Emotional Deserts: Remembering My Friend Will a Year Later

Remembering My Friend Will, one year since an irresponsible truck driver rear-ended his car killing him and his wife, as these memories now ensconce themselves amidst emotional detritus scattered along the road of 30 years of life. This is an essay about internal memories of someone I once knew well when we were emotionally clueless teenagers who knew neither ourselves nor each other very well. As an adult I knew him only in brief oblique glimpses that took form in subjective moments that had little to do with him and the joy he carried that was still palpable from such distances but did not necessarily penetrate into my emotional world. I can’t say I know what his internal life was like at all.

A year ago I made my first trip back to Minnesota in over ten years to attend the funeral of a high school friend. Will and his wife Cully were killed when a dump truck driver, who probably had fallen asleep, rear-ended their car on a road they had driven thousands of times. They were both killed instantly it seems. Both in their late 40s, leaving behind two boys, young men on their way to college, clear-eyed, straight-backed, honest to a fault. One aimed to become a pastor the other a computer engineer. The boys had been attentively home-schooled by Will and Cully, their meals and TV consumption directed towards wholesome fare, as grade-schoolers Will had them watching episodes an old show we had grown up on, Emergency 51, about paramedics at a fire station who mostly responded to car accidents and heart attacks. I’ve seen episodes of the show on UHF channels in recent years, although the hairstyles suggest 1973, the attitude of mind is 1957, or at least the TV version of that era. The men are clear-eyed and straight-backed, honest to a fault. They carry none of the glamour that CHiPs did with their motorbikes and sunglasses. They respond dutifully and dispassionately to disasters and on rare occasions exhibit well-contained emotions: boredom, sadness, elation, and rarely, fear.

The instigator and his army

The funeral was something of a class reunion for for a nerdy segment of our high school class, a notably charismatic bunch in their python-inspired humor, among whom Will had been not so much a leader as a chief instigator. Because I was Will’s friend, and appreciated their high-concept slapstick, I was an honorary member of that crowd, which constituted 90% of the Honors English class. Will knew, without even having to be fully aware of it, that if he set his mind to something at that unremarkable high school it would be done. He had a knack for a certain set of adult-world managerial skills that really had no peer at Henry Sibley High School. Those of us among his high school friends gathered at the funeral were all contributors in one way or another to Will’s most successful project, the insurgent school ‘zine, The Insider. In regards to Will and the Insider and Will’s effectively uncontested drive to student council presidency, I was 100% committed, but as regards the politics of high school social divisions, my loyalty was suspect on all sides, but for a variety of reasons was probably safest among the crowd who wore the misleading label of ‘popular.’ We had played sports together, went to churches together, and our parents socialized in strategic ways with each other that left us bound by loyal cahoots. I drifted quite rapidly away from my high schools crowds after I left, a year early, in the process abandoning Will to a lonely presidency. My drift away from all of them is largely a result of that common pattern of American life, but more specifically a problem of emotional vacuousness that left me socially adrift starting at about age 19. And I have a feeling that Will suffered from much the same malady, which was endemic at that high school, and therefore unsurprisingly, in the community at large.

At the visitation, the day before the funeral, I stood in line to greet Will’s sons, his brother, and his parents. The boys were clear-eyed and straight-backed, and this was my first interaction with them since a very brief 4th of July evening a decade prior. The emotional impact of their loss was deeply buried under their impeccable manners, and I responded very naturally with an equal measure of business-like sympathy and queries as to their career paths. It was only another friend, the one who had had the presence of mind to alert me to Will’s death, and to whom for that reason I am forever grateful, who also pointed out the boys’ impeccable manners threatened to bury their grief so deeply as to leave it difficult to ever excavate for proper attention once the funeral had passed. His parents’ emotions lurked perhaps nearer the surface, but they likewise, in a way that is profoundly native to Minnesota, attended first to what had to be done: a visitation, guest books, photo albums, a funeral ceremony, and one can only suppose also follow up on the question of the driver who had killed their son and his wife. In the funeral itself, his brother did his best to highlight Will’s dedication to family, church, and work, and the softening element of his warm, inviting humor. With smiles, and many a glistening eye, the funeral service was faultless. It was a manner of grieving among people for whom, fundamentally, the virtue of humility prevents them from highlighting, or even acknowledging their own grief, lest it should prevent them from fulfilling the more sacred task of duty. There is much to be said for this stoic element of Minnesotan culture, but without some other source for care and feeding, it leaves the inner fields of emotion dangerously dry.

Nonetheless, in a look and a tone that ran subversively below the impeccable manners, disappointment leaked into my consciousness when I greeted Will’s mom. She had neither seen nor heard about me for 30 years. I had abandoned Will when I left high school a year early, and I imagined she was probably right in thinking that this had wounded Will, and contributed to a notable narrowing of his ambitions and his values. Will became something of a fundamentalist Christian, drifting away from his parents’ tolerant protestantism, that was once considered “mainstream Christianity.” This was not altogether surprising, they were brought up during the heyday Minnesota’s Democratic Farmer Labor party, and Will’s teenage rebellion, like Alex P. Keaton on “Family Ties,” was to become some sort of a conservative, which was not such a worry as a teenage affect, but when the adult Will demonstrated that he really meant it, his politics left some sort of a chasm between them, even if one well-bridged in familial love.

Some time after the funeral we spoke, and came to a modicum of reconnection, and in in the painful healing process of clearing out Will’s things, she ran across a painting of mine from high school that I had given him, and a few letters, mostly from the years after I left, and I suppose she realized that I had not altogether abandoned him. I had, after all written, and it is not all that clear whether or not he wrote back. That which drove us apart was a blunter exogenous force, and the letters hint at its presence looming between us, even if we could not see it for the destructive force that it was. I’m happy she sent me the letters, because it relieves me of some sense of guilt, but the pain they cause strikes even deeper, lightened only by the illumination they offer about that malevolent force that affected us like some polio of the soul, leaving atrophied limbs and myopic eyes.

What is most striking about the letters (my letters) is their emotional vacuousness. It should not be surprising that I kept none of his, so I speak only of my own letters to him, which were carefully boxed away somewhere in his garage. We were smart precocious kids, seen as mature and responsible young men by athletic coaches, teachers, and summer camp directors. What we loved in each other was the recognition of an equal in this regard, and yet one who could be equally filled with childlike silliness when the occasion allowed. We did not come to our maturity in a consciously dutiful way, it was in our nature and the quality of our upbringing. It was accomplished, in large part, because we had absorbed so completely that Minnesota stoicism, it rarely occurred to us that any aspect of emotional life had standing to disrupt the tasks set before us. Only joy and humor were allowed, sadness or anger made nary an appearance. Our existence of wholesome community, church, school, and loving parental guidance that was so complete that we didn’t really know what disappointment was, and were not even really capable of disappointing each other as our habits were so similar. There was only one time where I was conscious of disappointing Will, and that was when, as his vice-officer on the publicity committee, I was too shy to drag out a garbage can on stage at a pep rally in order to dramatize a point about throwing trash in the garbage. It was a minor disappointment that had no effect on our friendship. The bigger disappointment came a couple years later, and it was more of a mutual disappointment in ourselves, experienced alone and in parallel as each of us got lost in the emotional desert that lay within.

It began, I expect, on the day I informed him that I had been accepted into a private boarding school called the United World College, and would be skipping my senior year at Sibley high school to attend this school at its New Mexico campus. Will’s initial reaction, as this issue arose in the midst of our conquering campaign for president and vice president of the student council, was to say let’s keep this quiet so as not to disrupt the campaign. It was not so much a nefarious reaction as instinctively strategic, it spoke to his native intelligence. We made arrangements for our preferred successor to me as vice president, a girl that brought many of my same attributes. And our best laid plans were laid to waste by a resentful student council who chose more safely, and punitively, from the ‘popular’ crowd. But here I am re-hashing elements from my previous memorial written a year ago on the eve of the funeral.

The other part of that story was that, some time later, maybe later that year, maybe a year later, maybe more, I asked Will why he never applied to the United World College, and he said “well you never gave me back my brochures!” You see I only found out about this obscure international boarding school because they had mailed Will brochures and instructions for application because he had done well enough on a standardized college entrance exam, taken precociously as always a year or two before everyone else. He gave me the brochures, and I now have no idea if I ever mentioned them to him again, or gave them back to him, or even offered to give them back. I do have a vague memory of him giving a UWC cheer of some kind that constituted an implication that we would both go, and assault the UWC with the Will and Paul act. It’s probably just as well that we didn’t, as that fork in our road allowed us both the opportunity for emotional growth, had we been capable of it. Instead he submerged some set of disappointments, of which I know very few of the details, into stoic conservative virtue, and I drifted good-naturedly but unproductively until I landed on an academic island where I remain.

Again, I have no idea if or when Will might have responded to my letters. But it was era before email, and even busy young people sat down regularly to write letters, address them and put stamps on them, mail them, and read them. And, for an organized person like Will, they then constitute an archive, not a mere flood of emailed trivia, but a curated archive of things we intended to keep of palpable materials and textures and scribbles, their emotional value lies not in their words but in their texture: the frayed edge of a page torn from a spiral notebook, half-sized note paper kept apparently for the sole purpose of writing such letters, and even an aerogram fixed-rate page of lightweight blue paper that folded into its own envelope, a form I only came to know from the United World College, where the international students mailed such exotic objects to each other over the summer, on one occasion scented with perfume from somewhere deep in Europe that seemed to arrive from some place where Humphrey Bogart might have frequented. I mailed Will one of those from Venezuela, and that may have been our last communication until he invited me to his wedding some years later, and I was too preoccupied with my uneventful life New York City to go. I did not refuse the invitation out of any sense of spite or disappointment or hurtful intention, just self-centered vacuousness. It did not occur to me that a wedding of a once-close friend was so important as to disrupt whatever business I was up to in New York. I think he even asked me to be his best man, and I don’t know if I ever even replied. I believe his mom confirmed this in our conversation after the funeral, and it was the main source of her disappointment in me.

Neither Will nor I had dated much in high school, at least to any extent that we shared with each other. That was pretty well beyond the emotional capacity of our friendship, and did not lie very near our core interests. To even acknowledge the softness of heart of attraction to a girl, to risk the moral weakness of navigating a relationship let alone the distant possibility of sexuality was really beyond our moral imagining. Will made some evident progress on that score during college, but I had not. I still had no appreciation for the emotional stakes of marriage, although I’m not certain that Will did either as he launched into it, at least any stakes beyond his instinctive sense of duty and service above self, even though once in, the maturing fire of marriage certainly expanded his sense of life’s responsibilities. In Cully he found a worthy partner likewise dedicated to a fading value-system that hearkened to another era, sometime before the 20th century had even begun. They were scions of the same value system that had formed their grandparents, a set of virtues that sacrificed emotional awareness for the demands of duty. We read about the formation of this culture in the Minnesota author Ole Rolvaag’s great novel, “Giants in the Earth,” about settlers on the Minnesota prairie who carve out an existence in a hostile land that they know, secretly, is not theirs. The man plows through his emotional turmoil in his daily labor, while his wife slowly loses her mind on a barren prairie, where, as she puts it in the novel, “there is nothing to hide behind.” As that culture took form, in an ever more prosperous community, there was all too much to hide behind. That is the culture in which we were reared, and we had plenty of achievements and petty entertainments to hide behind.

So, when we abandoned each other, we were as callous with ourselves as we we were with those around us. I’m sure Will was less guilty of this than me, but I have no doubt that the emotional vortex into which he descended during college was a result of his one weakness, his inexperience in life-itself. Marriage presented a salvation, but not necessarily a fertilization of the desert within. I came to some emotional maturity by means of a few cautious romances. They were innocent and harmless enough in the 1990s. In the 2000s I finally threw caution to the wind and embarked on a more purposeful and reckless experiment in dating, and left a good deal of emotional damage along the way before stumbling into a a fruitful marriage. Needless to say, Will did not attend my wedding, and did not respond to my impersonal invitation. He did, however, receive us for that 4th of July weekend the following year, as a sign of forgiveness. Yet the conversation was that of two emotionally-stunted teenagers, filled with mischievous silliness but no reckoning with emotion. That was where we had left off as friends and there was no path to lead us beyond. It did not fully occur to me, even then, why exactly he had not attended the wedding. I just took it at face value that he simply couldn’t make it. As I said, we were not capable of disappointing each other, and my emotional life was still too barren to realize both that I had disappointed him, and that I should have thereby been disappointed with his absence. As usual, I had plenty to hide behind, even as I was fully aware in a part of my heart that I never shared with him, that my emotions were seething for reasons far more proximate than high school friendships.

All that is preface to what I really wanted to write about, which is the letters themselves!…Even though I’m sure no reader will grant me any more patience for another chapter of these indulgent memories, I will address them in more detail soon.

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