My Kids Will Know Your Name

Hey, you.
You were my best friend, the one person I trusted never to abandon me. I can’t explain it, except to say this: the first thing I realized about you was that you were damaged beyond belief: you had so many scars and so many reasons. Your druggie father had abandoned you when you were six, your mother was a physically and verbally abusive alcoholic, and you’d turned to drugs and cutting to cope. You were also the guy I admired more than anyone else on this earth.
We met through a mistaken Skype call two years ago, and somehow you and started to speak. Those were the days when trust didn’t exist, and your only constant was pain. You’d forgotten what it felt like to be happy, and you’d never even known how it felt to be safe. For you, there was no such thing as hope: there was only fear and those left behind to face it. Fear was all you’d ever known. You were the one left behind, the one abandoned time and time again. Every single day was another reminder that you were alone.
Do you remember the first time you showed me the cuts all up your arms, or the time you took off your shirt and turned slowly so I could see the full expanse of dark bruises and red welts covering you? That was the day you’d decided to trust me. But things kept getting worse for you. You grew desperate, and in those months I was the only reason you weren’t dead. There were times when you hated me for it. Do you remember when you yelled at me to abandon you like your father had, like all the teachers who never asked and the students who stayed away had? Do you remember the way you begged for me to release you to death?
I’m so tired. Please, Jamie, leave me alone. Tell me that you give up on me. Goddamn it, let me die! Please. Please, Jamie. I’m just so, so…I can’t do this anymore. Every single day, it’s the same. Just tell me you don’t care. Walk away, Jamie, so I can die.
Do you remember? I do. I remember that it was four in the morning, that I was tired, desperate and scared out of my mind. I’d called my friend Andy for help, and his parents hadn’t questioned me once. They just got into the car and drove. It’s just one of the million things I’ll never be able to repay them for.
When we got there, you had a gun to your head. For a moment I’d frozen, shocked by the look in your eyes when you saw me. The fight was gone from you: you’d given up. That haunting, haunted expression is still seared into my mind.
Do you remember how I’d yelled at you after I’d pried the gun from your hands? Terror had made me desperate that night: never ever even think about copping out, do you understand me? I need you. I need you. I will do everything and anything to get you through this. Don’t you dare give up on me! I will hunt you down in the afterlife and...and kill you again! You aren’t dying, not while there’s a breath in my body. I won’t let you do that to me.
You had met my eyes with your resigned, hopeless ones. “Your stubbornness can only get you so far, Jamie.”
I’d glared. “It’ll get me far enough. I’ll tie you up and hide you in my house if I have to!” Then I’d spotted the razors on your desktop and snatched them up—they were still bloody. “You’re not cutting anymore, either. I’m taking these, and every time we talk, you’re showing me your body: wrists, shoulders, stomach, thighs, hips, ankles…for every cut you make, I’ll make two on myself.”
That had elicited a protective glare from you. At the sight of it, I felt a boulder lift itself off my chest—life had sparked back into you. “No, you won’t. I won’t let you.”
But I stood firm. “I’ve never cut before—never even thought about it. But I’ll do it for you.”
That was the last night you cut, and for that I thank you. I would have followed through on my promise: you knew that. I’d have done anything to make you stop.
Helene came along and reached out to you, maybe a month or two later. It’s amazing to me that you could love after all the hell you’d been through in the name of love, but you could and did. You got clean and started acing your classes. You proved everyone who had ever doubted you wrong, and you made all of us—Andy, Helene, and me—so proud. When you moved into Helene’s house and your mom went to jail, her parents welcomed you openly. The bruises faded, the welts turned into healing scars, and we both believed you’d be okay.
“It’s so…peaceful. The silence isn’t…there’s no fear involved. It just is.” You’d shaken your head as you described to me what it was like to be safe, as though it were a crazy notion. Honestly, sometimes I’m not sure it isn’t.
“There’s no more violence. But…sometimes, I can hear it. I can see it in my mind, so goddamn clearly. I can smell the alcohol she has in her system, and she’s screaming again. All I can do is stand there, meet her eyes, smile, and wait for the blows,” you’d told me. I knew what you meant about the smile: it was just a slight lift at the corner of your mouth. But it spoke louder than any words: you can’t break me. It was just one more lie in a million, just another show that kept us alive.
All four of us finally met in person about a month ago, even though you both live a state over. Helene was as amazing as you described: she was so full of life and love. And in person, you were as strong and you'd been over webcams and microphones.
I remember realizing that I could see a world—no, a lifetime—of pain, fear, and strength in your eyes. I could see joy, too, and love when you looked at Helene. What you'd told me before, about you being terrified because you knew you'd go through it all again for her, I could see it was true. When I watched you watching her laugh or smile or move, I realized that you would do everything and anything to keep her safe.
That day, we all slept over at Andy's house. Helene asked about me and I let her and Andy read some of my journal. You looked too, and then met my eyes with an awareness of that deep, inexpressible understanding that comes with experiencing and surviving. Neither of us said a word.
Later that night, Andy’s parents put Helene and me in the guest room, separate from you and Andy. We waited until they fell asleep to get back together, and in the meantime, Helene and I talked a lot. You boys did too, though you never mentioned what you’d said to make Andy watch me like a hawk for the rest of the night.
According to Helene, you used to be the dangerous one at school: the one no one really talked to because one look of yours could freeze the words on their lips. You were the one people walked carefully around, the one even teachers didn’t bother trying with. She mentioned the bruises that most people assumed were from you picking fights—no one knew the truth.
Helene told me that she’d gotten in a fight with a friend over you one day: the friend had made some rude comment, and Helene had said that they couldn’t judge because they didn’t know you. That’s why she’d approached you in the first place: after that, someone had challenged her to get to know you. Helene was laughing when she told me that the joke was on them: she’d fallen for you so fast it was ridiculous. She loves you so much: but then again, you already knew that.
She made you come alive again, and it was so goddamn beautiful. She was your reason for everything.
It was about three in the morning and we were all still awake. You and Andy slipped into the guest room, and we all slept together: and as you held Helene in your sleep, I realized how much she was a part of you. She made you feel safe—after all you’d been through, you trusted her enough to let her be close to you at your most vulnerable.
At three fifteen on the morning of April 7th, Helene called me on Skype with the news. I answered, stumbling out of bed with blurry eyes. Andy was on call too, and he and Helene cried together as Helene talked. I just sat there in the darkness, refusing to cry as I listened: you’d understand why. And I understand why you did what you did, too. If you’ve been abandoned by almost everyone, then you’ll do anything to protect those who have stood beside you. I get it.
On Tuesday night, two hours after I’d last talked to you, your father burst into Helene’s house, armed and high. You, Helene and her fourteen year old brother Conner were the only ones home. According to Helene, your face had locked down, and you’d looked like you had when I first met you. I can see it in my minds eye: your glittering onyx eyes would be hard and empty; your body coiled and ready to move at any second. But there would be no expression on your face, nothing but chilling emptiness. Never let ’em see that you’re scared.
I can’t even imagine the fear you must have felt: for yourself, but more for Helene and Conner. To have the people I care about with me in a situation like that…
You’d moved fast, locking Helene and Conner into a closet to keep them safe. Then you’d gone to the room your father was wrecking as he tried to find you, and you’d tried to make him drop the gun. A neighbor had called the cops, and your father panicked at the sound of sirens. The police had gotten there just in time to see him shoot you and then himself.
They rushed you to the hospital and you fought on for thirty-six hours. Helene and her family stayed by your side the entire time, waiting and hoping. You’d changed all of their lives: you had a way of doing that to a lot of people you met, me included. But all the hoping in the world wouldn’t have made a difference: you passed away at three in the morning. Before you died, you opened your eyes and had a nurse get your jacket and reach into the pocket.
Helene started sobbing again when she showed me the ring she was wearing. It's beautiful—you had good taste. She said yes to you through her tears, and you smiled. Helene almost choked on her tears and laughter when she told me that the nurse had burst into tears and had had to leave the room when Helene said yes. Two hours later, you passed away.
And it’s such a ridiculously ‘romance novel-esque’ scene that I’d never have believed it if I didn’t know it to be true.
I wanted to scream. I wanted to curse and cry. I’d already known that some people didn’t deserve to live: I’ve heard enough stories to want to go out and kill a few people myself. But it was really then—the moment that Helene told me about your father—that I realized just how much I wanted him to hurt. A bullet to the head wasn’t enough for him; not after what he did.
It’s so unbelievably hard, did you know that? It hurts like hell to be without you. We were going to survive together—that was the plan. I expected that we’d be good friends for life even if we stopped regularly communicating—after all, we stood through hell together, with Helene and Andy by our sides.
And that reminds me of the time you sent me Eminem and Dr. Dre’s song, ‘I Need a Doctor’ and said the first part described how you felt—Eminem said all you wanted to say to me, about how I saved you and how you could never repay me. You never could understand that you’d paid me back a thousand times. It’s that goddamn loyalty that Eminem put into his voice, the kind I can’t even put into words. It’s the type that can’t ever change except to deepen, because if I’d decided to drop into the mouth an active volcano, you’d have had my back without question.
That’s a hell of a thing to lose.
I never expected that we’d suddenly be…over, that this Tuesday would be the last time I talked to you. Do you remember that just a week beforehand, I’d talked to you over Skype with my hair up for the first time in years?
“You put your hair up,” you’d commented quietly, eyes searching mine. I had just nodded. That was it, but I knew you understood when a small smile lit your face. “You’re healing, too, aren’t you?”
And I had smiled back. “It’s finally getting better. I’ve no reason to be afraid anymore.”
You’d leaned back in your chair, dark eyes half hidden by the black bangs that fell over them. You pushed them back with a rough hand and regarded me seriously. “Neither of us does, not anymore. We’ve done it, Jamie. We stood through it all.”
In that moment, I thought for sure that you’d get your happy ending.
And then, just as we both believed it could truly last for you, it was ripped away by your father.
I never told you this, but if I’d been given the choice to grant one of us our happy endings, I’d have chosen you. You deserve it more—you and Helene.
But you’re not here.
Andy cried in front of his computer when Helene told us, and she cried with him. I sat there, white-faced and ramrod straight: you’d understand why. I locked my jaw and refused to cry. And because they've both suffered for our suffering, they understood.
I thought of you again at school today, when I was listening to my music. Eminem’s ‘You’re Never Over’ came on:
The days are cold, living without you
The nights are long, I’m growing older
I miss the days of old, thinking about you
You may be gone, but you’re never over.
That first verse made your face to mind, and I’d had to turn off the music before I cried right there, but throughout the day I found myself listening to that song over and over. The music kept me anchored.
I sat through my block classes today without telling anyone about you: I took notes, joked around and even talked in a Socratic seminar. You’d have laughed to hear me discussing the hybridity of social classes and characters in The Kite Runner: I doubt it made any sense, because the words coming out of my mind could have been a different language, for all they meant to me. All I could picture was Helene and Conner screaming and banging on the closet door as the shots went off and bodies fell.
I thought about the things you’d said, when we talked about The Kite Runner—when I mentioned that I had to do some homework on it, you’d immediately quoted it: “for you, a thousand times over.”
I’d been surprised. “You remember that?”
Your smile had been short-lived and amazingly bitter for a sixteen year old. “It reminded me of my mom. For her, a thousand times over. A thousand beatings, a thousand lies, a thousand nights of fear and pain.”
Of course. Everything always came back to that, at the root of it. I’d nodded because I know what convoluted loyalty could do. “It’s over now,” was all I could say. I knew you’d get what I meant.
But your eyes went dark and intense, the way they sometimes did. “It’s never really over.” No, it never is. “But you saved me from the worst of it. That’s why I’ll fight by you; people like us don’t forget what we owe.” You’d smiled, reading my expressions easily. “And that thought scares you, even though you’d die for me. You’re a funny person, Jamie. How many times have you saved my life, now? Four? Why does it scare you that I’d do the same for you?”
It scared me because I didn’t want you to do what you did for Helene for me; I can’t deal with that kind of guilt. If your dad had come two days later, I’d have been there with you. And maybe, things might have gone differently, because I’d have done anything for you. But then again, maybe not.
I’d changed the subject: “How is she, now? Your mom.”
You’d rubbed your face tiredly. “I visited her yesterday. They’re putting her through rehab, but she’s in withdrawal right now. Desperate for anything familiar, mostly. She cried again.”
I hadn’t really known what to say. “What will you do, once she’s…”
“Out of jail?” Your lips twisted. “I don’t know. I loved her, somehow, a long time ago. But now…I think I just pity her. The loyalty is gone, finally.” But you hadn’t wanted to talk anymore about your mom. “Isn’t that the whole theme of the book? Unrequited loyalty? Redemption? My English teacher was surprised at how good my papers were on those subjects, last year.”
I’d gone along with your change of subject and joking tone. “What’d you tell her about redemption, hm? Did you mention a certain amazing girlfriend of yours?”
Your face had lost its humor again, and your dark eyes had met mine. “No, I told her about you. We had to write a paper about someone or something that made us better—changed our lives. Who else would I have written about, but the person who saved me time and time again?”
Too bad I couldn’t save you one last time.
Today in class, I distracted myself by focusing on the squiggly little letters of text in the book, attempting to connect words that went in one ear and out the other: Hassan…Amir… justification…loyalty...that word brought your face to mind, and I’d had to bit my cheek to keep from crying.
I got your package in the mail today. Helene had sent it: it was a wrapped little parcel with my name and address on it. There was no return address. Inside was a black and grey bracelet: it’s on my wrist now—a reminder. The little note attached told me it was from you.
‘You saved me, Jamie. And god knows I can’t write anything eloquent, so I’m not going to try. Remember me.’
You didn’t sign it, didn’t write ‘love’. You didn’t need to. In comparison to our silent understanding, any words would have seemed empty.
Funnily, enough it reminded me of the promise you’d made me one night, when I had called you in tears: if you need me, I'll be there, no matter what it costs me. If I'm alive, I'm coming for you. You are not alone, because I’ll fight for you, live for you, and die for you. You saved me, and I’ll forever be here to save you. Always and forever, Jamie. It’ll be okay.
God, I miss you.
I sat on the floor of my room tonight, with the lights off and my door locked. I wouldn’t have been able to stand light. And you understand that, too, don't you? The darkness, I mean. I remember we talked about it once, when we hung out in person and both of us wanted the lights off. It's peaceful. Not safe, but safer than usual. For me, that's because the darkness meant the safety of my room. It meant that Dad was asleep. For you, it meant your mom was gone—maybe she was passed out drunk, but she wasn't hurting you with her words or physical, drunken rage.
I almost just laughed, even though it’s the farthest thing from funny. When I actually think about it, our reasons are pretty screwed up, aren't they? But it's all we've ever known: the panic, the pain, the need for safety. So it was in the darkness that I shielded myself from all the things that unforgiving light brings into appearance.
Then I leaned forward with my elbows on my crossed knees, covered my face with my hands, and sobbed until my throat was as torn as my heart. It wasn't so much for you, because I know that you'd have done the same thing if you had the same situation presented again. No, I didn't cry because you were a hero. I cried for what could have been. What you could have been, what your life with Helene could have been.
And none of us will ever know, will we?
Those words bring an old poem I once read to mind. I can see you laughing now: you'd throw your head of shaggy black hair back as you let out that rough laugh of yours. Then you'd recover and grin good-naturedly at me, black eyes sparkling. You’d be looking like any athletic seventeen year old guy. But in spite of all of that, I'd still be able to see your old pain, pushed back in the moment but still present in your age-old eyes. "Poetry?!" I can almost hear your incredulous voice. "I remind you of poetry?"
But yes, you do. It’s called ‘Dirge Without Music’, by Edna St. Vincent Millay. I know right about now you’d call me an English nerd, and it’s so true. Despite an accusation you once made, however, I do not spend my free time reading ‘The Norton Anthology of American Literature’—as interesting as it admittedly is.
Later that same day, we were making fun of the music on the radios these days, belting out old music in mock defiance of society. Do you remember when we switched to ‘Lean on Me’? As we sang that song, I remembered a time when I was in fifth grade. The song had brought tears of pain to my eyes then. Now, it inspires hope. Your eyes met mine as we sang jokingly, and I knew you understood the moment the amusement faded from your eyes and was replaced with that aching wisdom.
Despite that ache, though, you were somehow pure again. You were so different from the boy I’d started talking to at first: the one who never smiled or laughed, the one who was struggling to find a reason to keep going, the one in so much pain. Helene healed you, and I understand why you did what you did for her—why you turned your life around and then gave it for her.
I know I never told you this, but I loved you. I loved you as a brother, a comrade, and a survivor. I know you knew it, but I feel like, just once, I should say it.
And, something else that I think only you and a handful of others would understand: you were so lucky.
I know it’s not natural to think—why would you be lucky? You were murdered by your father, when everything you’d ever wanted was so near. What some people can’t understand is this: you were amazingly lucky, because you died on your own terms. You died free of any mental or physical ties to the people who’d scarred you so badly. You died protecting those you loved, and you died fighting.
I guess some people would say that that seems stupid and pointless—after all, you’re still dead. They’d call me a dreamer, an idealist.
I guess I’m a dreamer, huh? That’s why it hurts so much—because I had so much hope. And I’m sure there are people out there who would roll their eyes at me and tell me that I should have known, and that dreams are just dreams. But everyone was a dreamer, at some point—I guess injustice makes dreaming too painful.
Well, too bad. I’m not giving up on dreaming just yet. And the rage I feel at your death? It’s a combination of rage caused by pain because you were my friend, horror because your father killed you, admiration and burning pride because you stood tall…and I’m going to turn it all into action. I’ll take that incredibly intense emotions and channel it into helping the others, into helping myself. I’ll get better, faster, stronger—unbreakable.
YOU made me unbreakable, Will.
Thank you.
And even though this doesn’t make the injustice better, I’d have died for you. I’d have lived for you and fought for you, just like you would have for me. I’d have done that because you were one of the strong ones.
Funny, how that works. Andy and Helene…both of them are good ones. The good people: the ones who genuinely have never been broken, and who just have so much love to hand out. They are those who hurt for others and have grown strong and good because of those around them.
There is a big difference between who they are and who we are. And yet, at the end of the day and in our last breaths, we’re all the same.
Anyway, here’s the poem I mentioned before:

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,--but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the
love—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know.
But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes
Than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

My kids will know your name, Will B.
January 23rd, 1994—April 7th, 2011
RIP





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