August 16, 2019
I hope that each of you, at some point in your life, gets an opportunity to experience something like what Zach and I had. I hope you have known, or will know, someone who respects you unconditionally, who is relentlessly kind to you, even in your cruellest moments, and who trusts you without reservation.
Someone who truly delights in your happiness. A love like that changes you. It makes you better.
When we were clearing out his room, I found a card I’d given Zach four years ago, right at the end of our trying (and utterly failing) to be a summer fling. Here’s something it said, which is still entirely true: I cherish the ease I encounter communicating with you. The chances you’ve given me to be honest and find myself understood have emboldened me to more honesty and sincerity with other people. Thank you for the things I wouldn’t have been brave enough to share if I hadn’t first talked them through with you.
When I went home for Christmas that year, my family sat around the table for a heavy, difficult emotional conversation. At one point, my mum turned to me with a curious look on her face.
“Whatever it is you and Zach have been doing,” she said, “keep doing it.”
“Yeah,” said my brother, “it’s noticeable.”
(Zach liked to tell that story.)
(... It hurts to say that in the past tense.)
Without Zach’s help, I don’t know if I could be standing here. Not only because I’m trying to show you an unvarnished self that I would once have wanted to conceal. No, also because last summer I fell into a bleak, dark depression, to the point where it wasn’t safe for me to be alone. On a single day’s notice, Zach flew across the continent to take me back to Ontario, and stayed patiently by my side for the next weeks, even though I was irritable, ungrateful, and wholly uninterested in being alive, much less in interacting with him. He was relentlessly kind, even in my most cheerless moments.
One of our projects is called “Introspection Month”. Every day, for one month of the year, we email out an uncomfortable introspective question to a group of our friends, the kind of questions that often feel too big or vulnerable to ask out loud. Then we all share our answers. Back in 2016, one of the questions was, What epitaph would you like to have on your tombstone?
I reread Zach’s answer to that question a few days ago, while crying, obviously. They wrote:
This is aspirational, but: “Whenever they knew what the right thing to do was, they did it”.
Zach was imperfect, like all things trapped in time, but came closer to that standard than anyone I know. Not just on the scale of saving lives with bed nets or personally interviewing political candidates before deciding who to canvas for or giving a chance to every female engineer that applied to his team. Also in the smallest of gestures.
Once, Zach and I had just got off a plane, and I asked why he was already typing away on his phone. “Oh,” they said, “I read that it’s really good for flight attendants if you send positive feedback to the airline, it’s most of how they get promotions, so I try to do it right away. Because if we ever were in a plane crash we’d be depending on them for our lives. It seems like the right thing to do.”
It is the right thing to do, but… But who does that? After reading about it once? Zach did.
Integrity, compassion, even, yes, honour— these aren’t subjects to be studied, but a contagion to be caught. And you have to catch it from someone who has it. I’ve spoken to people who only knew Zach through his writing, to people who knew Zach from a few months working together, and to people who knew him since before he could read, and it was, for all of them, blatantly obvious that Zach had it.
I had more to learn from Zach. I would so love more time with him. This doesn’t make sense. We all just have to go on living in a worse world now. Zach and I spoke every day. He made me kinder, and smarter, more ambitious and more reliable. I’m worse now. But, still, I am so much better that I was four years ago. I am so grateful for the time we had.
Pam, Steve— I want to thank you not only for bringing Zach into this world, but for fighting so fiercely for him to stay in it. For bringing him books in hospital rooms, for kneading the pain out of his scars, for checking on him every damn night to make sure he was safe. Zach knew that what was most important to you was that he do good work in the world, and you loved him and trusted him enough to give him the freedom to find his own way to do that. (And the freedom to launch the occasional fireball over the house.) He often spoke about how lovely you both were with children, and what excellent grandparents you would be. He could never have doubted you were proud of him. Thank you for making him feel so loved.
Isaac— Zach and I loved trading stories about our younger brothers. He reported on your student political dramas like they were episodes of House of Cards, depended on you to explain Fortnite and other things “the youths” are into these days, loved the vicarious thrills of your strange and occasionally harrowing encounters on the road back from tree planting. He got so excited when he thought of a new way to irritate you. More than that, he loved watching you learn and grow. I don’t mean that as a sentimental platitude- I mean he so clearly enjoyed telling me about the ways that you were becoming wiser. I wish he had more time to see you become more excellent.
For all we spoke for an hour a day, I lived three time zones and much of a continent away from Zach for most of our relationship. I fretted about him being lonely, and I won’t hide that he sometimes was. But. Zach built himself out of stories, and the day-to-day stories, the stuff of his life, were shared with you. Giggling about new quotables at work. Getting the latest cousin gossip at every holiday. Having his Dungeons and Dragons players shred his plans so thoroughly that he stopped preparing for games.
Until last Tuesday, Zach never missed a phone call with me. Not even when he was in the hospital with a broken arm. Literally not once. And I am so grateful to all of you for that— letting Zach run away the instant the dinner plates were cleared, driving him from a rental cabin to the nearest Tim Hortons so that he’d have a strong enough signal that I could hear his voice. What Zach and I had was only possible because of you.
Last year, when Zach and I visited the Grand Canyon, we stopped to read a memorial stone for Stephen Mather. The inscription describes how he helped to create the National Park Service and then states:
There will never come an end to the good that he has done.
Zach leaned his head against my shoulder, tears in his eyes. “Imagine,” he said, “having a subordinate who would write that about you.”
I don’t believe in an afterlife. I’ll never speak to Zach again. That’s what death means, for me. A conversation cut off. But there need not come an end to the good that Zach has done. Not today. Not in four years. Not in dozens.
I put two rings on my fingers every day, and I have for long enough that they feel like a part of my hands. On my right hand, my iron ring. On my left, the ring Zach gave me. It can’t be quite the same symbol of commitment, now that I don’t have Zach any more. But I was changed by loving Zach, and by being loved by him. I wish so dearly that I could still call Zach to ask what is right. But I can call upon the pieces of him that are permanently lodged in my mind. I can wear this ring as a symbol of how much he mattered, and how much he will continue to matter, to me and to the world.
Let there never come an end to the good that he has done.
For the funeral, we printed out bookmarks with pictures of Zach and some quotes from their favourite books:
Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself. Guard your honor. Let your reputation fall where it will.–Lois McMaster Bujold, A Civil Campaign
The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge, but the ability to tell right or wrong, beautiful from ugly.–Hannah Arendt, Thinking and Moral Considerations
You’re always going to be too young for something important to you, too old for something else, and the timing is just not going to be right for a third set of things. That’s life, and you can make yourself crazy by dwelling on that. Or you can figure out what you are the right age for, and what the timing is right for, and celebrate those things.–Aaron Allston, Starfighters of Adumar
It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.–Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind
If anyone on the verge of action should judge himself according to the outcome, he would never begin. Even though the result may gladden the whole world, that cannot help the hero; for he knows the result only when the whole thing is over, and that is not how he became a hero, but by virtue of the fact that he began.–Søren Kirkegaard, Fear and Trembling