Thanks to encouragement from several people in the EA community, I've just started a blog. This is the first post: www.rockwellschwartz.com/blog/on-the-first-anniversary-of-my-best-friends-death
The title likely makes this clear, but this post discusses death, suffering, and grief. You may not want to read it as a result, or you may want to utilize mental health resources.
Some weeks back, I had the opportunity to give a presentation for Yale’s undergraduate course, “A Life Worth Living”. As I assembled my PowerPoint—explaining the Importance, Tractability, Neglectedness framework; Against Malaria Foundation; and global catastrophic threats—I felt the strong desire to pivot and include this photo:
It was taken sometime in 2019 in my Brooklyn basement and depicts two baby roosters perched upon two of my human best friends, Maddie (left) and Alexa (right). One year ago today, Alexa died at age 25. This is my attempt to honor a tragic anniversary and, more so, a life that was very worth living.
I’m sure you’re curious, so I’ll get it out of the way: The circumstances surrounding their death remain unclear, even as their family continues to seek the truth. I made a long list of open questions a year ago and, to my knowledge, most remain unanswered today. What I do know is that Alexa suffered greatly throughout their short-lived 25 years. And I also know that Alexa still did far more good than many who live far less arduous lives for thrice as long.
That’s what I want to talk about here: Alexa, the altruist.
Alexa, my best friend, roommate, codefendant, and rescue and caregiving partner.
Alexa, cooing in the kitchen, milk-dipped paintbrush in hand, feeding an orphaned baby rat rescued from the city streets.
Alexa, in a dark parking lot somewhere in Idaho, warming a bag of fluids against the car heater before carefully injecting them into an ill chicken.
Alexa, pouring over medical reference books on the kitchen floor, searching for a treatment for sick guppies.
Alexa, stopping when no one else stopped–calling for help when no one else called–as countless subway riders walked over the unconscious man on the cement floor.
Alexa, hopping fences, climbing trees, walking through blood-soaked streets, bleary-eyed and exhausted but still going, going… Alexa, saving lives.
Alexa, saving so many lives. Thousands. From childhood, through their last weeks. In dog shelters, slaughterhouses, and the wild. Everywhere they went.
Alexa, walking the streets of Philadelphia, gently collecting invasive spotted lantern flies before bringing them home to a lush butterfly enclosure, carefully monitoring their energy levels and food. Alexa, caring for 322 spotted lantern flies until they passed naturally come winter.
Alexa, the caregiver. Alexa, the life-giver.
Alexa directly aided so many individuals over the years, I don’t think any one person is aware of even half those they helped. Their efforts were relentless but shockingly low-profile. They were far more likely to share a success to spotlight the wonders of the individual they aided than their heroic efforts to bring them to safety. And, painfully, they were also much more likely to dwell on the errors, accidents, or unavoidable heartbreaking outcomes inherent to the act of staving off suffering and dodging death. Alexa’s deep compassion caused them equally deep pain. And when Alexa and I ultimately distanced, it was to evade the deep void of grief too great to bear that lay between us. I know the pain Alexa carried because I do too.
Sometimes, the pain that binds you to another becomes the pain you run from, and you never get the chance to go back and shoulder their pain in turn.
Alexa had a bias: Do. And do fearlessly. Or do despite the fear.
Where others might pause and deliberate, Alexa dove right in.
Give the injection to the maybe-possibly-rabid raccoon? You guys help hold him, but pass me the needle.
Wait for animal control to catch the stray Rottweiler wandering the streets of the Bronx? Find me a rope so I can knot a makeshift harness once I’ve got him cornered. And then watch as I help him transform into my loving life companion.
Alexa was… completely and utterly reckless. Alexa was unpredictable, unbounded, and unrelentingly good. Alexa embodied “chaotic good” wholly and completely. And, for a time, some of us were graced with that good.
I want to write here about the more mundane good of Alexa. The way that despite their hardship, they would always ask “what do you need right now?” and mean it.
I want to write about the larger good they worked toward: researching contraceptive interventions to replace lethal measures of wild animal population control.
But really, I want to write about ramen, and the time I had to scoop endless noodles out of my toilet after Alexa decided flushing leftovers was somehow preferable to the garbage bin. I want to tell you about Alexa, wrapped in a snuggie, bird in hand, nicknaming her “Zoloft” because of her antidepressant effects. Alexa, making me laugh so hard I’d cry. Alexa, letting me cry. Alexa, saying it’s okay not to cry. Alexa, saying it’s okay not to feel if you’re not ready to feel, it’s okay not to grieve if you’re not ready to grieve. Alexa, the person I grieved with. Alexa, the person I don’t know how to grieve for.
It has been a year, but I still haven’t figured out how to grieve Alexa.
Sitting at my laptop last month, I was debating what lessons and ideals I should attempt to convey to a classroom of undergrads in a 20-minute presentation. And I was staring at a photo of Alexa. I turned to a timeless adage, paraphrased from the Talmud: “Save one life, save the entire world.”
The challenges that the world faces are vast, and, frequently, overwhelming. The number of lives on the line is hard to count. Sometimes, it all feels like a blur - abstract, and so very far away. And because of that vastness, we can easily lose track of the magic and power of one life, one person’s world.
Alexa walked into that vastness, arms outstretched, and said, “I can help you. And you. And you. I can’t help you all. But I will try.”
Sometimes, when you lose one person, one life, it can feel like you’ve lost the entire world. One year later, the world is still here, but all the darker without Alexa in it.
You can read more about Alexa, their life, and their accomplishments at RememberingAlexa.com.
Tyler, my dear friend and Alexa’s partner until their passing, shared this update on The Alexa Stone Fund, which you can support here:
This is absolutely beautiful and made me tear. I am so sorry that Alexa is no longer here, but so glad that she spent her time on this planet exuding such infinite compassion. She sounds like a truly remarkable human.
Grief is so hard. Thanks for this.
This was a beautiful remembering, thank you for sharing it. Often how I want to grieve people is just to remember them in detail, saying: they were here, not like anyone else, but specifically this is the way they were; I remember, and I wish they were still in the world. This post felt like that sort of grief.
This is my favourite poem about grief, which I often return to when grieving the people I've lost (most especially my partner Zach):
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.
The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
― Dirge Without Music , Edna St. Vincent Millay
Another poem about loss that moves me, this one specifically about grieving a dear friend:
It's what others do, not us, die, even the closest
on a vainglorious, glorious morning, as the song goes,
the yellow or golden palms glorious and all the rest
a sparkling splendour, die. They're practising calypsos,
they're putting up and pulling down tents, vendors are slicing
the heads of coconuts around the Savannah, men
are leaning on, then leaping into pirogues, a moon will be rising
tonight in the same place over Morne Coco, then
the full grief will hit me and my heart will toss
like a horse's head or a threshing bamboo grove
that even you could be part of the increasing loss
that is the daily dial of the revolving shade. Love
lies underneath it all though, the more surprising
the death, the deeper the love, the tougher the life.
The pain is over, feathers close your eyelids, Oliver.
What a happy friend and what a fine wife!
Your death is like our friendship beginning over.
― for Oliver Jackman, Derek Walcott
Damn, Alexa sounds like an incredible person. I'm so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing more of her with us.
Thanks for writing this beautiful tribute. I didn’t know Alexa, but am inspired by them. It is hard to look clear-eyed at the sheer amount of suffering and cruelty in this world without shifting into calculus (i.e., only pursuing cost-effective solutions) or complacency. It sounds like Alexa was steadfast in their compassion, taking seriously the moral worth of each creature, and doing everything in their power to give them better lives. The world is a better place for them having been here, and I am so sorry they are gone.
Thank you so much for sharing this poetic dedication to your friend. I sadly never had the pleasure of meeting Alexa. I now wish I had. But I can tell from this heartfelt post and the website linked that they were a bright light in the dark and vast sea that the world can sometimes feel like. I love the stories you shared. Simple acts of kindness and empathy that reverberate through space and time and impact humans and non-human animals alike. No doubt that there are so many beings that will remember Alexa and their impact.
Oddly, I'm reminded of a lyric from one of my favorite albums of the last few years:
"Afraid of the empty/but too safe on the shore"
As someone who is around Alexa's age, I often feel too safe on the shore. Never fully being the kind of person that I should be. Sticking with what's familiar and comfortable. I hate to say it, but I've been the person who has walked past the unconscious man lying on the payment. I'm terrified of the empty. I've been cowardly.
Alexa seemed like the kind of person who went out into the empty, the vast sea, with a smile and big heart. And who wasn't afraid to be the kind of person that most of us will spend our entire lives trying to become (and may never reach).
Their story has affected me deeply. I look forward to processing Alexa's stories, and how they can inspire me and many others to be a little braver in the face of the open ocean of life and its challenges, and how we can do that with a little more empathy, gentleness, and compassion.
I'm so sorry for the loss of your dear friend.
Reading this I can't help but think that we are all capable of so much more, of being so much more empathetic, and of building a much better world in which lives lived like Alexa's are not so anomalous.
I can only imagine how difficult it has been to grieve such a person and I am profoundly grateful that you have chosen to write this, so thank you. You've ensured that their kindness and care for others will outlive them through those who, like me, have been inspired by their story.
What incredible altruism, despite the very difficult circumstances. They are truly a hero.
I teared up when I read this initially, and when I reread it. Thank you so much for sharing.
Thanks for this. It is saddening and uplifting to read at the same time.