I arrived at Dr. Chen’s* dental office in Chinatown on a Monday in late winter, bracing myself for a lecture on the importance of more frequent visits and better hygiene.
I was pleasantly surprised by her bedside manner and the enthusiasm with which she explained the current state of my mouth and what we could do together to improve it. She asked about my job, my education, and what I liked most about living in Brooklyn. It was an altogether pleasant experience. I booked an appointment with the receptionist for Thursday to get my cavities filled. I thought no more of the encounter.
I returned to the office on Thursday and announced myself, this time to a different receptionist.
“That’s strange, I don’t have you on the schedule,” she informed me as she scanned the calendar.
“I must have the date wrong, I do this all the time,” I replied, because I do that all the time. I asked to book another appointment and told her that my insurance information was already in the system.
“I’m sorry but I don’t have any record of you being a patient here,” she said, looking sincerely apologetic and slightly confused. “Let me get the doctor.”
A few moments later, Dr. Chen appeared in the waiting room. I smiled at her and said “Hello!” but was greeted with stunned silence. Her pretty face had gone white and she seemed deeply disoriented, as if waking from an unsettling dream.
She stared at me in disbelief for several uncomfortable moments before finally saying, “Alana…you’re alive.”
Years on my high school Speech and Debate team have made me generally articulate and quick in conversation but, “Um…yes?” was all I could come up with in reply. I have since come to realize that there is really no appropriate way to respond to being told that you are, in fact, alive. It is the most unbalanced conversation you can ever have, the statement being so obvious to the person at whom it is directed and so unbelievable to the speaker that thought her dead.
“They…they told me you had passed away.”
By this point, her eyes were filled with tears and our exchange had gained a captive audience in the receptionist and another woman in the waiting room.
“Um…no?” Again, my words escaped me.
She paused for a moment, wiped her tears, and a broad smile came across her face. “Can I give you a hug?” she asked.
Still baffled by the unfolding scene but pained to see my sweet new dentist in such distress, I reluctantly agreed to a hug. I felt the eyes of the receptionist and the waiting patient fixed on us, bearing witness to a resurrection.
Having no idea how or why I got there, I found myself in the embrace of a near-stranger who was overwhelmed with joy just because inconsequential, strange, and silly little me had lived to see another day. I surrendered to her startling affection and took part in the impromptu celebration of my own beating heart.
As it turned out, Dr. Chen had called the day before to confirm my appointment but had misdialed by one digit. The person on the other end told her that I had died. It will forever remain a mystery to me if this person was an asshole who liked to fuck with people who dial wrong numbers or if by some eerie coincidence, I share a similar number with another Alana that died recently.
So for a full twenty-four hours, I had been dead in the microcosm of her dental practice. I was wiped from the records to prevent the staff from calling my family with reminders about a cleaning in six months, inadvertently reopening the wound of their child’s passing. She told me that she had not slept the night before, but lay awake thinking of how young and promising I was. I had died a very real death to her. And she had mourned me.
I return to this episode often when I’m on subway platforms, contemplating the mechanics of suicide by train jump. It is a fixation on the frailty of the human body in the face of metal and high speeds more than it is a real plan but from time to time, the option is more appealing than it should be.
Suicidal people are often instructed to think of how their parents would feel if they killed themselves. But I literally cannot do that. The loss of a child is a pain beyond my comprehension. People remark frequently on the fact that widows and orphans have a name for their loss but that there is no title for parents who lose children. That it is a pain so unspeakable that we dare not give it a name. It is also a pain from which the majority of us are mercifully spared and can therefore never fully grasp. Empathy can never take us quite as far as experience.
I find it similarly difficult to contemplate the grief that friends and siblings and lovers would experience with my passing. I lack the maturity and moral imagination necessary to put myself in their shoes, to consider what their lives would be like if I took my own. My best friend has told me, “If you killed yourself, it would actually ruin my life.” But I don’t really know what it feels like to ruin a life. But I do know what it feels like to ruin a day. And I know 100% that my death would ruin someone’s day because I watched it happen at a dental office in Chinatown. And I don’t want to ruin anyone’s day.
Death in our periphery awakens an untapped affection in us. In day-to-day life, we spare each other the embarrassment and sentimentality of verbalizing our sincere fondness for co-workers, neighbors, acquaintances, and classmates. We mistakenly think that all we share in common is mutual disinterest in each other’s lives and well being. These people fall just outside of the frame where we keep “the people in our lives” but they are much more invested in us then we’d ever think. Our little lives are much bigger than we give them credit for.
There’s a line in "Infinite Jest" by David Foster Wallace that I used to return to often. It reads, “You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.” It helps a lot when I get stuck in my head about what others think of me. But I’ve learned that it is generally ill advised to accept wisdom from a man who killed himself when you are desperately trying to keep yourself alive. I have also learned that it is remarkably untrue.
People think of you often. They think of you fondly. They think the world of you. There are office managers and baristsas that think about you. There are Facebook friends you haven’t seen in 15 years and weirdos in your building that think about you. There are dentists and high school lab partners that think about you. They would be devastated to hear the news of your death. They would mourn you. They are people that would be uncomfortable ever telling you how highly or how often they thought of you and vice versa because we live in a world that eschews intimacy and affection in favor of the allegedly “comfortable” distance we choose to keep that is actually making a large portion of the population feel cripplingly lonely.
For me, it is easier to digest and comprehend their small but sincere affections than it is to understand the truly unconditional love in my life. I can tap into the pain my death would cause the people on the outskirts of my life and experience it for a fleeting moment in a way that I cannot with the unspeakable grief of my loved ones. I can think of my dentist calling again for a cleaning. I can feel her feeling me die a second time. And I don’t want to do that to her. And in that moment, it makes it easier to feel the rush of the train pulling into the station, then choosing to step inside of it instead of in front of it.