Some nights you can’t forget. I remember pulling into the driveway of the suburban Chicago home where I spent my adolescence one July evening twenty-five years ago. The sun had not yet totally disappeared from the sky. You could still feel the warmth of that summer day lingering as dusk approached. I longed to take off my work uniform – a blue shirt, slacks, and dress shoes – because they never felt comfortable to me. I never felt at ease in that outfit and don’t know why we had to wear those clothes at the hardware store of all places. After I got out of my car, I walked toward the back step and opened the storm door. Almost immediately, I encountered my mother. She looked rather unsettled and said that she had something to tell me. A painful conversation ensued. I recall hearing the words “Scott died” spoken at some point, but the next few minutes were a total blur. I couldn’t process what she said.
At seventeen, you never think you’re going to hear someone tell you that your childhood friend from down the street is gone, his life energy diffused into an oblivion. It simply doesn’t happen. It simply should not happen – to anyone. The summer before your senior year in high school, your attention is focused elsewhere because there are so many exciting possibilities to explore and decisions to be made about a future that has yet to be determined. Now, maybe, just maybe, infinite possibility contains its own hidden constraint. After all, countless options can inundate a person. You feel like you’re ready for adulthood, but you lack the self-awareness that accompanies being a mature, reflective adult. This is further complicated by another life circumstance: your suburban refuge largely insulated you from a complex world plagued by social ills – the myriad of dangers that existed beyond the edge of your neighborhood. When you grow up in a stable household where your everyday needs are regularly satisfied, there’s a good chance you’ve never experienced emotional trauma. Learning of Scott’s death crushed me that night and the pain I felt simply couldn’t be described. Loving parents attempt to shield their children from all that’s ugly in the world, but what about the dangers that lurk within? Scott’s parents couldn’t save him from the medical condition that claimed his life and my parents couldn’t save me from my inability to let a thought go.
Weeks earlier, Scott and my sister were talking late one night in the same room where my mother told me about his passing. I came downstairs from my bedroom to get something to eat in the kitchen and I saw the glow of the light under the door at the end of the hallway. I could hear their voices. While he had become my first true friend when my family moved to Crystal Lake in 1985, we had been estranged for quite some time. Honestly, I don’t recall the exact reason why we parted ways. I think it was a combination of factors. I know we had our personality differences. In addition, we embarked upon distinctive paths. Scott leaned more toward the athletic crowd, but I’m not sure how much he embedded himself with them. Disinterested in much of what my high school offered, I eventually found a home on the periphery of the punk rock subculture. Something about him made me angry and I didn’t understand or like how he and my sister had become close to one another. Upon leaving the kitchen, I walked toward the room where they were hanging out and I stopped just outside the door. If I close my eyes, I can see myself standing there. I listened to their conversation for what felt like a few minutes. My heart pounding in my chest, I contemplated knocking on the door, walking in there, and offering a heartfelt apology. I wanted to shake his hand and tell him how sorry I was for letting our friendship slip away and for all the times I slighted him because he never did anything wrong. Instead, I returned upstairs to my bedroom and went to sleep. That decision remains the greatest mistake I’ve ever made in my life to date.
There are experiences that turn your world on end – that make you question yourself and what kind of human being you’ve become. Initially, the shock of his death wouldn’t let me breathe. Then, a wave of regret came like an emotional deluge. I could feel the thoughts pulling me under. One of my closest childhood friends had lost his life before he really had the opportunity to explore the world beyond our neighborhood and the awkwardness of our teenage years. What’s more, my apology would never be received. I find the irreversibility of death as perplexing as it is unnerving. Scientists claim that energy cannot be created or destroyed; it merely changes forms. People of faith claim that there’s an afterlife waiting for us. Me, I’m not sure about either explanation. Not long after my mother told me what happened to Scott, I walked out of the front door of the house alone. Staring up at the clear night sky, I wondered if he could see me. I longed to talk to him and felt so helpless. While the shock has long since dissipated, I sense the regret will always remain.
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