Recently I was digging around in my garage and attic, trying to find something I wrote during my senior year in high school. I remembered it was in a yellow folder, which helped me find it. It was a diary I wrote that year to my best friend, Joe Torres.
Joe never read the diary. He had died three years earlier in a drowning accident. I wrote the diary to tell him about the senior year we never had together.
Joe and I met when my pastor father moved the family to Runge, Texas. It's a really small town, ten miles from Kenedy on the west and fifteen miles from Yorktown on the east. Never heard of any of those towns on the Gulf Plains of Texas? You're not alone!
Joe and I were classmates from grades six through eight. I got to see him after school when his housekeeper mother would come clean our house; over time, he was allowed to come over more often. My house and yard became the center stage of neighborhood kid activity. Joe wasn't into sports like me, but he had energy, a talkative nature, zany humor, and knew how to keep the girls interested in him. He was always giving me advice on attracting and keeping girlfriends, which somehow didn't work for me.
When I did manage to find a girlfriend, Joe thought she was a little homely for me and nagged me about it. I responded, "She may not be pretty to you, but she's beautiful to me." Joe exclaimed, "That's the most beautiful thing I've ever heard!" and withdrew his opposition.
We introduced each other to new ventures. Even as a middle schooler in the combined middle school / high school band, Joe was the best saxophone player in town. He convinced me to join the band. I still play saxophone (occasionally) because of him.
Meanwhile, I convinced him to join Boy Scouts with me. One of our troop activities was learning to swim. We would practice in Lake Paul, the town's small lake. Joe and I would buddy up. I wasn't much of a swimmer, but I taught him what I knew. Joe wasn't good at it at all and was convinced that he would never be able to swim, despite my persistence at teaching him.
When our family moved 100 miles away after eighth grade year, it was hard to leave him behind. I have this vague memory of him waving goodbye and perhaps even running down the street a little to catch up. It would be the last time I saw Joe.
Four months later, I was in my band uniform getting ready to play at my new high school's football game when our home phone rang. My mother answered; her tone was shocked. She shared the bad news with me: Joe had drowned in an accident at Lake Paul. He had joined his brother and several other boys in overloading a leaky boat to cross the lake. The boat sank. The others swam to safety, but Joe had no chance.
I insisted on playing in the band that night, but I was in a complete fog. I went through my assignments from rote memory. The next day, our youth group took a long day trip to Dallas to see the SMU Mustangs play. I was doing OK, but suddenly, as we were leaving a restaurant on the way home, I was caught up in grief and shock again. My chaperone mother noticed the look on my face and asked me what was wrong.
"Did Joe really die?" I asked. "Yes, he did," she replied.
And I was back in the fog. I had never had anyone close to me die before, excepting great-grandparents and distant relatives that passed away in the natural course of life.
Grief is a very individual occurrence. I got a chance months later to talk to Joe's brother about the accident, and after that, I sort of buried my grief. It surfaced again as I began senior year. I decided to keep a diary, writing letters to Joe to share the senior year he never got to live.
Opening the diary again recently, I was hoping for some profound communication that would inspire me and others. Well, not exactly. It wasn't the work of a poet or a future ministry founder. The diary contained the account of a senior simply telling Joe about his day, with a special emphasis on anything involving girls and band, his two favorite subjects.
I miss a lot of old friends with whom I have fallen out of touch. Amazingly, in this era of Facebook, digital communications and school reunions, I have been able to rekindle a few friendships, if only briefly sometimes. It was so touching when old friends went out of their way to attend my mother's funeral last year. And I miss the friends who have already passed on.
But something lingers with my feelings for Joe. I have some guilt, even now, that I couldn't teach him to swim. It could have just as easily been me who drowned in that lake. I'm grateful that I've been able to experience a long life, but he never got as far as a driver's license.
I only found one diary entry that referred to the tragedy:
I realized at Sunday School, in our class discussion about death, that today is the third anniversary of your death. Happy birthday or whatever! I know you're being taken care of.
Yes, I believe Joe is being taken care of by our loving God in heaven. And one day, I too will cross over. I'll get to see Joe again and tell him all about what happened since we last played sax together.
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