On August 4, I lost my friend Mario to cancer. He was the third friend of mine to die of the disease this year. His death wasn’t unexpected. He was diagnosed with late stage pancreatic cancer in July 2021, and the last time I saw him, this past April at another friend’s funeral, I barely recognized him. Still, Mario was one of those larger-than-life people you can’t imagine not being in the world.
Without meaning to, Mario became the center of attention in any room he walked into. He was intelligent, talented, had dozens of friends, and a heart big enough to make Santa Claus jealous. I met Mario more than 30 years ago, when I was 18, when we were both freshman in college—kids. We didn’t see each other all the time, but it’s still hard for me to imagine my life as an adult without him in it.
I was in the middle of working on developmental edits for my second novel, The River Is Everywhere, when Mario died. (The book will be released in March 2023 by Vine Leaves Press.) Before sitting down to work on it near the end of July, it had been more than a year since I’d looked at the manuscript. The book’s main character, Ernest, is a 16-year-old high school student who loses his best friend in an accident. He spends much of the story trying to make sense of his friend’s death.
I wrote the book years ago, before any of my friends had cancer, before I could have imagined any of them ever meeting such terrible fates. And yet, when I was re-reading the manuscript, I found myself drawn into Ernest’s world: Here was someone who was dealing with the some of same feelings that I was. The fact that I had made Ernest and his story up didn’t seem to matter at all.
As hard as it was at times to motivate myself to get my butt in the chair, working on the book helped me begin to heal from the loss of my friends in ways I hadn’t expected. At its heart, the novel is a coming-of-age tale and adventure story. When I wrote it, helping readers deal with loss and grief wasn’t one of my intentions.
I suppose that’s one of the things that makes art so important: Often, it’s much more powerful and meaningful than it appears on the surface.
This experience has made me hope that someday The River Is Everywhere might help someone else in the same way it’s helped me.