It happened during one of the best few days I’d had during the best year of my life.
The day before, I’d tried on a kimono for the first time, chatting with the women running the event about how difficult it was to wear, what each piece was called, which designs were their favorites. I felt proud that I could communicate the way I did, and thankful to have every day be a new learning experience. Two days before, I’d taken a day trip to Nara with my friends and got to feed the deer that bowed back at me. We went to a festival and I remember standing at the top of a staircase overlooking the food stalls, beneath the pink and purple sunset, thinking “The world is mine. I can do anything. It’s right here at my fingertips.”
Three days before, I’d booked my flight to Korea.
That night, I was sitting in the tatami room with my friends, finishing my homework. I was almost done with the packet, something that I had never been able to do on time before then, and on top of that I actually felt good about my answers. My anxiety had taken a backseat, too; the past few days hanging out with friends had felt good, and for once I felt like I could handle interaction. Later, I would be thankful for this, because if I had found out while I was alone in my room, I’m not sure what would have happened.
In the middle of a grammar question, my friend Jay messaged me asking if I had heard what happened to you. My first thought was an expired contract; I would give anything to go back to a time when disbandment or enlistment were the worst things that could happen.
Even now, I have a hard time getting the word out.
In a haze, I heard my friends calling to me from outside the room. There was a fanmeet for their favorite group scheduled for the weekend we were going to Seoul, and they were trying to get tickets. They called for me to translate the pages for them, but I could hardly hear them. They sounded so far away, almost underwater.
Here’s what I remember: stumbling out of the tatami room with my phone in hand, open to the page that said what I was praying so badly was just a horrible mistake; someone’s (Sam?) arms around me saying it was okay; my shaking hands calling my two closest Shawol friends, forgetting that it was around 6am back in New York City and becoming surprisingly agitated when they didn’t answer right away; Ariana’s groggy voice dissolving into choked tears when I told her.
December was a strange blur after that.
Maybe we should go back a bit.
The first time I saw you was the summer of 2010. I was sixteen and just learning how awful heartache could be when coupled with my ever-increasingly unsafe home environment. Mom and I still lived in my grandma’s basement then. I spent that summer in the pitch-black darkness of the room I shared with her.
I’d just set up my first Tumblr, and I must’ve been following a bunch of Shawols without realizing it, because suddenly my dashboard was flooded with the newly-released Lucifer music video. I’ll never forget how quickly I was pulled in, how entranced I was by your vocals (I still am). It was love instantly.
I’ve adored several things in my life in an all-consuming manner, but I’ve never adored anything so quickly, so completely, as I do SHINee.
The five of you became my lifeline almost instantaneously. I was invested in everything you did. I memorized every song, learned the scheduling for music shows (the hard way, I might add — it was during SHINee’s hiatus and I didn’t know then how comebacks worked, so I would get up at 4am with hopes of catching a glimpse of you live, somehow. Those are some of my fondest memories now). There was nothing that couldn’t be cured by SHINee magic. You were all there for everything from the heartbreaks to the screaming matches and alcohol rages and those nights where I held on to my will to live by a mere thread. You were all there for me when nobody else was, not even myself.
I’ve learned a lot from you. The most obvious is my love of languages, which I knew was there since I’d started learning Japanese, but didn’t realize to what extent until I started learning Korean and making tiny connections between language and communication. I learned patience for both myself and others. I learned that it was okay to make mistakes, and that trying my best was always worth it. I learned how to get up and keep moving even when I didn’t want to. You taught me that last one, Jonghyun.
I’ll always be appreciative of how open you were about your depression. In an industry as careful as kpop, you were there to remind us that idols are also humans. I found comfort in knowing I wasn’t the only one who felt like they were disappearing from the inside out every single day. Someone like you also knew what that was like, and here you were, pushing forward every day and showing people that they could do the same.
I never thought that I would lose one of my heroes to the thing that they saved me from.
The thing is, I’m not angry. Not at you, at least. I understand exactly why you would do it. I know all too well how it feels. I almost wish everyone else would know that feeling, too, so they would understand and things could be better. Because I’m angry at everyone who ever turned their backs on you, I’m angry at those who don’t even know you who tried to make this into a conversation about the industry and glossing over the real issue of mental health and depression, I’m angry at the non-fans who made you and the rest of SHINee into a product and don’t understand how my grief could run so deeply, I’m angry at everyone who looks at me with pity when I say SHINee is my favorite group, as though now they’re reduced to this tragedy instead of being celebrated for the accomplishments they still achieve every single day. I’m angry at everyone who failed you, the same way they failed me, the same way I’ve come so close to failing myself countless times.
I miss you. I miss you so much, and it’s not something that everyone can understand. How do you get someone to see that your life is just as real to me even if I’ve only seen you in person a handful of times? You’re my family; you’re not just a celebrity that I gush over. You held me up when I felt the edge of nothing closing in on me. Losing you was the greatest loss I’ve ever experienced, and everyone just expects me to be okay despite that. Here’s the truth: this year was one of the worst for my mental health, and so many times I’ve caught myself thinking, “I understand all too well what he must have been thinking before he went.” I don’t want to think these things. I fight them every day. I’m doing my best, the way you did your best.
I have these regrets, and I know I shouldn’t because it won’t bring you back. I regret not leaving for Japan even just a few days sooner, because you would be in my city just two or three days before I would move there. I regret not taking the trip to Seoul alone for the weekend of your solo concert, your final solo concert. I keep telling myself, “If I could just go back and do it again…” As though one more face in a sea of pearl aqua would change the way things turned out. It’s hard to believe I even saw you that May in LA. Time stretches and shrinks in the strangest ways. It’s been a year since you left, and I still feel it like it was yesterday, and still wait for your face and your voice when I see the other members.
I woke up with “Breathe” stuck in my head this morning. My brain understood the time difference before the rest of me did, I guess.
You came to me in a dream once, a month or so after it happened. I wanted to thank you for everything, to tell you I love you, but words failed me. But you knew what I was trying to say, and you said “I love you too, Nikki.” I asked how you knew my name, and you said you read it in the letter I had left for you at SM Coex Artium during my (real life) trip to Seoul. You said you read everything we left for you. I said thank you, and you said “No, thank you.” I had wanted to ask if you were happy, but your smile was all I needed to know.
I hope it’s still the same. I hope you’ve found the peace you were looking for. Nobody deserves that peace more than you do.
I don’t think missing you is ever going to get any easier. But loving you was the easiest thing I’ve ever done.
I miss you, Kim Jonghyun. Thank you for saving my life. Thank you for everything.