When I was a kid, growing up in a teeny tiny school that was started by my family's church, I was extremely shy. I didn't "get" other girls my age. Even in elementary school most of them were mean and catty and I sat watching them with curiosity and distaste. On any given day you would find me on the playground with the boys in my class discussing Star Wars or playing the War card game. Our school was so small that the kids I grew up with, the same small clan, were more like cousins to me than classmates. I was comfortable in this group even though we didn't all get along.
By jr. high I had already learned who I should allow in my life and who was toxic to my sensitive nature. Between 8th and 9th grade, a sweet girl whom I'd never thought much of as I wrestled with finding my place in the world, transferred with her family to our church. She was one of the classmates I had known since pre-kindergarten. We were now seeing each other 6 days a week. After the painful middle school years, this girl was my best friend, but I was still extremely shy out of the protective circle of a chosen, trusted few. Another boy I had grown up with who was two classes ahead of us was best friends with her brother. William. He had been on the outside of the in-crowd growing up, the same as we had, but had blossomed into the absolute life of the school. He was the school. My friend's older brother drove the four of us everywhere in his beat up old Ford pickup. William was fast becoming one of my favorite people. He was crazy! We were always getting in trouble at Burger King for making too much noise and wherever William went there was a raucous. I loved it. His wild nature soon began to wear off on me and I felt myself coming out the protective shell I had lived behind. My favorite thing was to get him to scream like a girl. "William, scream like a girl." No matter where we were, he'd let out a blood curdling scream to rival that of any female actress being chased by a chain saw revving maniac. It never got old. I always laughed until I couldn't breathe.
William's home was several miles out of town so he bean staying at my friend's house so he could be closer to the school, as his only source of transportation was a little red motor scooter. This was the least safe mode of transportation on the bustling highways and back roads of Central Florida. One night, while crossing a busy intersection the inevitable happened and William's unprotected body was struck by another vehicle. We were all terrified. Fortunately, though his leg was severely broken and he lost the sight in one eye, after a few months in a cast he recovered. He was still the crazy center of everything for those who loved him. I'll never forget the day he squeezed a bottle of mustard, rocket style, in the school cafeteria. It went everywhere, of course. People two tables away had their clothes permanently stained after this stunt. For years after high school graduation, any time we would go to the school which was located next to our grandmother's home, my sister and I would open the folding curtains that separated sections of the dining room, flipping them back to see if there were still stains from William's mustard. Sure enough.
After the accident, William lived at my freind's house and rode everywhere in her brother's truck. Graduation for the class of '88 came and I dreaded it. What would our small school look like without William? He was headed to culinary school in South Carolina. An end of an era had come. I saw William once or twice after high school.
For almost 20 years I wondered what became of him. Any time I'd talk to old friends we'd chat about everyone else. They had seen so and so at such and such and I'd say, "But what about William?" or "Where's William?" I had always credited him with being the one who helped me grow out of my shell and into myself with all of his loving kindness and that crazy nature of his that never embarrassed me. My life changed tremendously after 9th grade and I was no longer the shy little freckled girl who stood watching from the outside. I would have loved to have the opportunity to tell him that.
My grandmother told me once, in the late 90s that she had run into a friend of mine. He knew that she was my grandmother and had been wondering what had become of me. It was William. I was moved.
The internet came along. Social networking sprang out of nowhere. I wasn't a phone talker, not much of an e-mailer, had no interest in MySpace and had only vaguely heard mention of Facebook. I didn't know what it was and I didn't care. I had no interest in finding any of my old friends but for William and a few others. My best buddy had been in my life all along and she was all I needed and we even ended up settling in the same state, miles from our home town.
I had developed an aversion to churches in my late teens and had grown a feeling of contempt towards the way in which I had been raised and questioned everything about religion and my upbringing. I had no interest in looking back as I was in the midst of trying to decide what it was that I believe rather than what had been spoon-fed to me. My mother had left my father during my first pregnancy and told me things that I found hard to accept about herself. It was horrifying to realize that the family life I had known, my family's involvement in the church and school had been a facade. Her holier than thou attitude pushed upon me, a farce, and I wanted nothing to do with anything from that time in my life.
I was talking to my best friend from high school on the phone one evening, she being one of the few people that I am comfortable carrying on long phone chats with, because she totally gets me, always has, always will. She told me that "everyone" from our school and church years was on Facebook, that it was so weird to see so many faces in one place all at the same time, that we hadn't seen for all those years. I hemmed and hawed but finally got around to checking it out. Sure enough. There they all were. Very strange. And guess who was sitting right there waiting to be "friended"...yup...William.
William became by favorite past time in those first few months on FB. I was a hopeless insomniac and would find him on FB often in the middle of the night or he'd pop up on my chat screen before heading to his Bickram Yoga class to "sweat his balls off", as he put it. In the meantime we talked about religion and my search for spiritual peace and truth. He urged me to keep an open mind on all subjects. We were on the same page, religiously speaking, though the things he believed were so "out there" they made my head spin. He had always been the most intelligent person I had known when we were kids, a concert quality pianist, one of those wired kids who couldn't sit still. He was never into sports and was a straight A student, advanced two years beyond his grade level. The things he said boggled my mind, but his passion concerning his beliefs were what moved me. I was exhausted after our conversations, but it was just what I needed at the time. He always called me by my nickname, always said he imagined me as that "little pigtailed girl" from private school in the navy blue and white uniform. When he told me he was gay, expecting me to do what we were taught to do in our close-minded school, walk away, I told him that I knew, that I had known that before I knew what "gay" was. He was surprised and touched.
I valued my new friendship with William as much as I had in high school and was so glad to not only find out what had become of my friend William but to have him as an important part of my life. He confided in me his relationship struggles and how wonderful his daughter was and how important her mother was in his life. How his wife had been the one who, with love and understanding, helped him understand more about himself and accept him for who he was. I was so moved that someone had loved and cared for our sweet William all those years.
During this time, flowers from a seed catalog company that I had ordered months before I had reconnected with William arrived, as the proper planting season had come upon us here in the mountains. Several of them were Sweet Williams. I joked with him when I came in from gardening that weekend, by saying that I had planted Sweet Williams to remind me of him.
Months passed and I treasured our friendship, filled my husband in on all of our interesting conversations. He had heard about William since we had met and knew how special he had been to me in our teen years, and liked it that I was able to have him in my life again.
A battle of wits between a friend with a theology degree and William and my "all-knowing pain in the butt" sister (as said theology degree holding friend so hilariously put it) ended our friendship within minutes. This took place on my Facebook wall while I sat with my jaw hanging. William left and "unfriended" me saying we should be friends elsewhere because he would never be able to tolerate my conservative friends.
Two years passed. He contacted me once to apologize. I forgave him but only talked to him once more after that. This summer, while our friendship stagnated, I noticed that those Sweet Williams in my front flower bed had popped up. I wasn't sure if they were perennial or not when I planted them and they had never done much. I smiled when I saw them and thought to myself, "Well, at least I know what became of William and I never have to wonder again."
About a month ago, there he was again on Facebook, sending me a friend request. I messaged him asking how he was, but right above it was his last message from two years before saying it would be best if we weren't friends on FB. I decided to trust his intuition and take some time to decide if I should accept or not. My life has totally changed and calmed dramatically over the last two years, the most integral couple of years in my almost forty years, I would say, and I wasn't sure if I was ready for the wonderful, yet all-consuming involvement it would take to have him in my life once again. During this time I had started yoga, because of his praise of the life-changing effect the practice can have on a person and my daily search for peace and calm, though inspired by him just seemed to be threatened by a relationship with him. I wasn't ready to think and all he made me do was think. I loved it two years ago, but really needed to step back and decide if I was ready or not at this time in my life.
About a week later, after skimming through our old messages on FB, I accepted. He asked me again to forgive him for his earlier behavior. I told him I had a long time before. He wanted to tell me what was going on his life. Over the last couple of weeks I've intended to sit down and have that conversation with him. I've had a lot going on and never got around to it.
This morning, I learned that William went to sleep Sunday night and never woke up. I'm wishing I had taken the time to ask him what it was he wanted to talk about. I was afraid to trust that things wouldn't turn out badly like before and now I've missed my chance. I wonder if I ever told him what he meant to me in high school. I can't remember. After twenty plus years of wishing I had known where he was so I could tell him, I still not sure I die when I had the chance. So here it is.
I have never in my life felt as if someone who has passed is hovering around listening, watching, laughing, and loving from above as I have today with William. I've had that feeling all day. I cried my eyes out for most of it, of course, but now even though I'm kicking myself, I really do feel a kind of peace. It wasn't just me this past month that he reconnected with. He went almost person to person with those from our past whom he loved. I honestly think he knew. He either sensed his time was near or he had medical knowledge. I am so grateful either way. So glad to have a record in my inbox of almost all of our conversations. So thankful for Facebook, something I had no interest in at first, for how it has allowed me to have what little I could of William and all the others whom I love so much. And I will keep my eyes open when the warm season hits to see if my Sweet Williams will show their pretty faces again. And I am comforted by William's own words from one of our conversations,"NOTHING HAPPENS OUTSIDE OF THE DIVINE WILL OF GOD." And yes, he posted in all caps. Love you, William!! I'll miss you every day of my life!