in Columns Published in the Asheville Citizen-Times

Sadly, Billy will always remain 17

Asheville Citizen-Times 10/06/2013

Sadly, Billy will always remain 17Memories choose me. Some lay dormant for no apparent reason and then suddenly emerge from a secret vault that hasn’t been unlocked in years. I’m not sure why.

I was driving to a meeting, when from nowhere I remembered a seventeen-year-old high school friend and classmate, Billy. He was tall, quiet, and like most at that time, dressed in a madras shirt and tan Levis. The recollection was so powerful it shocked me. I pulled off at a rest stop, purchased a cup of coffee, and leaned against the car.

I wanted the memory to end there. It didn’t. I knew more. Two years after high school, Billy’s photograph and obituary appeared in the local newspaper. He had been pinned down during the Battle of Dak To in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Once the gunfire had ceased for five hours, he moved his head four inches to the side of one of the barrier trees . . .

I had struggled with my friend’s death and thought I had ended the pain years before. But the mind plays games. It dances in the shadows. “Not yet” was the message as I stepped back into the car. “Not yet.”

Several years later I went to my high school twenty-fifth reunion. It was what I anticipated: a lot of measuring, alcohol and loud laughter tied together with a faint undercurrent of sadness that the finish line had gotten so much closer than when we had graduated.

I was talking with a high school ex-girlfriend when I saw an elderly couple walk into the room accompanied by the class president. He escorted them to several classmates and then the two continued to circulate by themselves. I asked around and was told that they were Billy’s parents; people I could barely remember. They had been driving down South Main Street and seen the restaurant’s sign announcing the reunion. Their son had grown up and graduated with the class and they were anxious to meet with his old friends twenty-five years later.

Each time I tried to approach them, they were surrounded. Later as I glanced across the room, I could see the two were leaving. I hurried to follow them through the door. I wanted to tell them how I remembered Billy. Once outside, I rounded a corner and was about to call out, when ten feet ahead I saw they had stopped.

I immediately held up.

His mother was crying softly. I heard her say, “I thought I saw Billy, but when I walked over, it wasn’t him.” Her forehead was pressed against the front of her husband’s suit jacket. His hands rested on her shoulders. “I know,” he replied. His voice was low and defeated.

They sensed my presence and turned, but didn’t recognize me. I was embarrassed to speak, afraid they’d think I’d been eavesdropping. I pretended I heard nothing as I walked past them and headed for the parking lot.

It was a lie, of course. I had stumbled upon the intimacy of grief. I had witnessed the most primitive of pain, the loss of a child. And seeing them, hearing their words, I knew Billy’s parents would have gladly given their lives to have a one-minute opportunity, sixty seconds, to say goodbye to their only child.

Since that evening, I’ve thought of Billy in his high school years, and I remember the photograph in his obituary, but now I’ve chosen the final image that will accompany me. It’s a moving picture. I’ve rounded the corner again and am about to call out, but at the last second, I see his parents consoling each other, their faces inches apart. I hear their words, but now I’m able to back off, to slip into the darkness and lean against a wall, unseen, unheard, waiting. Then I see Billy. He’s leaving the reunion still dressed in his madras shirt and tan Levis. And he’s seventeen. I see him move to his parents and place his arms around them. His father tousles his hair just like he was a Little Leaguer again, and his mother rests her head on his shoulder.

The quiet roars around me. I smile to myself. It’s been a long journey, but the night is now filled with promise, and for these brief moments, the world is complete.

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