“When I was a young boy, my little sister drowned, and it was essentially my fault,” the American journalist William T. Vollman told The New York Times. “I was 9, and she was 6, and I was supposed to be watching. I’ve always felt guilty. It’s like I have to have sympathy for the little girl who drowned and for the little boy who failed to save her–for all the people who have screwed up.”
I’ve been carrying around in my head these past couple of days the news of the death of a former colleague. So far no news of what took this exceptional man, only in his mid 60s, although some have speculated that his heart betrayed him.
We were never really friends, since I don’t think he valued friendship, at least in how I understand the word. He was a “quick read,” as the phrase once was used, and saw life through a different prism. There was little conventional about him, especially the way he thought through problems. On the down side, he became known as a taskmaster who took few prisoners.
He was always on the “fast track” and deservedly shimmied up the ladder of success without pause. But there always seemed to be an aloneness to him, something missing that barred him from closer contact with others. He was wed to his various jobs and identified himself so much with his journey of promotions that perhaps he thought little of the considerable hide he had left behind on the fences he had hurdled and climbed over.
Last time I saw him was a chance encounter at a chain hardware store that was closing and selling everything half price. He was in the area temporarily between overseas assignments and approached me, as though he wasn’t quite sure if I was who he thought I was. So instead of saying hi, he formally introduced himself all over again and then gave me a rundown of all that had happened in his life in the five or six years since we had last met. No slap on the back or invitation to have lunch, just a recounting of his ventures and well-articulated successes.
As I drove home later, I couldn’t turn the page on the afternoon.
Now, more than a decade later, I have learned of his death and am just as puzzled over this man as I was following our hardware meeting. I have no idea if he had anyone close to him, although he had two children from a previous marriage. His passing conjured up a telling memory of him. One day out of the blue, he shared a dark secret that he was annoyed when he saw his infant son snuggled up with his wife taking their afternoon nap. In his typical blunt honesty, he confessed that he was jealous of this intimacy.
So today I am troubled but not especially saddened by his death. He was an intriguing and gifted man, but perhaps full of too much certitude and disdain for others not on his perch.
For him, the shortest distance was between two points. I doubt if he ever trotted by fits and starts, and certainly never by indirection. That just wasn’t the way life was for him. I believe he saw life as an arrangement of neat patterns. And I doubt if he ever saw the big show as the disjunct it often plays.
And I wonder if he ever said, “I’m kind of sorry that I caused so much grief.”