In early July, 2016 Gabrielle Tillman passed away. Her death is still hard for me to come to terms with. Providence was written quickly, after my friend Hannah Buonaguro sent me photos from the funeral, and is about my experience of grief, friendship and faith. Gabrielle was an incredible person and irreplaceable artist. You can see some of her work here.
That kind of phone call. I paced in front of my workplace, my cheek sweating. Somehow smiling, disbelief, waves of rage surging through my stomach. Traffic rushed and beeped on Clark street. Chicago in July.
I told them I had to be gone for the next three days. I booked the flight that night. I didn’t tell a lot of people why where I was going. When I returned I didn’t tell a lot of people where I’d been.
When they would ask I would just say, “Providence.”
Izzy and Sarah picked me up from the airport and we were driving above the speed limit and I was in the backseat. Their embrace tingled on my body as I watched this new city reveal itself through the car window. When I stepped out onto the driveway I smelled the ocean in the summer heat. Arline ran out of the front door and we held each other and she gave me a tour of her family home. The big, love filled house was crowded with flowers, reds, purples, political slogans, and spiritual imagery. I pointed to a portrait of Junot Diaz on the fridge, she showed me the backyard, I took a photo of a mammoth sunflower, it’s neck bowed by the weight of it’s vibrant head.
The same messy love that defined the inside of the home was unleashed in the backyard. Green shoots pushed between rocks, branches shaded corners. There was a patch of dark greens and herbs. Aaron, and his sister Carrie sat in the shade, next to a fire pit.
Time slipped into night. David arrived. Travis, Julian, Brianna, and finally Hannah. I drove in the car to pick Hannah up from the train station. She arrived, from New York, in a summer dress like always, holding a vintage suitcase, with a bewildered look. We sat in the backseat and held each other’s hand for the entire car ride. The air was ripe, it buffeted through the open windows, my stomach dropped, the hills reminding me of that time we shared in college. That was the last place we had all been together with Gabby. It felt like she was waiting for us back at the house.
The car door clunked, Izzy and Arline left and Hannah and I stayed in the backseat and held each other and cried. It was like being cracked open. I let myself run out. Memories of freshman year, of senior year, of Simon’s Rock, of Gabby’s dorm room, of her thesis project, of walking in the woods, of becoming, were translated into sobs and the need to be held. Hannah cared for me, and I felt complete, and for a moment, I felt free.
Men are supposed to be straight, they are supposed to hold women close to them who they want for sex, they are not supposed to need comforting. These social messages form an iron gate above my psyche. As I held Hannah and cried, the gate toppled. For that time I existed as pure feeling. I was Isaac who needs Hannah’s friendship, who needs her touch, and I needed to make her feel whole.
We cared for each other, until sniffling and spent, we agreed it was time to see everyone else.
The backyard was filled with smoke, the sound of fire, stories and reunion. We drank wine and gorged ourselves on chocolate and candy, the way Gabby would have wanted. We made phone calls, we made plans to drive to Massachusetts the next morning.
How can I describe Gabby Tillman? I see her in the faces of strangers and I’m stung by the realization that they look like someone who is in the ground, who is gone, who none of my new friends will get to know.
In college she would wear a black velvet jumpsuit, a denim beret with a white plastic flower in it, she walked around in shiny clogs, clutching a black sketchbook, her black curly hair floating behind her face like a rain cloud. Her eyes sometimes full of terror, her cheeks flushed with rage. She unfolded herself in those first few months on campus, sharing her fears, dressing however she wanted, making astonishing things.
She made birthday cakes that looked like castles, books that hung from the ceiling, hebrew letters out of chocolate, and by senior year made herself into LACE, a performative alter ego.
She became Jacky’s sister. When they walked with Andrea they were like furies in ancient greek myth. Jean jackets, adidas track suits, jelly shoes, american flags, alien sunglasses, dog tags, toys, berets, collages of food, it was like they could make anything meaningful. Gabby’s room was full of things, but never seemed cluttered. Things were arranged, in way that was provocative and purposeful. Colors balanced, placed in jars, and laid out on every surface.
Gabby can’t be described.
Hannah and I woke next to each other in a spare room on the second floor. White light pierced the curtains of the open window. Morning’s tattered ends were on display.
Izzy made scrambled eggs using greek yogurt and low heat. David and I went to dunkin donuts and brought back comically large iced coffees and a dozen. Brianna dipped leftover rotisserie chicken into mustard, and someone made matcha. Julian coughed on the floor, his body flopping on his sleeping bag. Outside people smoked cigarettes and slurped coffee and decided who would drive with who.
The winding road, hallucinatory green trees of Western Massachusetts revealed itself from the front seat of David’s car. We drove together and caught up, we hadn’t seen each other in almost eight years. He lives in Los Angeles. We swapped stories and talked to fill the time. We pulled into the street of the synagogue, were directed to the parking lot by a guy with a strange accent. I asked David what kind of accent that was. Softly, and quickly he responded, “Massachusetts”.
David was from Amherst, I wondered what the man’s accent sounded like to him, what it recalled, or if he even took note.
We parked on the lawn, all the formal spaces filled up. We laughed and debated whether or not people would mind. We were short on time and rushed to the synagogue.
It was a white building, the four cornered, wooden exterior kind of New England house that has a name I have forgotten. At the entrance was a table filled with ferrero rocher chocolates, like tiny golden suns. Gabby’s favorite. We were handed kippot.
David and I walked up the stairs, the service had just started, we stood until someone scooched over to make room. The rabbi was speaking, every seat was packed. David and I covered our heads with the kippah. That black slip of fabric would find its way into my back pocket after the service, and would survive many trips through the washing machine. For months when I wore those black pants I would discover it’s softness with my hand, as if it was in waiting.
It would take me back to the synagogue in July. The crowded pews, and Gabby’s sister, who shared her strong frame and fearless voice, as she braved tragedy and read an excerpt from Hélène Cixous’ The Laugh of the Medusa.
I know that every single one of us who had gone to Simon’s Rock were heard in the sobs that erupted. It was for us, and it was with us, that she read.
We exited the Synagogue as a slow throng of people. I heard a relative of Gabby’s, an older woman, ask what ‘phallocentrism’ was in a hard midwestern accent. The sun hit our eyes, pure New England summer, and rolling grass. David and I got a few steps outside and held each other and sobbed. I was aware of the people passing by us, and felt like I was melting.
We gathered ourselves and shuffled across the grass to the cemetery plot. In the crowd I saw the others. Blake, Joseph, Isabel, Rabi, and Jacky, who wore big black sunglasses, her lips unmoving, her long hair pointing straight down, almost to her waist. Hannah came next to me, we held each other’s hands. I was sweating.
The dreaded moment, which I had anticipated right after that phone call. I would have to say the mourner’s kaddish. I would have to say the prayer for the dead for Gabby Tillman, who took her life at 23.
I let go of Hannah’s hand and covered my eyes.
Yitgadal v’yitkadash shemay rabah
The words are bundled into nonsensical sounds which weigh heavily on my conscience. They describe a loss better than anything in my native tongue. I sobbed. I heard the sobs of others. I heard Aaron recite the kaddish. I watched Gabby’s mother collapse after shoveling dirt on her daughter’s grave. The pure summer heat incongruous to the tragedy we shared. And then Gabby’s grave was covered with earth.
I made my way to Jacky, her tall, lean figure shrouded by sadness. She took off her glasses. Her big, saucer-like blue eyes were covered in tears. These were hers, she said, and waved the glasses in a potent gesture, as if to say, these are nothing, these are everything.
We held each other. My heart breaks at Jacky’s loss. They had become sisters in all ways. They made a world together.
Hannah held me as we walked away. I cried out for my friend Tyler who hasn’t spoken to any of us in years, who I wanted badly to be with me and still be my friend. We drove to Blake’s house, who grew up in the same town as Gabby.
We got lox and bagels and cream cheese and beers. I threw a frisbee with Aaron like we always do. I felt delirious, emptied of sadness, like I was sober and also hallucinating. I stood in the driveway and Hannah took my photo. We drove to Gabby’s family home to sit shiva.
Her mom gave us reese’s cups (another one of her daughters favorites) and herded us into a side room. She wanted to hear what each one of us were doing with our lives, she told us that Simon’s Rock was special, that she knew each of our names and how much we had meant to her daughter.
I felt sick, filled with sugar and emotions. Gabby’s parents were from the Detroit. They met in culinary school and moved to New England where they ran a restaurant. Gabby worked there in the last few months. Her mom showed us an episode of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives which features their family restaurant. And there’s Gabby, waiting on tables, presenting the food. She was poised, her voluminous hair pulled back into a ponytail.
We asked for a tour of Gabby’s room.
It had been cleared of the clutter in the last months of her life, she had wanted a fresh start. But in the corners were arrangements of fake flowers and small bottles of liquor and toys, and in a big room was a table with her work. There was a children’s book about halloween, scraps of fabric, all kinds of colors and textures. Her mom told us if we wanted to be close to Gabby we should go for a walk to Bebe Woods, which is where she liked to spend time those last few months.
We got directions. As we left, an ice cream truck came by and it was fitting that we all got treats. It was the kind that was supposed to look like cartoon characters and tastes awful. I got a smushed tweety bird with gumballs for eyes. David got lemon ice. I shoved myself in the backseat, next to David and Hannah and we sped off. Hannah grabbed the lemon ice, I can’t remember the details, but it all spilled across David and me and we laughed hysterically. We laughed until it hurt, until we forgot why we were laughing. Hannah took a photo.
We arrived in the woods, and took off on the loop. I ran ahead, the group of about fifteen people moved too slow. Some smoked pot. We got to a big rock and we took turns standing on top. I broke off with Blake and Joseph and we got really lost. We reunited after what seemed like several hours. My feet were throbbing. Night fell. We drove back to Providence.
There was a bonfire, drugs, delirium, stories and sadness. We made goodbyes and promises. We hugged, expressed disbelief. Eventually we all fell asleep.
The group splintered in the morning, with rides to trains and airports. I was one of the last to go.
Many times I have wondered about the meaning of the word ‘providence.’ It is religious sounding and complicated. I know I’ve been told what it means before. For some reason I forgot. I would smile inwardly when I said I’d been to Providence, like it was a mysterious double, the actual city and a destination in a religious trial.
At Simon’s Rock, one of our first assignments was to pick a word and look up it’s definition in the Oxford English Dictionary, and ‘explode’ the meaning we found. So I did.
- The protective care of God or of nature as a spiritual power.
-God or nature as providing protective care.
2) Timely preparation for future eventualities.
Late Middle English: from Old French, from Latin providentia, from providere ‘foresee, attend to’ (see provide).
Providence (Proper Noun)
The state capital of Rhode Island, a port on the Atlantic coast; population 171,557 (est. 2008). It was founded in 1636 as a haven for religious dissenters.
The definition doesn’t complete a circle. I was worried it would give a false meaning to what for me had been irrepresentable—both Gabby’s life and her suicide. For a long time I didn’t want to face the dictionary, and found protection in my forgetfulness.
The day I wrote this is the day that I looked up the definition and found solace in knowing. The meaning of the word was inconsequential to where I’d been those few days in July, the days of profound sadness and overwhelming love. I felt like it had been the opposite of providence that made those days happen, that took Gabby from the living world.
I hadn’t spoken to her since graduation, since an awful party where we walked down the stairs and I thought she thought I was trying to look up her shirt but I’m not sure because I was drunk and high and anxious. I leaned my neck back as we walked down the stairs because it felt cool and didn’t realize she was close behind. It felt weird, stupid, unresolved. I didn’t say goodbye.
A few years later I saw her work in Sex Magazine, her food sculptures and mischievous writing, under the name Bebe Woods, I didn’t reach out to tell her how much I loved it. The photos of the quilts, the cryptic tweets, I didn’t see it coming. We are young. Death, existed in capitalized form only. It applied to my grandparents and to war. Gabby’s suicide was not a future eventuality that I cared for. I didn’t provide for a future where she wasn’t alive. I hadn’t cared for my friends with this in mind. And I can’t believe that Gabby’s suicide was provided by G-d as a caring act.
But I got on that plane. I showed up, I cared for my friends, and we promised to care for each other. Surrounded by midsummer’s bright green and tragedy I understood Christ. In a flash, I realized why people need Him.
None of us could do this now, no matter how much we all struggled with the thought. None of us could take our own lives now that Gabby had done it. We couldn’t do this to each other, and in this way her death was our commandment to live with one another, and to be more caring. But I don’t think Gabby’s death provided us with life. It is the wrong type of meaning. Losing her indescribable presence cannot be translated into such a convenient, even selfish purpose.
I have been to Providence, providence, and providence, but I am still unprepared.