The word « grieving » is rooted in a French word meaning « burden. » This is not my experience of the root of my grieving. McKenna’s role in our lives was never to burden, it was always enlightening and expanding. When she passed on, the root of grieving was our love for her. I think of it like some sort of inner chemical reaction: when someone we love passes away, the love we keep in our heart for them experiences a splash of a foreign, aggressive and painful chemical. The love sizzles and spasms, so it rises to the surface in order to escape the turmoil inside. It felt like the love we each had for McKenna was pushed to the surface of our skin — love was opening our pores and dripping from us like sweat — making us vulnerable and sticky and exposed. So we clothed each other with our words and arms. It was sharing fond memories of her, it was cradling your friends, it was saying nurturing words and « I love you, » it was long hugs and knowing eye contact and extra heart emojis and extra heartbeats you felt on someone’s chest.
My friend McKenna,
our crack-a-witty-comment-Ayn-Rand-head-turning-I’m-writing-this-new-script-here’s-a-warm-hug-and-big-smile— left us last April.
When I think back on the days closest to her death, they are yellow. They are old pages of a book yellow, yellow from the drying sun and the lit pavements of East Los Angeles. We were floating, it felt like. Our consciousness was above the people and things that we usually worried about. She had taken a piece of us with her, and as she moved into the heavens our connecting piece with her held us above ground. But it was on this plane that her friends were able to build a village of some sort, the obstacles on earth no longer relevant. They were days filled with a lot of staring, of holding, of drifting aimlessly through campus and sitting down quietly next to someone you knew was grieving too.
By April 4th, I had in the past few weeks gotten excited about my mom’s point-and-shoot film camera from the early 90s. For a reasons I have yet to pinpoint yet am so glad won over, I wanted to document the weeks that came after McKenna’s death. Probably because it felt like there was something tangible in the air, the potent love and confusion, the sun shedding glistening light on a web McKenna had woven between so many people and places and things, a hold-me-for-a-moment mood in, around, and between every person she had tied into her life.
You’ll notice, in my photos, that there are a lot of smiles, a lot of laughter. This is because we felt good to be together; McKenna brought back beautiful memories and life lessons that we found we shared. People’s emotions were raw — from pain to shock to love to joy to numbness. Being together felt like you were closer to her, closer to the old reality she was a part of, you felt understood and could share a memory or just feel connected to people whose love was simmering on the surface of their skin, too.
After her memorial, at Canter’s, a classic Jewish Deli McKenna loved.
John and Dylan M. making chocolate chip cookies.
Rob, Max, and Dylan R. at a diner in Silverlake one Saturday afternoon.
There’s a lot you cannot know from these pictures. It was John’s first time making chocolate chip cookies from scratch. Some people weren’t on speaking terms, but forgave so they could support each other. A month before you never would have seen me at a diner on a Saturday afternoon eating a burger with those boys. I had an air mattress I blew up for someone the night we found out, and it stayed in my living room with a rotation of friends until I packed up for the summer.
McKenna shattered glass walls of vulnerability. She was an artist – she lived in her vulnerability, and offered her own vulnerability to make anyone feel understood or get a heart-to-heart visit at any moment of the day. Her friends were woven together and made some sort of tapestry to commemorate our funny, chuckling, smart girl. I really hope McKenna felt us opening ourselves in her name. Oh, the hugs that we had. The eyes-shining stories we told. The goodnights on the couch or that air mattress (sometimes both) because you couldn’t bear to go back to you lonely apartment. I cannot tell you how many Annie’s Mac and Cheese I made until summer.
In On the Road, Kerouac explains he lives for “the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!” He would have loved McKenna.
Almost everyday she wore an outfit I’d puzzle over, trying to decide if it made sense or not. Purple long sleeves with black gloves, a full body sweatsuit, various colorful scarves with her effortlessly voluminous brown hair tangled into them. One day she wore a tight lace shirt, with a sweater, and earnestly asked me if I thought it was appropriate. I said probably not considering it was basically lingerie. I laugh as I write that, remembering that moment so clearly outside our classroom, my half astonishment at how she was not nervous to wear that, half my awe in that she wore it with such confidence even though she was not sure.
When I would sit down with McKenna — for lunch, for coffee, on my couch, or on a bench after class, sometimes I really did feel a sense of burning in her — she was lit up inside, a torch that so many eyes could see. I can hear her voice, her passionately describing why Aaron Sorkin was a genius and how The Social Network was perfectly written. It made so much sense she was a writer. She had so much to say, and so much to explain and so much to help people realize.
In February of 2018, McKenna and I went to the Writers Guild of America “Beyond Words” event where we got to see all the screenwriters nominated for awards that season (Aaron Sorkin was there!). In our little program, at the end of the panelist list we added in pen—
McKenna Martin. Known for:
we left it blank because we did not know what story was going to get her on that panel. I believed in her so much it doesn’t make sense to me that I won’t ever know what the movie would be. I’m sad for the world that we don’t get to watch that movie, get a glimpse into her mind. She was a mind that was worth knowing. There was something about her that demanded attention (people always came up to me at my « soirées » asking to be introduced to her), and no one couldn’t notice her smart wit and constant curiosity —observing, researching, analyzing —that materialized into a knowing wisdom and incredible intellect and a special deep confidence.
McKenna’s USC community were filmmakers, and so McKenna’s memory lives on in visuals, compositions, dialogue, camaraderie, and tapping into vulnerability in a way only artists can.
Her life — and her legacy — feels like an unfinished script. There are blank spaces waiting to be filled, scenes waiting to finish, storylines waiting for their author to give them their next step. We have had to accept that there are a lot of open-ends. I’ll never learn exactly how McKenna did that beautiful messy updo she wore to parties she’d promised to teach me, or what she thinks about graduating USC, or what she’s doing this summer. I sometimes pause and imagine conversations on the phone with her, telling her about my year in Europe and wondering what words of encouragement she’d say, and then her telling me about whatever new project to which she’s committed herself or her analysis of a new Netflix series or her take on some different writing styles we’ve come by since. Almost every time I write something I instinctively want to have her eyes on it. I probably would have sent her this.
I assume I’ll always have these thoughts, and those brief seconds where I forget that she really is gone, and I turn on some gears in my mind to hear how her laugh jumped and caught in her chest, and remember how her lip curled in a little bit when she smiled, the way her arms bent when she gave you a hug, the angled tone of her voice. I happened to see a play adapted from Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers tonight. Towards the end, the narrator shares what he’s learned: “Grief is a long-term project.” In grief being our long-term project, that must mean carrying the brightness and loving others wholeheartedly. The love and vulnerability that sizzled up to the surface in those days and weeks after McKenna’s passing — I hope a little bit stays on our skin long-term.
A note to McKenna I wrote a few days after she passed:
I wish you could see the love that has brimmed in the pool of people whose lives you changed. You touched each of us with an incredible spark that lit up so many layers of consciousness —intellect, empathy, creativity, self empowerment, dedication. Thank for sharing with us. We each carry a piece of you, always, and together we will keep your presence alive here on earth. May you float on the love and peace we are sending up to you.