.

The second happened shortly after: whilst browsing on Facebook in one bored evening, a post grabbed my attention. It was a message written on a Facebook friend’s wall: “I’m so sorry to hear you lost your battle, we’ll miss your smile.” I was taken aback. I really cared about this girl. I didn’t actually know her, KNOW her; we worked together and very rarely saw each other and despite our best attempt to spark up a friendship based on our mutual instant affection, life got in the middle. We scheduled a lunch once or twice and never again. Still, love and affection come in many different formats and, although I wasn’t her friend, I did have genuine affection for her. Despite all these distinctions – if there really are any – I was in shock. The battle euphemism, particularly, struck a chord. How it is possible? 33 years old and cancer is real.

As I struggled to read the Facebook messages and homages left in her digital profile-turned-shrine and come to terms with it, I made two decisions: I would write a piece on mortality and how unprepared we are for it, and I would sit down and actually hear what you were telling me.

Upon learning of Marina’s passing, the waves hit me threefold.

First I was hit by the dread and realness of it, especially what it meant in relation to you. You too could actually die. It was only then that it actually dawned on me exactly how scared you must be. You told me clearly that fear and pain kept you awake and it never occurred to me to validate your worries. 24h of love, companionship and entertainment, that was we could afford then. I chose not to acknowledge your statement at that time as it would somehow damage the light non-chalantness of my visit. But this can happen and, yes, you can be scared and this feeling should be validated, in spite of the focus on the healing and the positive thinking.

Then, the Missing-out hit me. Where does the love go, when life moves on? Can we really stop life getting in the way of potential friendships? Should we have fewer friends but better ones so as to dedicate more time to each one? Or, on the contrary, should we try and accommodate all the people we like, even if at the expense of quality time?

Thirdly, it made having Facebook feel like a blessing. I don’t care much about sharing things on Facebook, though I do spend a considerable amount on the website for various reasons. If a friend of Marina’s hadn’t published a homage on her wall (a thing I would never do, and find it weird myself) I would have never found out. I wouldn’t know I was living in a world without Marina. Though she was never part of my world, I found comfort knowing (or thinking) her there, happy and progressing. Moreover, because I wouldn’t participate in a Facebook homage, I have to assume a good part of the people on Facebook won’t either. This means, potentially, there are people I love and care about that I would never know if they cease to be around us. Ex-flatmates, ex-colleagues, ex-lovers. How would you know then? What can you do to know? But, for now, there is such a thing as Facebook friends, and the post-life digital homages allowed people to come together, to take a second and think of Marina, write on her wall, read other tributes, spread the word.

More and more, death in the digital world is a pressing issue with very interesting ramifications. As Facebook grows old, so do its users. As if social networking has redefined how people connect and interact, it will also change how people grieve and add new ways of engagement with the dead. But for all my intellectual interest, in practice, I never thought highly of Facebook (if anything, quite the opposite). Even as an immigrant, friend of immigrants, consuming news and taking the daily temperature of the internet on Facebook, it was only then that I truly felt grateful for it. The mortal remains of the online Marina could forever be. Somehow, a cemetery seems inadequate, outdated, uncomfortable and unreachable. Wading through a myriad of marble tombstones seems like a very personal and religious ritual, like a labyrinth not accessible to those outside the first circle of intimacy. Moreover, in most cases, it’s in a remote place or a different country. In a post-religious, post-globalised afterworld, Facebook can be an altar and memorial for everyone.

Marina’s demise really struck me. Death was real, was close. It felt like I was cheated to when I managed to live this far without being tainted by it.

Being young, Oh being young! It’s all about beauty and innocence, vigour and health, all the dreams ahead in potential form – the infinite possibilities of living forever; happiness to be realised. But it’s that, isn’t it? All the promises, the riches, the beautiful formulations that are not yet real and so, have not yet failed. A promise to live forever and to have within reach the sweet promise of life.  

Isn’t it because of that too that we’re doomed to feel so miserable when we realise we can’t ever reach the dreams we were sold? Why we question incessantly the image of success? And why we are so unprepared for bad news, for death and unfulfilled prophecies? The sweet nectar whose taste vanished too soon and left us wanting.

So I made plans. I’ll visit on Christmas, we’ll face fears head on and talk about it. Accept and embrace; perhaps learn something about life on the way. Ultimately, how to try and make out that youthfulness is not all that’s cracked up to be.

I refuse nihilism. There is something here I can take out, something I must learn.  

I thought of the time I spent months doing blood tests and other medical exams, going back and forward to the GP trying to diagnose my illness. Thoughts racing in my mind and cancer – that cursed word – occurred to me. My instant response was that no, it couldn’t! I am so young. I haven’t done anything to deserve it!… As if someone ever did.

I remembered then a little girl from my primary school that had a disease in her bones, or so we were told. Eventually, this disease caused her to miss school and lag behind. As my peers and I left primary school, we stopped seeing this girl that couldn’t get out and play and, little by little, she disappeared. In my infant mind, this strange disease took the form of brittle bones disease. I thought she couldn’t get out to play because she would shatter her bones easily. Oddly, as a child I was more aware of brittle bones disease than cancer. Brittle bones was a common narrative device on TV and soap operas, while cancer was rarely portrayed. I didn’t understand the horror. Only now, more than 20 years later, do I look back and fill in the blanks.

And yet, and yet. There was always an aunt, an uncle, mother of a friend, a cousin. Somehow it is was never close enough, or felt close enough. And all of them, older or much younger. They were either the Unfortunate Children or the adult that developed a disease most of us will deal with one way or another in the future. IN THE FUTURE.

Even when I learnt what cancer was, and realised I knew fewer and fewer people that didn’t have at least one case in their family, it was still a distant reality. It was never someone that close, with a similar path or a similar age.  

So what I could do for now (what can you do?) was to focus, appeal to the universe, send positive thoughts and energies. Whenever I do my yoga practice, and the teacher starts by inciting us to dedicate this practice to someone, the person I think of everytime is you. I’ve spare some minutes a day to send positive energy, I think of our memories together and I make plans for our next meeting.

I started to think on this article. As much as I would like to make an essay out of it, to take your example to extrapolate a nicely packaged opinion or thought there was still so much to think of, but mostly it comes down to this: the issue of love and friendship. And that is better felt than rationalised so it somehow it shaped up as part-reflections, part-love letter. Much like myself, I guess: rational mind for an emotional heart. So I read My friend Sam, and I thought I could do something similar: I can write about how we felt when given the news and debate how should we react, a really heartfelt retelling of these past 15 years in four or five key moments, how we came together and how we moved from this. It would be a tear jerker!

So I spent two weeks putting sentences together, trying to resume 15 years to a handful of memories. Also resisting the temptation of glorifying you.

I didn’t like you much at first. Little know-it-all with your arrogance and your scientific standards. But our confrontations were, at least, entertaining and intelligent, even if infuriating at times. Then came the fun times, the travelling and holidays and forever the image of you sleeping perched from the window after a night of playing cards and Polish vodka during our interrail over 12 years ago.

Truly sharing came much later, in darker times when we sat on a garden bench talking about life goals and hopelessness. At that moment I knew I really cared and that we could candidly show our lunar sides. And what is friendship if not that? I remember, not long after that, coming to yours after a long night of dancing and excess to put your then-flatmate in bed and find you sleeping in the living room, sleeping in the orange sofa in front of a lit up TV. It felt so endearing, gently waking you up, turning off the TV and put you to bed as well. To care for you, a privilege.

And then came gratitude. Not long before I moved here, climbing out of your window to lie on the rooftop over the partying city, the laughter, the music, the fun of others, lovely views over the moonlit river, LCD soundsystem on the CD player, martini in the hand and heartbreak. I cried my pains to you lying on your ceramic rooftiles and I’ll be forever grateful.

We cried together one last time before I left, on a dancefloor – one of the very few nights you obliged to my desires to dance. It was, after all, our last weekend before I left the country. . Back then, you didn’t know you were going to leave too. Still, you came and danced and cried and you send me off full of love and gratitude.

Almost one year after I left you left too. And there, you reinvented yourself in the most spectacular way. I’m not sure I ever told you this, but I’m sure you know, you make me so proud and I’m so astonished by your incredible capacity for openness and reinvention. You met the love of your life, you were happy and you made plans.

And then this. How could you be possibly expecting this? How is this even a scenario you think of?  

Many years ago, you once told me that your dream was to lead a nice life and earn enough to take your kids for Haagen Dazs every once in a while. I was in shock. My dreams are huge and sparkly and ambitious and complicated. I was almost offended by your lack of ambition, of vision. How could you ever dream so small?!

I can see now exactly how big this dream was in itself. You accomplished so many different and more exciting things, but the normalcy of old age and kids was robbed from you.

A couple of weeks ago, I sent you photos of cats being funny just to say you crossed my mind and send you love. You replied saying you’d have news by the end of the week. That was your last message. The end of the week never came.

I was so unprepared. It pains me more that you too weren’t expecting it, weren’t prepared. It pains me that your fears were not acknowledged. That my last message to you was of funny cats, I will find it funnier in time and I hope you do too. I find less funny the bookmark I put when I found a even funnier raccoon to “send later” Friday afternoon, not knowing you wouldn’t make it that night.

Is this my lesson, saved forever on my laptop? The fucking bookmarked raccoon? That the dream of ice cream is not small at all, but the most beautiful and ambitious dream? That the big lesson that youth is not immortal and you should express all kinds of love to all people will, once again, escape me once life washes over me?

Despite of this, I feel very lucky. Even though I regret not talking about your fears, I would do the same again. I would rather play cards, the old lady’s game I pushed to play anyway (and that, it turned out, you played as a kid with your grandmother) and make sure that love was conveyed in silence as well. There will be always rooftops under the summer moon and Nutella and the million other things we shared and the expressions I keep finding out I use because of you. While those exist, I’ll always think of you.

This was not the kind of article I was hoping to write when I began. I was hoping to talk about eternal youth and the fear of dying, juggle philosophical terms with current affairs, defend an intelligent hypotheses, and use your miracle-story to prove a point. I was hoping you’d come through and I’d be wiser.

I still use the same sentences, the ideas, the phrases that I had ready but, now, it’s a different thing. It’s a more corporeal text, self-indulgent and whiny, over-emotional and intensely personal. It might just be the best thing I’ve ever written but it is certainly the most important. It’s a text about love and life and how you can the first be so much more lasting than the latter.

Your life abruptly cut short but what you left behind – it seems to be multiplying.


To Filipe.

Marta is an arts manager, who never manages to get to the bottom of her book pile without buying more volumes, and has a jar of Nutella with her name on it. She is addicted to QI and bakes a kick-ass Chocolate Guinness Cake.