I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to confront only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I have not lived. — HENRY DAVID THOREAU
Although it was difficult for me to pull off, tonight I am writing to you without snark or pretense, my two greatest weapons as a writer; and, for the short time that I am able to pull off this lucid sincerity, I wish to speak a bit about what it is like to lose a friend too young, especially when those friends, by all accounts, are superior to you in every way — in life, in spirit, in ambition, in grace, and in love. This is not a matter of my low (and mostly self-deprecating) opinion of myself. It is instead how I feel about Collin and Ellis, two friends I lost in a car crash exactly two years ago today, and the effect they had on me not only in life but in death, far after the casket has dropped on the world they made better when they were alive, and far after the casket has dropped on the world that in death they have made feel strange and empty, like a song missing its strongest, captivating notes.
I remember exactly where I was when I first heard the news: it was late in the evening and my then-girlfriend was over, nagging at me to get ready to go to the movies. We were going to be late to Black Swan, which to me didn’t seem like much of a tragedy anyways, and somehow she never got the message that the Bijou was never crowded, even on weekends — especially cold, depressing weekends in January where no one in their right minds wants to go outside, let alone go see Black Swan at an art-house cinema. It smells like a funeral home in there, which makes total sense since it happened to be a funeral home at one time point, way, way back in the foggy, marijuana-glazed past of Eugene. She was as amped up and naggy as ever because of me, her flaky boyfriend, and I was as low as could be from painkillers to kill the dull and yet somehow roaring pain of a few jagged stones running through and cutting up my kidneys, and in those few moments, unaware that in a minute or so tragedy would strike, it felt as if the world was slowly becoming trapped in a dark amber. By all accounts, this evening was going to be hell.
And then, like prophecy, my ringtone began to go off — “A Beautiful Mine,” the theme song from Mad Men, the same ringtone I still have two years later — and when I looked down at my phone it was my buddy Ethan, who rarely calls (this being before he moved to Vancouver). I call this is a red flag if there ever was one. I answered, and before I even spoke a word I knew something was wrong. Have you ever answered the phone and before any words have been spoken you can tell the person on the other end of the line has been crying profusely, you can just feel the tears over the phone like a strong mist that doesn’t show itself until you’ve stepped right in to the middle of it.
“Ethan? Dude? What’s the matter?”
I asked him this, scared out of my wits. You can always tell when tragedy has struck, as if people don’t realize how easy it is for someone to notice that you are in pain. We’re all just wounded animals making our way across the Savannah.
“They’re dead, dude. They’re dead.”
“What the fuck are you trying to say?”
“DEAD. Collin and Ellis. There’s been an accident.”
“If you’re lying to me, Ethan…if this is some kind of sick joke, I’m going to fucking kill you,” I yell at him over the phone, the shock of what I’ve just heard now rapidly turning in to tears calmly streaming down my face. As you could imagine, my then-girlfriend was looking at me like I had antlers suddenly sprouting out of the top of my head.
What I learned, as much as it pains me to write, the replay of the event in my head that drives me to a solemn silence whenever I picture it: early that morning, on their way south to go snowboarding at Mt. Bachelor, Collin, Ellis, and my other buddy Nick, who admittedly I did not know as well as Collin and Ellis, the late-80’s BMW that they were in had hit a patch of ice and after spinning they rolled down an embankment in to a small patch of woods, the car slamming in to and wrapping itself around a tree on the passenger side, which was the side that Collin and Ellis happened to be on. Nick was driving the car that awful morning and escaped with a broken leg and some lacerations to the face, the poor man somehow managing to crawl away from the wreckage just before the car caught fire.
If I can believe soothing words, which I always choose to do as a rule, my friends died immediately upon impact with that tree, instantaneously peaceful in death, forever-youthful in their steel cocoon, already in the presence of a place called Heaven before the fire began on the side of that snow-covered highway. Sometimes at night, when I dream in my warm bed, I can see that highway, that horrible place where the casket dropped forever and ever amen, and though sometimes in those dreams I see the fire that swallowed the car whole, my friends are never in pain. Not one of those dreams has ever been filled with pain. They stand by peacefully, smiling and watchful, like I always knew them to be, and I do not feel sad. Not even the loss of those wonderful spirits can shake my feeling that they are sleeping peacefully. I feel the turning wheels of the universe bringing us all in and spitting us all back out, treating us all one and the same and without prejudice. What’s the point of making people hurt when we all die equally anyways?
…although it was difficult for me to pull off, tonight I am writing to you without snark or pretense, my two greatest weapons as a writer; and, for the short time that I am able to pull off this lucid sincerity, I wish to speak a bit about what it is like to lose a friend too young, especially when those friends, by all accounts, are superior to you in every way — in life, in spirit, in ambition, in grace, and in love…
At twenty-three years old I have already been to seven funerals in my life. This is the first time I’ve ever really noticed just how many that is at such a relatively young age. Seven times I have stood under some solitary tree remembering the dead, seven times I have walked a walked through a cemetery lane alongside the dead, and seven times I have listened to words spoken by a preacher under unmistakable silence, the dead inhabiting that silence just as much as our own hushed voices do. These seven trips to the land of the dead have taught me nothing about what it means to be alive, as much as I ask for wisdom out of their ethereal silence. From the first to the last, all I’ve understood is that what separates me from them is not much more than fleeting air in the lungs and little electrical explosions in the brain, somehow giving me consciousness. Or, those seven occasions were trying to teach me something this whole time and maybe I just wasn’t listening.
I believe that part of the problem is that I see no point in learning from something only because it has disappeared — why wait for knowledge that way when you can just as easily learn a lot from those who are living, and not just come to cherish their words when they have passed on from this world to the next? Does Death, that cold bastard, suddenly make normal words become words of infinite love with one sweep of his black robe? Does death make a saint out of all of us in the end? Does everything become mysteriously, I don’t know…illuminated, in the end? Is that how love and wisdom are brought to the world?
I think not.
I believe deep down that the goodness in people can be seen well before they are taken from us, unfairly and far, far too young. Angels, like their mortal counterparts, can never keep themselves and their angelic nature a secret because, like we mortals, their goodness shines through all attempts to be secretly wonderful. It is like some holy white light that you try to cover up, but good luck — you’re just too wonderful for us not to notice. And, when that light is suddenly extinguished without warning, we feel that part of ourselves has been doused with water too. The winds calm down, the smoke becomes nacreous, and that wonderful white light that filled us with joy is nowhere to be found. Rest in peace, little light.
But, my dear friends and readers, do not worry yourselves, for that light will never go out. For a moment it appears extinguished and then, in a flash that can’t help but gift you with tears of joy, it reignites, sometimes brighter than ever. Anyone who tells you differently is absolutely full of shit. When those we find wonderful and special are taken from us, that light is left there in their place. It was there when you knew them, and it stays after they are gone. Collin had wanted to be a neurosurgeon and do good for people, to make them neurally whole again. Ellis was studying eastern medicine in hopes of trying to better the lives of others. I look back on my two dear friends and I know that the world has lost two good men too early. I know that if they had lived just a few more years they would have found a way to better the world, both on a micro and macro level. They, out of all of us lowly and scared spirits, were the ones who were truly going to make a difference. The world was going to have a future with them being alive, this I am sure of, and though they are gone the world still beats on like an engine; it will keep on turning, regardless of much I want to the world to stop and let me just mourn for two of my best friends, now lost.
Summer of 2009: me and a few friends, Collin and Ellis among them, watch the fireworks after a baseball game at Civic Stadium (which would be closed down by the end of summer). The feelings I have about this memory almost seem cliche now when I look back. You know the old song-and-memory dance: the future is bright ahead of us, our youthful faces lit up by flashes of red, green, blue, phosphorous white; beers are in our hands, we cheer the explosions over the old baseball stadium; we will live for today and not for tomorrow, since it won’t be here, so you might as well drink that Coors and finish off that freshly-rolled joint in the parking lot. We were just kids in college, we had no idea that tragedy could find us just like everybody else. I wasn’t as close to them then as I would eventually become, but love and friendship always have to have a beginning, if they even begin and end at all!
I miss them dearly, forever and ever. I love you, Collin and Ellis, and I will always miss you.
— Jackson Williams.