AJ was in the first creative writing class I taught as a TA in North Carolina. It was comprised of 10 students—8 young men and two women. Some of the guys wore black, listened to punk and metal, and played a lot of video games. I thought we’d get along famously, but these few formed a front, seething with sarcasm. AJ was not a part of the self-created crew. He was generally quiet, but piped up when he had to. He looked like a young Robert DeNiro and seemed to have an old-soul sensibility beyond his 19 yrs. I found out he played banjo, smoked cigars, and was married. He also proved to be the best writer in the bunch. I gave them a literary journalism assignment, asking each student to put themselves in a “fish-out-of-water” situation and write about it. I warned them not to get hurt or arrested and joked that they were “not allowed to go to Iraq.” One straight student danced the night away at a gay bar, one girl went to church for the first time ever. AJ decided to be homeless for the weekend. Despite his wife’s worries, he got dropped off with a backpack and a grape soda in the Wal-Mart parking lot then walked and hitchhiked around town for 38 hours. After a cold night sleeping under a bridge, bumming cigarettes and desperately searching for water, he retreated home—but with a well-written story full of the humor I’d come to expect of his work.

Once he saw me out at a punk show on a Friday night and emailed me the next morning to ask, “what were you doing on stage with the band at the House of Blues last night? If it wasn’t you, it must have been your twin sister, who must be on tour with them.” I had a good laugh and wrote back, explaining the band members were old friends of mine from New York, and asked why he was absent from class that day, to which he replied, “touché.”

A bit later he wrote to tell me he’d attempted hiking the Appalachian Trail, but broke his foot and came home after 100 miles. I admired him for trying and told him so. I think he got divorced shortly after that. I moved back to California after grad school. We became Facebook friends. I watched from afar as he lost weight, grew up, moved around and made friends. He’d write me to ask for publishing advice from time to time. He inquired about my rental property in NC in July, but decided he couldn’t afford it at the time.

Today when I looked at his Facebook page, I found a stream of “I miss yous” and “I can’t believe this world has lost yous,” one “I wish heaven had a phone so I could hear your voice one more time” one post beginning: “Also, jerkface jerk-and-a-half…”  and one declaring: “AJ, you fucking fuck. You missed everything.” Apparently many people continue to interface with the dead in this way instead of switching to a “memorial page.”  Facebook boasts one billion users but the Huffington Post says it “has become the world’s largest site of memorials for the dead,” with approximately 30 million users whose online profiles outlive them.

Last October, AJ announced he was back from rehab: “I am home now, phone is back on, and things are looking a lot brighter. Feel free to call if you want to be brought up to speed.” He posted pictures of pumpkins and scones shortly after, announced a relationship in November, took goofy pics with his girl and a child and a dog—all in Christmas sweaters—in early December, then posted a photo of them together as his profile pic on Dec. 21st. An online obituary states this as his date of death. Age 26. On December 28th, his girlfriend posted three of his poems—one called “Chirp:”
I am a small bird.
My life is short.
I sing beautiful songs
all day
and make myself
invisible
when the weather is good.
And each year I mate,
build a nest;
nurture.
Then we fly away.
And my life is short.

-AJ Murray

 

I woke this morning after dreaming my father was still alive and that I just had not spoken to him in awhile—as was typical in our real lives—and that my sister and I were discussing his health with one another, which was also the usual. Then I remembered that he has been dead for two years, and my sister no longer speaks to me, and I wanted to crawl back into my dream.

AJ’s parents wrote back to my inquiry, telling me they lost him in a car wreck. I see that they held a celebration of his life in a beautiful park this past weekend. I spoke with his mother by phone to share my memories of him as a sweet, adventurous kid. She said he had talked about visiting me in California. She’s made a book of his poems and recipes, which she offered to send me. She shared that they missed him, that he’d had some troubles, and that maybe he was happy now.

 

I am not sure what made me check his Facebook page today. I must have been missing him.