I sat, stunned. Then I ran from the table, hearing my father say to my mother, “Let him go. He needs time.” Upstairs in my room, I fell face down on my bed and sobbed. Being barely nine, I didn’t really know what death meant, but I did know it meant I would never see Billy again. I think I somehow thought that he was living but in another world. Of course, I had heard of heaven, but it didn’t occur to me at the time that he was there. In fact, I never did believe that.
I don’t know how long it was before there was a quiet tap on my door. For some reason I was very angry, so I just blurted out, “Go away!” But my door opened quietly. My parents entered and sat on either side of me on the bed. My Mom began gently stroking my back, and eventually my sobbing subsided.
They talked to me then, but I didn’t really listen, and I have no idea what they said. I just lay there and eventually fell asleep.
At some point they must have put me in my pajamas, because, when I woke up in the morning, I was wearing them. For a moment, I didn’t remember what had happened, and I recall thinking it was the day Billy and I would celebrate our birthdays. Then the awful truth slammed into me. I sank back down on the bed, trying to grasp what had happened.
My mother called me down to breakfast. Somehow, I stumbled down the stairs and into the kitchen. Usually, I wasn’t allowed to wear my pajamas to breakfast, but neither of my parents said anything. I sat down and stared at my bowl of cornflakes, automatically eating them. Mom asked me if I wanted my birthday presents then, but I just shook my head.
For the rest of the day, I simply went through the motions of living. I didn’t go to school, and nobody said I had to. I did think about the funeral and what that would be like. I wasn’t at all sure I even wanted to go.
I hated the fact that I hadn’t been with Billy to hold his hand when he died. I hated the fact that it was him and not me. And I was very angry at him for leaving me.
At the end of supper that night, Mom said that the funeral would be on Saturday, so Billy’s school friends could go. She also mentioned a viewing on Friday night, but I didn’t even know what that was. She said that there would be grief counsellors at the school in the morning and I should think about talking with one, but I just shook my head.
On Friday, Mom said we were going to the viewing that night. I asked her what that was, and when she told me, I said I really didn’t want to go. She replied that I was going because Billy’s parents would be very hurt if I didn’t. So of course, I went.
When we walked into the funeral home, I saw Billy’s family and some of the school families as well as people I didn’t know at all. Near the far wall was the open casket and I could see a part of Billy’s face. I shuddered. Billy’s mom gave me a long hug, and then his dad and Wally each hugged me. We were all in tears.
His mom took my hand and gently led me up to the casket. I tried to hold back, but she was insistent. I looked at the boy in the casket and knew it wasn’t Billy. Oh, it looked kinda like him, but it was very still, which was certainly not him. I reached out and gently touched his face, which was cold and felt like plastic. His mom suggested, “You can kneel and say a little prayer if you want to.” I knelt and pretended to pray to myself, but I didn’t know what to say. In a minute, I got up and walked over to an empty chair next to Mom.
Before we left, Billy’s mom said she wanted us to sit with his family at the service. We all hugged again and then went home.
In the morning, after breakfast, I put on my suit. Dad helped me attach my clip-on tie, and then we went to the church. Billy’s family was there waiting in a little room until it was time for us all to go in. At last we walked down the aisle, people turning and looking at us. I was very uncomfortable, but I followed along. We sat in the very front.
I had been asked if I wanted to say anything at the service, but I had declined. Mom was going to say a few things about how close Billy was to our family.
I had never been to a funeral before. The white casket was at the front of the church, but it was unopened, thank God. I thought the service would never end. People read things from the Bible and talked about Billy. I tried to listen, but I thought none of them really knew him. We sang a song and then some men slowly carried the casket out of the church with the two families following behind. I thought that was the end of it, but Mom said we were going to the cemetery for the burial.
When we got to the cemetery, the casket was already there, on a kind of stand over a hole in the ground. There were chairs there for us. Other people stood behind us. The minister said some words about how Billy wasn’t really dead but would live on in heaven and in our hearts. Mom told me to put the white rose I was holding onto the casket. I stood and walked to the casket, tears running down my face, and placed the lone rose near what I thought was Billy’s head. As I returned to my chair, to my surprise, the stand began to lower the casket into the hole. When it was all the way down, people started to drop dirt onto it.
It was then I knew what death really was. It wasn’t about living on or being somewhere else, it was about not existing anymore, about being gone forever. That wasn’t Billy in that casket. It was just his empty shell. I promised myself I would never, ever make a close friend again. It just hurt too damned much!
Later, I remembered what the minister had said about Billy living on in our hearts, and in a way, he has always been in my memory and in my dreams. But that was really no consolation.
On Monday, Mom said I had to go back to school even though it was almost over for the year. She drove me there and I went through the motions of the day. The other kids didn’t really know what to say to me. One or two even wished me a happy birthday, but that was the farthest thing from my mind. I just sat at my desk and pretended to do my work. At recess I stayed by myself, and at lunch I ate my sandwich, which tasted like Styrofoam. When Mom picked me up at the end of school and asked how it was, I just said, “Okay.”
So, school ended, and I faced the long, hot summer with nothing to do. Mom signed me up for swimming lessons because I still didn’t know how to swim. I worked at it dutifully and did learn. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but at least I didn’t mind it, and it gave me something to do.
In fourth grade, my chess instructor wanted me to continue playing, but I didn’t have the heart to, and I stopped altogether. It was years before I picked up the game again.
Scuffling through the fall leaves of course reminded me of Billy. In fact, almost everything reminded me of Billy ‒ a little boy riding a tricycle; two boys playing chess during an indoor recess; even some child laughing.
I was still very listless, and my parents finally made me go to a grief counsellor, a middle-aged woman who talked with a super-sweet voice. She asked me all sorts of questions to which I replied in monosyllables. She told me about stages of grief and tried to figure out which one I was in. I had been angry with Billy for a while for leaving me, but after that I didn’t know which stage I was in. It was like I had almost no feelings, either good or bad. I seemed to just exist. She was stumped and finally told Mom that she couldn’t help me.
What I didn’t tell her or anyone else was that I had taken to bicycling to the cemetery and sitting beside Billy’s grave. I talked to him as if he could hear me. I asked him questions and sometimes he seemed to answer me, but when I asked if he was happy where he was, he said he was “nowhere.” Sometimes I cried; sometimes I wondered if I was going crazy.
Dad was an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Missouri, so he tried to figure me out. He did a lot of reading and talking with his colleagues. Sometimes he’d sit me down and ask questions, most of which I couldn’t answer, a few of which I didn’t want to answer.
One time, when Dad asked about friends, it occurred to me that I didn’t really want any. I didn’t want to get close to anybody because I was afraid I’d lose them, and I still felt the pain of losing Billy. I thought Mom was right, that we had been joined at the hips, and so I had lost half of myself. Without him, I didn’t really know or care who I was.
Fifth grade was in the intermediate school. Occasionally, I saw fifth grade boys bullying others on the playground, and I always broke that up. It didn’t make me very popular with a few of the boys, but I didn’t really care.
It was in fifth grade that I began to think I was different from the other boys, but I had no idea what that difference was, so, like just about everything else, I chalked it up to missing Billy.
That was also the year I began to get wonderful, exciting, and thoroughly satisfying results from jerking off.
Intermediate school was different from elementary school because we had different teachers for different subjects. I did okay. Sometimes teachers told my parents that I didn’t seem to be really involved in anything, but they couldn’t really complain because my grades were good.
By sixth grade, my parents noticed that I was growing increasingly irritable. Sometimes, I was downright rude to them. I imagine my father blamed my testiness on adolescence and its accompanying hormonal changes. But that wasn’t the whole of it. I was angry, increasingly angry, no longer at Billy but at life in general. It was like life insisted that I go on, but I couldn’t find any reason to. I never got to the point of being suicidal, but I did do some cutting. Somehow, that made me feel better.
I didn’t show this side of me at school, where I continued to be polite but withdrawn. I did, however, take the emotions I was feeling but couldn’t really explain out on my parents. Mom called me down for my rudeness several times, but I didn’t even listen. I believe now that I took these feelings out on my parents because I felt safe with them. I knew they loved me, and I loved them, even if I seldom showed it. Home was where I could act up and relieve the tensions I was feeling.
In middle school, we had to take showers after gym. I guess that most of us were shy about that at first. Later, when I jerked-off, I began fantasizing about boys whom I had seem naked, but I supposed I didn’t fantasize about girls because I had never seen them with no clothes.
One day when I was in seventh grade, I was riding my bike home when I saw a magazine lying in the bushes. I stopped and picked it up. It was mostly pictures of nude or semi-nude women. Of course, I thought about sex. What boy my age didn’t? After all, I jerked-off nearly every night. I supposed the models were pretty, but the pictures did nothing for me. I wondered a little about that, but then I stuck the magazine in my backpack and finished the ride home. Up in my room, I fished out the magazine and stuck it under my mattress, where it remained for some time.
We had a history teacher, Mr. Stevens, whom I really didn’t like. He was sarcastic, and he clearly had his pets. I certainly wasn’t one of them. I was still morose, uncommunicative, and friendless.
We were studying Europe, and Mr. Stevens kept pulling down the map and talking about the relationship between geography and history. One day, when I was especially mad at him, I had an idea.
That night I fished the magazine out from under my mattress and carefully removed the centerfold picture, which I placed in my backpack. The next day, I went to the history room during lunch, when I knew the teacher would not be there. I swiftly completed my mission and returned to the lunchroom.
Our history class that day was right after lunch. I sat in my seat with gleeful anticipation. Sure enough, in the middle of the class, he pulled down the map without even looking at it. The class burst into gales of laughter. He turned to the map and saw the nude centerfold artfully displayed in the middle of the map. His face was crimson as he tore the picture off the map and demanded to know who had put it there. We all looked around innocently. He never found out, and I never told anyone until now, but the boys discussed the geography of that model for some time, speculating on how it might have affected the history of Europe.
The only exciting thing that happened in the eighth grade was when one of the boys put a cherry bomb into a pencil sharpener, lighted it, and blew the pencil sharpener off the wall. He got into serious trouble, and I suppose someone could have been seriously injured by the flying sharpener, but, at the same time, we all found it terribly funny.
The years in middle school were okay. I continued to have no real friends, but I was polite. I got along with most people, and I continued to try to stop bullying. Occasionally, I was successful; occasionally, I was bullied for my efforts.
One evening, in the winter of my eighth-grade year, when my parents thought I was in my room, I overheard them talking about moving. That was something I really didn’t want to do. I had worked out a way of dealing with the kids I knew, and I didn’t want to have to get used to new kids. And if we moved, I would be away from everything that reminded me of Billy, even his grave.
I walked into the living room and asked, “What’s this about moving?”
For a moment, they looked guilty. Then they invited me to sit down.
Mom began, “As you know, Dad is an associate professor, and it doesn’t look like he will move any higher at the University, so he’s begun to look at colleges where he could be a full professor and the head of the department.”
“There’s a lot of politics in my department here, and a lot of backbiting. I guess I just think I could find a place where I’d be happier.”
“Aren’t there other colleges around here where you could get a job and we wouldn’t have to move?” I asked.
“Well, I’ve been looking for a couple of years now and I haven’t found anything. So now I’m doing a national search.”
Has it occurred to you that I wouldn’t be happy if we moved?”
“Are you happy now?” he asked quietly. There was dead silence in the room.
Finally, I said, “Not really, but I’ll be even less happy if we move.”
Mom said quietly, “We thought you might be happier if you weren’t surrounded by everything that reminds you of Billy.”
“But that’s one of the reasons I don’t want to move. I like to be reminded of him.” I didn’t tell them anything about visiting Billy’s grave, because I thought they might think I was sick.
We talked back and forth for some time until it was clear to me that they had already decided. I stormed out of the room, went upstairs, and slammed the door. I realized later that that was probably the most emotion I had shown since we buried Billy.
My parents tried to make conversations with me after that, but mostly I shut them out. Of course, if they asked a direct question, I answered. I wasn’t trying to be impolite. But I didn’t really enter into any discussions.
Finally, in the spring, Dad announced that he had taken a job in New Hampshire at a small state university. Mom added that she was going to be working in one of the university libraries. They said they had bought a “cool” house, but they wouldn’t show me any pictures because they wanted to see my first reaction when I saw it.
As soon as Dad finished up his work at Mizzou, the movers came. We packed the car and drove to New Hampshire.