Here is something I’ve been thinking, in essay form. Well, in a first draft form I’ll let sit for a while. I always think I’ll let a draft sit, get ready for that magic day when I have the best way to finish the piece. But then I think, For what. Why am I writing this. I get apathetic enough that I don’t bother with question marks. Instead, it’s flat, unanswerable. Why am I writing this. For the piece below, I have an answer: I couldn’t not. There’s a memory that’s hard to look at and spiritual truth I barely touch and as is usual of my personal essay drafts, the writing itself was unpleasant because I think there is something more to say and a better way to say it, but I can’t yet. I hope there is a reason I commit any of this to a page. More, I hope I find a magic day to rework this draft to honor two of my repetends.
With that. I know I am not the only one.
I keep thinking about this boy who died. I was junior in college and he was freshman. We lived in the same residence hall at the edge of campus and fell into step one afternoon. I was a community advisor who put up bulletin boards and hosted ice cream parties and floor meetings but I rarely saw him around the hall. He lived on the third floor, went home on the weekends and ducked his head when walking by the front desk. I remember the day being cold. Maybe an in between day in Wisconsin when autumn is over but air doesn’t yet bite. He had his hands in his front pockets. He was lean like some boys are when they just graduate high school and he walked like he felt too tall, making his shoulders narrow. Maybe because we were walking side by side he could talk a little, tell me he was from a small town on Lake Michigan and that’s where he went every weekend to fish. He had a boat or his father had a boat.
I think we talked about siblings. I think he had a sister still in high school. I think he was studying in the College Of Natural Resources.
I keep thinking about this boy. His name was Nathan. That first afternoon, walking side by side back to our residence hall on an almost winter day, he smiled. I remember feeling like I won because here was this quiet boy who ducked when he walked by people and he’d just smiled at something we said.
He went home on the weekends to take his boat or his father’s boat out on Lake Michigan so I didn’t see him much and had no reason to knock on his door and ask about his day. One night I couldn’t sleep. I laid in bed thinking of his sloping body he hadn’t yet grown into, thinking of that smile I caught when I glanced up.
I thought about boys like that. Boys I’d just met or boys I knew and saw in a different way, suddenly. I constructed so many lives from chance smiles or gestures, from a name called on a roster the first day of a history class, from a long bike ride with childhood friend. At twenty, the years spin out in any direction. I could see myself in Ireland, Alaska or Kenya as easily as I could see myself married to a bank teller, artist or fisherman. When I had class with a boy from Portland I imagined us walking under a shared umbrella. So when I met Nathan, I imagined his whole family I’d never meet. His mother cooked a full breakfast and put an arm around her son’s waist when he came in from an early morning on the lake. Her cheeks flushed like his did. His father was as silent as he was. The house had windows in the right places to send squares of sun on scuffed hardwood. At breakfast his sister and mother talked, pulled Nathan and his father into conversation, and after, each carried his or her own plate and glass to the kitchen counter.
That winter I came in from a night class, carried my bike to the basement room where the residence hall staff had weekly meetings. I opened the door and there was a group of guys having a Bible study. I was surprised. They were surprised. Nathan ducked his head. I rolled my bike to its place against a wall, apologized and left. I thought, He is a brother.
Nathan drowned that spring. He and a friend or cousin were out on the lake when a storm came up and capsized the boat. I remember hearing the boy he was with lived. I remember hearing Nathan saved the boy he was with by pushing him toward floating debris. I remember seeing this story in my mind, the thrash of Nathan’s legs, the heaviness of his wet clothing and boots, the whiteness of his face and hands in the frigid water, the last energy in his limbs propelling another to safety. I remember feeling a little sick. I remember being conflicted that I’d imagined meeting his mother.
I google combinations to find the story again: Nathan uwsp lake michigan drowning, 2001 lake michigan drown uwsp student, uwsp student Nathan drown, uwsp student Nate drown 2001. I can’t find anything. Instead I dredge articles about annual numbers of drownings, reasons why the Great Lakes are dangerous, drunk college students walking into water. There’s an article about another underclassman who killed himself over Thanksgiving weekend that year, after dropping out of college to go live with friends in Madison. I try to remember Nathan’s hometown. I try to remember was it 2000 or 2001. I think about emailing the alumni office but I’m not sure what they could tell me about a freshman (was he a sophomore) who drowned in Lake Michigan before graduating from the College Of Natural Resources, before deciding to move north to Superior or west to Denver, before falling in love and staying awake thinking how to marry this woman, before losing his heart or holding his firstborn, before waking tired each day, before eating slivers of ripe peach on a long summer morning.
I used to think about dying all the time. I’ve wanted death at different times. In middle school I was on a youth group camping trip and a few of us went to a playground, spun around in tire swings and talked about the best way to die. One girl said she wanted to drown because it sounded romantic to drown. She leaned back to watch the sky circle above.
My family camped on Lake Michigan for a few summers, going for a week after the season was over when the water was the warmest it’d be for the year. The campground was nearly empty, the beach ours. Mom talked to us before going into the water. She told us about the undertow and what to do if we got pulled under, how to swim parallel to the shore, not to panic. We were strong swimmers. I went into deep water, where the waves rolled before taking a cap and crashing. In water up to my chest, I could feel the suck of the water, pulling back into the lake, but my feet didn’t go from under me, the sand didn’t slip. I didn’t drown or almost drown or save anyone from drowning. I put goggles on, sank my belly to the bottom of the lake to pretend I was in the bigger ocean, touching the undulating sand and, for short moments, holding everything in my body still to feel the weight and weightlessness of water and death.
When Nathan died, we must have talked as residence hall staff. One of my friends lived on Nathan’s floor and told me the guys made a bulletin board in remembrance, writing notes about Nathan on small construction paper fish. I heard his parents were coming to clean out his side of a room he shared with another freshman boy. I had this idea that Nathan, now dead, could see the story I’d made up for us. Still when I think of this I am embarrassed, a little defensive, a little angry at all the alternate lives I’ve made and loosed while I wound my way to now – a small apartment in a suburb south of Seoul, a late thirties version of myself I couldn’t have thought up when I was twenty because this present version has stretch marks, Legos underfoot, a pretween daughter. But I keep thinking of this boy who died because he isn’t here to be any version of who he made up when he was out on his boat or his father’s boat each weekend.
We can be rich, easy with fantasy when we are nineteen or twenty. We can’t know any different then. Our years are long.
My brother was teaching in India when one of his students died in a car accident over a break. My brother wrote that as teachers we think we are adding to early parts of a person’s life with the introduction and encouragement of passions or pursuits, the space we make to hear a student’s theory or doubt, the sense we have about a student, that he or she will -. But sometimes we are adding to the last lines of a student’s life.
I think about how to close a piece of writing. I think about the revision and edits I make when I write. What makes a last line. One of my college composition classes I took my junior year, the year I met Nathan and the year he died, my professor told us to write a page from our autobiography. Page two twenty-something. I can’t remember what I wrote but I remember wondering how long the book was. Now I am thirty-six and thinking about Nathan and I can’t answer why that smile stays in my mind, why now I want to understand why he was finished then and I am not now. My page two twenty-something might be years away. I might have written it yesterday. I have this wrong view of how death might work.
A couple of years ago we were visiting my brother and his family in Nairobi, my niece’s friend Anna died. Anna was playing on a jungle gym in the yard of her family’s compound when she fell. She was in a coma for a couple of days. She was brain-dead. My sister-in-law came down the stairs one morning and I saw her tiredness, knew she had been awake praying for this family, praying for her own daughter who was going to lose a good friend. We were in Nairobi for the week after Anna died. At different points, we talked about the accident and death. Anna was eight or nine. She loved Jesus. At Anna’s memorial, her family described her kindness toward others, a sense of compassion already whole in short years, love in her conversation with and care for the needy around her. I look at my own daughter differently. I have this animal need to wrap my body around my daughter, around my son, when I think of either of them leaving this earth. I am not afraid but I am aware.
My sister-in-law, in her grief for this girl, wondered if God is merciful like this, allowing death to spare a greater suffering. Life is hard, she said. She spoke carefully. She spoke like she’d been thinking how to say why Anna died when we believe a God of miracles. And she said what some of us (how many of us) think when a person dies at the cusp of more because we want to think it matters, when a person dies. A death at eight or nineteen is different from a death at eighty-one. There must be reason.
When Nathan died I was sad in an abstract way. I was secure and insecure in my youth. I glanced at Nathan’s death. I was sad for his family but I didn’t know them and felt weird I’d even imagined knowing them at all. The made up visit to his home, the made up rock of his boat or his father’s boat, the made up smiles I’d win. Now I am sad in this way: he was spared but this suffering is sweet. This hard life is sweet. I have wished its end. I have made up escape.
Sometimes I think what I still need to get right. I forget the gospel. I am whole in Christ. The Spirit works in and through me to finish the good work begun. My wrong view of death comes from this idea that it’s the good work in my life that needs to finish – the good work in my small, forgettable life. But the good work spans time and place to tell God’s glory, to show his great power and love and I am a stroke of the pen. I might be a smudge in the margin. I might show up on two pages. I might be a footnote. I believe Nathan and Anna had more good life. They had suffering ahead, and sweetness. They had days of wonder and sorrow and rest ahead.
Nathan and Anna are repetends to me. I think of each irregularly. I did not know Nathan and I did not meet Anna but I think of them. I think of how their lines in the story show up in all sorts of books. How many of us in how many places know their lines in the story and how many of us in how many places are now shaped by their lines in the story, thinking about what it means to love a merciful and frightening God who can work the drowning of a boy, the sudden death of girl into a plot that holds. I don’t know how the plot holds. I haven’t gotten to that part yet.