It is after midnight; I cannot sleep. I am alone — completely alone — for the first time in what seems like aeons. The kids are spending the night with their aunt in Winchester. I think this is the first time I've been completely alone since he died in 2003. It is also officially Easter, the celebration of the risen and immortal Christ. As a Christian, I recognize this. To add a touch of fitting mystique to the holiday, something quite odd happened this evening. An old friend that I hadn't spoken to in over seven years called unexpectedly. Odd, since this is the day of recognizing the arisen…
I met Cecil when I was 15 years old. My parents had just divorced. My mother moved from the house I'd grown up in and into a strange neighborhood. We had a small house on High Street. The street was named appropriately; it overlooked the rest of the neighborhood. A boy lived at the bottom of the hill; I could see the top of his house from my front yard. We were both in the 10th grade, I remember. I ignored him at first. Or I tried to. Fifteen is an odd sort of age, one where you tend to worry more about your reputation than true friendship. In a small town, being "popular" in school was a top priority, especially if you'd secretly been an intellectual, straight A nerd the majority of your young life. I had popular friends and attended popular parties with other popular, pathetic people that I truly didn't even like or admire. Cecil was not a popular sort of fellow. He was different, and proud of it. He grew his hair long before such a thing was considered cool. He could draw, speak, write, and create in a way that most of the popular kids couldn't. He was a blooming eccentric. But Cecil drew me in with his unintentional warmth and charm, whether he knew it or not. We spent lots of time together in the summer of 1990; we had become reluctant neighbors, after all. He became my confidant. My urchin vigilante. My friend.
I left my hometown for Virginia Beach at the age of 19. I saw Cecil occasionally for a couple of years after that. Life resumed its accidental promenade… Before I knew it, I hadn't spoken to Cecil in seven years. Seven years. We all know how much can happen and how much can change in seven years. This evening the phone rang, and I answered, as I always do. Instead of hearing my mother's usual "helloooo" or my my brother's expected "hey, sis," I heard an unexpected moment of silence. And then, to my utter speechlessness, I heard the unmistakable voice of my one time confidant, my old vigilante, my old friend.
Cecil and I spoke about everything and nothing and everything in between for over three hours. He still isn't the cool type, and I am so grateful for that. He is the father of three daughters now, a fact that amuses and shocks the hell out of me at the same time. He is as gentle, kind, and soft spoken as he ever was. He speaks slow and sophic as he always did in that familiar southern tongue that I hear in my own voice. Still, I know from experience that everything changes eventually, whether we want it to or not. Deeper into our discussion, Cecil confided something in me that, to put it mildly, disturbed me more deeply than I care to express. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia several years ago. He spent time in a mental institution.
Where have I been?! That's all I could manage to think. Have I become so consumed by my own life and troubles that I have let people that were once characters on the stage of my life just slip away into nothingness? Apparently I have. Not only that, but I have spent the last several months in psychiatric nursing clinicals in a mental hospital, and all the while, I have had an admittedly bad attitude toward the patients there. Moochers. Bottom feeders. The decay of western society… Tonight I got my comeuppance, I suppose. And I deserved it, perhaps. Cecil, a schizophrenic? My old friend, in a nut house? I have, indeed, been consumed by my own crystal ball world.
Cecil began experiencing signs of schizophrenia after the drowning deaths of two of our close friends. They lived in our neighborhood, too. They were like brothers to us, truth be told. Shawn and Curt had gone swimming that day; they invited Cecil to go along. He said he would, but he had a few things to do first. By the time Cecil had gotten to the creek to swim with them, they were nowhere to be found. Just when he was turning to leave the silent creek, he caught the horrific sight of Curt's body floating past him. And then Shawn's. That was in May of 1996. It was an accident that is a mystery to this day.
It's more of a mystery than my friend could accept. He blames himself for not being there, he says. He sees creatures and hears voices that aren't there. After he's put his daughters to bed, he sees Shawn sitting next to him on the couch, staring him square in the face. The ghosts of the past converse with him; he could not produce in simple words what they say to him… and I did not ask.
I remember younger and better days when we all went boo hunting in Jewell Valley. Seven or eight of us would load up in two vehicles and drive the twisting back roads to the old abandoned coal camp. We'd take our flashlights and whispers into the empty and forsaken houses where families once lived and worked. We were looking for ghosts; that's what boo hunting is, after all. We'd usually leave with disappointed intentions and muddy shoes. Cecil was the ringleader, the brave provocateur. We followed him inside the old camp houses and dark rooms; he held the flashlight and the moxie. What bravery we had on those summer nights in the mountains of my hometown was borrowed from Cecil.
Tonight has served me a cold dish, a haunting taste that I will not soon forget. Sometimes, we can become so consumed by where we think we're going that we forget where we've been. We allow friendships to fade and falter with the years. Some would say that this is the way life is. People change. We all lose our way… eventually. And still, the rebel in me refuses to conform to the anesthetic philosophy of the general masses. I am, piece by piece, finding my way. And it's funny; I seem to be retracing my steps back home. I know that's probably not the most popular direction… but it's the only one that makes sense. I suppose this is a class of resurrection, as well. Quite fitting for Easter, isn't it?
It has taken me more than two hours to produce the emotional strength to finish this post. It's two in the morning, but it's as clear as noon sunshine: it is my turn to hold the flashlight and the moxie. I will remember from this moment forth that the ghosts of your past are often alive and well… right where you left them.