Later that morning Jackson suggested we all take a walk, go down to Oak Bottom Park, and then head as far north along the river as we could. We ended up walking the entire trail north, though the trail maintenance at that end was pretty poor and it was muddy, so we were glad we wore hiking boots. We probably walked over three miles, and when we got back had lunch.
I looked at them both and smiled, “So, gentlemen, here’s the big decision of the day. Will’s parents are coming here tomorrow afternoon for Christmas. What shall we have for dinner?”
They both looked at me like I’d just asked the dumbest question ever. “It’s turkey and dressing, isn’t it? With cranberry sauce on the side?”
Then Will quietly said, “With pumpkin pie for dessert?”
I smiled at both of them. “Well, that was an easy question to answer. Do you two gourmands want to accompany me to the grocery store to buy what we need? We should also buy a Christmas tree and a few decorations.” They both nodded.
“Okay, let me call Will’s parents and sort out the time for tomorrow, and then we’ll go.”
I filled his parents in, letting them know that yesterday and this morning really important progress had been made, and that I’d fill them in on the details the next day. We agreed they’d aim to arrive around mid-day so we could eat dinner, celebrate Christmas, and they wouldn’t have to drive back to Newberg in the dark.
It wasn’t raining, and after we put the Christmas dinner fixings away, Jackson asked if it would be Okay for them to take a bike ride around the neighborhood? I grinned at that. “So, you think this old guy isn’t capable of breaking in his new bike, that I need some BMX racer dude to do it for me?”
Will was just starting to look horrified when I grabbed him pulled him tight to me in a huge hug, and kissed the side of his head. “Hey, that was a joke. I would be honored to have you break in my new bike. Then I can tell people that I ride it so well not just because it was broken in by a great BMX rider, but by one of the best friends in the world. It doesn’t get much better than that. Don’t even worry about scratching the frame. Gary told me if I was smart, I’d walk into the back yard with it and toss it on the ground so that I’d quit worrying about scratches. Maybe we should do that first, then you won’t have to worry about it.”
He was wide-eyed. “Come on. Let’s go.” And I hauled them out to the garage, where we wheeled the bike around to the back yard. They were standing next to me when I picked it up and looked at them. “Here goes,” and I tossed it into the grass. Will gasped, Jackson giggled. I knew it landed on the handlebar and one pedal, but it took the edge off the whole “new bike” thing, and they headed out and had a good ride around the neighborhood.
By the time they got back I had the tree set up in the living room, and we all went to work on decorating it with the decorations we’d bought. The learning point of the day was that you can get Christmas trees and decorations for next to nothing if you wait till the day before Christmas to buy them. It was a small tree, and we didn’t have a lot of decorations, but we made it our own, and it added a needed festive mood to the living room.
That night, after dinner, when we were back in the living room, I asked Will if he was up for talking some more. He nodded, and we discussed blame, and we talked about guilt and shame and how that was part of Kevin’s life. He was able to discuss how different the religious beliefs Kevin’s family held were in contrast to his own, and that previously he had no idea that guilt could be so overwhelming and oppressive.
I asked him if he’d thought about what I said in the morning about blame shifting? He nodded, and I had to ask him to try and tell me about it, and haltingly he was able to say that Kevin’s mother said he was to blame because she couldn’t accept that she was part of the blame.
“That’s so important for you to be able to say, Will, because self-blame for something you had no control over is corrosive. You are perfectly entitled to feel devastated by the loss of your friend and first love. Grieving about that is important and necessary. Jackson can tell you about me talking to him and Gary about that after their Mom died. But you can’t confuse the emotions and mix up grief for blame. You’re coming back from going through hell. The hell of losing your boyfriend, the hell of being alive after he took his life, and the hell of the blame you’ve been carrying. Feeling bad for losing your boyfriend and even for being alive when he’s not is normal. Blaming yourself for it isn’t. Do you understand that and the difference?”
“Can you say to us that you’re not to blame for Kevin killing himself?”
I could see him swallow hard, the emotion rising and showing in his eyes. Jackson leaned over and hugged him tight.
Finally, he haltingly said, “Yeah, I can say it wasn’t my fault, I’m not to blame. It’s torn my heart up, but I guess I’ve figured out I’m not to blame.”
Jackson was on the edge of tears and hugging him like he’d never let go.
The next morning, we made French Toast for breakfast, accompanied by some maple-cured bacon. When we got into the living room after we’d cleaned up, before we even sat down, Will said, “Can I make a request this morning?”
We both looked at him and then each other. Smiling, Jackson said, “Sure, bro. We can listen to anything you want.”
He smiled softly and said, “Can we listen to Have You Heard again? I think I need to hear some more about being free and looking down life’s hallways and doorways.
That comment set the tone for the day! We listened to the song again, and generally discussed new starts and getting over rough times. I decided we needed a break from hard questions. Will appeared to have gotten through his trauma, and was acting more and more normal. A little later when Jackson was in the bathroom, I motioned Will to follow me into the study. “We’ve kept you pretty focused the last week, and you probably haven’t thought about the fact that when your parents get here there’s going to be some gift giving. I got something cool for you to give Jackson, so you don’t feel like the odd man out.”
His eyes bugged out, and he started trying to say something.
“Will, shh! Just listen. This has been an incredibly hard time for you but you’re back. Jackson’s got something for you, and you need something for him. So here it is.”
I handed him a gift-wrapped album. “I talked to some of the hip students at the Campus Center, and this is Elvis Costello’s newest album This Year’s Model. A couple of them said it’ll go down as a pop rock masterpiece with great guitar work, and just enough cutting punk to be both attractive and offensive. It sounded to me like something you’d buy.”
He took it soundlessly and hugged me. I said softly into his ear, “Don’t be put off by this and think you need to do something back. I don’t want you to freak about not having a gift for me. I already have the best gift I could get this year. You.”
He hugged me again, and I told him to stash the album on the bookshelf till later. We were just sitting down in the living room when Jackson came in, and I looked up and said, “Shall we give Will what we got for him to give his parents?”
He grinned, nodded, and walked over to the shelves with the stereo and reached down behind the chair and pulled out a good-sized gift-wrapped package. He walked back to Will and said, “I know we didn’t talk to you about it, but it’s been kind of a heavy week, you know. So, David and I decided to help you out, so you didn’t have to think about it. You should put this under the tree so it’s there for your parents.”
Will, having had this happen to him once already, was more prepared. “You guys are unbelievable. Do you think I’m incapable?” He paused for effect, and we looked at him, momentarily worried this was going to backfire.
“I’m only kidding. You guys have saved my ass in just about all the ways there are to do it, and I hadn’t even thought about a gift for them, so thanks.”
Jackson let out a sigh of relief and then grinned. “Do you want to know what’s in the box, or do you want to be surprised too?”
“I think it’s time I get back in touch with the real world and know what’s going on, so I don’t look like I’m totally tuned out.”
“It’s a Mr. Coffee coffee maker. When we were at your house, before you came up here, we saw that your folks were still using a percolator, so we thought this would be cool. What’s not to like about better coffee, right?”
Will was grinning now, too. “That’s a far-out idea! They probably wouldn’t get around to upgrading themselves for another five years.” He grew quiet.
Then he smiled shyly, looking at both of us, and said, “This will make me look like I’m back to normal and have my shit together. That may be more important than anything. Thanks, I love you guys.”
Jackson gave him a hug, and I told them I was heading for the kitchen to stuff the turkey and get it in the oven, and their kitchen duties would start later. Shortly after I heard Fleetwood Mac’s Then Play On start to play on the stereo. I was hoping and praying it was a sign of what was to come.
Around 11:00 I pulled them out of the living room and gave them their assignments. Jackson had salad duty, as well as cutting Brussels sprouts in half so we could roast them, and Will was par-boiling sweet potatoes and then laying them in a roasting dish to finish with a drizzle of butter and maple syrup. I’d been aiming to have everything done by noon, and it ended up more like 12:15, but that was close enough.
The doorbell rang, and we all realized we hadn’t changed clothes, and on the spot, I decided this was better. “Come on, let’s go answer the door.”
We welcomed his parents inside and took their coats. After we got the greetings and hugs out of the way, I purposefully and clearly apologized that we hadn’t had time to change, since we’d all been in the kitchen preparing Christmas dinner, and we were running a little behind. I was looking directly at Will’s Mom and Dad when I said that, and it took a few seconds before it sunk in, and then she said, “You said, we. You mean all three of you were cooking dinner.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” I said. “Chef David here with his two amazing assistant chefs, and we have a spectacular Christmas dinner for you to enjoy. The first big question of the day is if I can interest either of you in a beverage. We have red or white wine and beer. Jackson, will you and Will take their orders and get them settled in the living room. I’m going to go check the oven.”
I saw both of them go through the motions of settling Will’s parents into the living room, getting their order and then come into the kitchen. “One red and one white,” Jackson said.
“Pour a white for me too, please, and get whatever you want for you two, Okay? I’ll be in with you in a minute.”
I pulled the bird out to rest, turned off the oven and left the sprouts and sweet potatoes inside and pulled the horseradish cranberry sauce out of the refrigerator. Then I headed for the living room.
The room got quiet as I came in and sat down, so I looked at everyone and said, “Shall we eat in fifteen minutes or so?” They all nodded, and I looked at Jackson and added, “That’s your timing for salad. While you guys do that, I’ll carve the bird.”
The conversation was pleasant, though we all knew we were talking about everything but the most important subject for everyone in the room. That was Okay, though, we had nothing but time. Seven minutes later, I said, “Gentlemen, shall we?”
I wasn’t going to leave Will in there alone with his parents, but to her credit, Will’s Mom said, “Why don’t we join you? We can help. It’s always more fun if everyone helps out.”
So, we all ended up in the kitchen, the parents at the kitchen table watching Will and Jackson make salad, me spoon the stuffing into a bowl and then carve the turkey onto a platter. They got enlisted to carry dishes to the dining room table, which we’d set earlier, and in an amazingly short amount of time we were ready to sit.
I wasn’t going to dash their expectations of grace, so as we were all standing empty-handed in the dining room, the way everyone does after they’ve just put the serving dishes on the table, I pointed to two chairs on one side and said “Why don’t you two sit there,” so the boys could sit on the other and then said, “Let’s begin with giving thanks.”
The parents visibly smiled, and so did Jackson, but for a completely different reason. He knew what my psychology was. I thanked God for the bounty we shared, the time we had together, the love between us, the peace and prosperity we enjoyed, the birth of the Savior we celebrated this day, and concluded with “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.” They all said Amen in response, and we all sat. Jackson filled the wine glasses and we proceeded to have Christmas dinner.
When we’d reached the point of an adequate sufficiency, we cleared the table and moved to the kitchen where Will’s parents sat down again at the kitchen table, and then suddenly his Mom stood up and said, “You guy’s clear the sink. I’m doing the dishes.”
It made for a lot of banter and fun give and take, and we had the leftovers put away, the dishes rinsed and, in the dishwasher, and the pots and pans washed and put away in half an hour.
Will’s Dad was watching and smiling, and I looked at him inquiringly. “He’s always been a good kid, Pastor Dave, but he never did anything in the kitchen. I mean I’m sitting here watching him help prepare dinner and do dishes.”
I grinned. “That’s easy. We’ve got a teamwork routine in this house, and when we got him here from your place, we told him he was part of the team and part of the routine. Right, Will?”
He smiled and nodded. His Mom was sitting at the kitchen table at this point, and I said, “Will, why don’t you sit down with your parents and tell them about it.”
He did, no resistance, and Jackson and I tried to fade into the background. He proceeded to tell them that we’d had a heart-to-heart discussion at breakfast the first day, that because he was living here for a while and was part of the household, that meant being present at meals and being part of the routine, “No more staying in my room and feeling sorry for myself.”
His parents looked stunned. Finally, his Mom said, “Pastor Dave called us most nights and told us how things were going. Can you fill us in?”
He was looking at his parents, and said, “Yeah, I just kind of lost it. I couldn’t believe Kevin killed himself. I couldn’t believe he’d do that to us, but he did. I know you cared and loved me and tried, but I was in a deep black place, and these guys knew now to reach me and coax me out and make me realize it wasn’t my fault.” He was getting emotional now, and I could see he was on the verge of tears. So was his Mom.
“Honey, what do you mean, your fault. You didn’t have anything to do with it. He did it to himself.”
“He did it because he couldn’t accept himself. That’s why he did it. He couldn’t accept me. He couldn’t accept us, because he couldn’t accept himself. But the thing that put me over the edge was his Mom telling me it was my fault. That I was to blame.” He was crying now, and his Mom had gotten up and was standing behind him, holding his back against her front and his Dad had reached out and was holding his hands.
“Will, we’re sorry. We’re so sorry. We didn’t know, and that’s no excuse. We know we made it worse for you, instead of making it better. Can you forgive us for that?”
Will said “Yes” in a gulping sound because his Mom was holding him so tight. Finally, he pulled away and said, “I do, and thanks for accepting me. I was so afraid that on top of everything else you’d hate me and disown me. I love you guys, you know. I’m just a little different is all.”
“Honey, different is fine. Spencer Sullivan has spent a lot of time with us this week, and we’ve realized you can’t be just like us, and that’s fine. I know we don’t believe what we thought we believed a few weeks ago, but you’re our son. We love you first and foremost. We love you no matter what.”
She turned to Wills’ Dad, “Right, Bob?” He nodded, then he stood up and moved around the table and put his arm around both of them. He was crying, too, and after he blinked back his tears, he found himself looking over his wife’s shoulder at Jackson and me who were standing by the sink. I had my arm around Jackson’s shoulder, and his head was leaning against mine. Will’s Dad smiled and silently said, “Thank you.”
I smiled back, pulled Jackson with me and we left them alone in the kitchen. It felt like they’d reached a place of reconciliation that didn’t need mediation, and there are a lot of things you can say more honestly to each other when you know other people aren’t around.
We plopped down on the couch, and I pulled my lover to me, holding him against me in my arms. “We can’t get too amorous with Will’s parents here, but I think he’s back.”
“Yeah, that was so cool to see. I was almost crying, too, along with all of them. Let’s just hope what his parents said isn’t just words and this is a kind of new beginning.”
“Hope springs eternal.” We sat quietly and after a few minutes we heard Will take his Mom to the bathroom, then he and his Dad came in to join us. “Mom had to go wash her face.” He was smiling softly.
“No worries. Are you guys alright?”
“Yeah, I am. How about you, Dad?”
“I am, too, now that I’ve got my son back, thanks to you guys.” He was clearly having trouble saying what he was feeling. He turned to Will, “Will you help me get some gifts out of the car, please?”
They headed out the front door, and I heard his Mom coming down the hall. As she sat down, she said, “This is a lovely house. How did you find it?”
“Pure luck. After the bike wreck, when I was recovering from the concussion, Spencer basically told me I needed to get off the dime and make the move, so we started looking. Jackson had been accepted at Lewis & Clark, and I was hoping for the Campus Ministry job there, so we settled on Sellwood because it’s an easy commute, and this was the third house we looked at. We were able to afford it because of the inheritance I got after my parents died. The wife of a professor at Lewis & Clark helped us decorate it and find the furniture we needed, and here we are.”
Will and his Dad had come back in as I was telling that little story. He commented, “Well, you’ve made a good buy. This house is solid. I love that basalt rock foundation, and the layout is really nice, too. It’s the perfect house for a young couple to raise a family in.”
The room went quiet and the shoe dropped. He looked at all of us and said, “I’m sorry. That was a stupid thing to say.” He was blushing, he was so embarrassed.
Jackson, who’d been pretty quiet most of the afternoon so far, sat up and said, “Mr. Summers, don’t worry about it. We know you didn’t mean it. Can I tell you something?”
Will’s Dad nodded.
“When David’s brother and sister visited back in August, it was the first time I’d met them, and we all got along fine. But Michael, that’s David’s brother, is kind of homophobic. I mean he was a star athlete, one of those macho kind of guys, he said he’s never been around gay guys, he always did the gay joke stuff. But after they were here a couple of days, he and Jane, that’s his wife, were talking about how we get along and work together and the house works and the meals get cooked and the dishes get washed, and the laundry gets done, all that stuff. We were joking around and I just said to him, you know what, we’re just two people who live together and love each other. The only difference is that we’re two guys. That cracked him up. Like he’d never even conceived before that it could work. David and I know you’re not used to it, so don’t sweat it. All we really care about is you guys and Will. If you love him and accept him, then everything else is cool.”
That comment took all the pressure out of the room, and I suggested we open some gifts. Will’s parents gave him two packages. One was a really nice ski parka, and the second was a new cassette tape player for his car. He was graciously thankful and showed it. I saw him glance at Jackson, shooting over a kind of grin-of-thanks as he reached for the gift that he gave his parents. They were totally surprised.
“Honey, you didn’t have to get us anything. This is so nice, but we didn’t expect anything.”
“I know, but it’s Christmas, right? So, here you go. Merry Christmas.”
His Mom opened the package, and you could see her work through the process: he doesn’t like our percolator; he thinks we’re behind the times; he thinks we need to be lead into the modern age; he thinks we don’t understand new technology. But then, she looked up at him smiling radiantly and said, “You remember Mary Harper down the street?”
Will nodded. “She got one of these six months ago and said it makes much better coffee than a percolator. Bob, isn’t this terrific, and so thoughtful.” Bob smiled and nodded. They exchanged hugs, and Will turned and said, “Just a sec. I’ll be right back.” He disappeared into the hall to the study, and came back with the album for Jackson.
“Here, bro. Merry Christmas.”
Jackson was stunned, totally taken by surprise. “Wow! Thanks, man. You didn’t have to do this.” A few seconds of silence, then quietly, “How did you do this?” Another few seconds of silence, then, “Never mind. This is really sweet. Thanks, Will. You’re the best.” He got up and hugged him.
“Elvis Costello. I’ve heard of him, but I don’t know the music. Am I going to like it?”
“That’s my bet. I don’t think you’ll want to be playing it right now, and it’s not at all like the Moody Blues, but I think you’ll like it.”
Jackson grinned, and then made a thing out of going over to and then behind the tree to pull out two boxes. They were the same size, and had the same pattern gift wrap on them, and that looked suspicious.
He advanced toward Will and me and said, “You two don’t need to be paranoid. You’re going to love this.” He handed us each a box, which when we opened them turned out to be a Sierra Design 60/40 Jacket, Will’s in blue, mine in green.
“So, Dave, you gave me one of these for my birthday, and it’s outrageous, and that old beater jacket you wear is overdue for replacement. And Will, you’ve now got a cool parka right there that your folks gave you that will be great for when you go skiing, but you live in Portland now, and mainly it’s about dealing with the rain, not the cold and the snow. So, now both of you guys are going to be set for the Portland weather. We’ll be a threesome. Maybe we could get a job doing a photo shoot for Sierra Design.”
Everyone laughed at the humor combined with the positive intent in Jackson’s gift. I heard him say something else. Will now lived in Portland, and he needed the right jacket so he could continue living here. We hadn’t discussed that possibility, but I intuitively knew what he was saying and doing was right. Will was back, with us, back in the “land of the living,” and we’d do anything and everything to make it work for him.
At that point I stood up and went around the other side of the tree and pulled out a package for Jackson. His eyes widened and he smiled appreciatively as he took it and removed the gift wrap. I saw the surprise as he pulled it out of the box. “Wow! What kind of a pack is this?”
“It’s a mountaineering day pack. Not a full on spend-days-on-the-mountain kind of pack, but a well-designed small pack for when you’re out for a day in the mountains. I think you qualified after all the hikes we took this summer.”
He came over and gave me a hug, holding back on the kiss because Will’s parents were there, but I felt it none the less.
Will’s Mom reached for the last gift under the tree and stood up and brought it over to us. “We didn’t know what to get you, but Will has told us you’re good cooks, and that you entertain, so we decided to give you something of that nature. So, this is from Bob and me to both of you. Thanks for everything you’ve done for our family.”
Inside was an electric warming tray with two small chafing dishes. The kind of perfect accessory for a side-board buffet or even serving a large dinner party! They’d figured that one out right, and we let them know it.
At one point, Will’s Mom asked him if he’d thought about returning to college. He looked at her blankly and shook his head. I took that as my cue, and asked if anyone wanted something from the kitchen. With drinks orders in hand I stood up and waved for Will’s Dad to follow me and help. As we arranged the glasses and poured beverages, I said, “You saw he isn’t even thinking about college yet, right?”
He nodded, and I looked at him. “I don’t know how long before he starts thinking about the future. Right now, he’s thinking about today, maybe tomorrow. Maybe in a few days the horizon will expand. He’s been withdrawn from U of O, so it probably wouldn’t be a certain thing to get him back in for Winter quarter, and then there’d be the whole living in the dorm thing and all the memories that go with it.”
“I’ve begun to worry about that. What do you suggest?”
“I have no magic touch, and I have no pull on campus, but there may be an opening or two from students that dropped out, and there’s a chance, and I emphasize chance, that Will could attend Lewis & Clark. He had good grades, he’s a great musician. He would live here with us. Are you Okay with me testing the waters and seeing what’s possible?”
He nodded again, “That would be wonderful. I think he’d have to sit out at least a quarter before he could re-apply at U of O, and what would he do during that time. Please see what you can do.”
I nodded and we left it there. Within an hour they were on their way back to Newberg, and we all decided it was time to look like the Three Musketeers and parade our 60/40 jackets, so we donned them and our boots, walked around Sellwood and then joined the trail at Oaks Bottom Park at the north end and walked upstream to the Sellwood Bridge and then home.
Christmas in 1978 was on a Monday, and Lois and Gary had celebrated Christmas with her parents and were coming up to Portland for lunch on Tuesday. In the morning I called Robert Atkins at home and asked if there was any possibility that he could arrange a meeting with Jackson and me this week. He said he planned on being in his office Thursday and Friday, and we agreed that we’d meet him there on Thursday at 10:00 AM. Then I called the Dean of Admissions to inquire if there were any placement openings due to students dropping out at the end of the Fall quarter. He said he wasn’t certain, but it looked like there might be as many as three. Then he asked me what I was up to! I told him a close friend of Jackson’s who was a very good musician and singer might be interested in a transfer, and that we were all meeting with Atkins on Thursday. He said, “Okay, I think I understand what you’re saying. Let me know how it goes with Robert. I’ll be in my office on Friday. Come and see me if you think it’s worth it.”
It was hard to get Jackson alone during the day, but I had the opportunity while we dashed to the grocery store while Will was taking a shower.
“We need to talk.”
“Okay, go for it.”
“Will’s not thinking about the future yet, so we have to do it for him. His parents are happy with what they experienced yesterday, but are worried, and don’t know what to do about next week and next month, and next quarter. Am I ahead of you, or are you already thinking about this too?”
“I’ve been thinking about it, but I don’t have a plan. Do you?”
I told him about calling Atkins and the Dean of Admissions. His eyes widened. “Don’t act surprised, Lover Boy, I heard what you said when you gave him that 60/40, that he was living in Portland now and needed the right jacket to continue living here. Was that Freudian, or were you subconsciously prepping his parents?”
He grinned. “A little of both. But I have to admit that I don’t have a well thought out plan. It sounds like you’re way ahead of me.”
I smiled back, “Listen, you know me. What you see is what you get, and I don’t like being underhanded, but my worry is if we put this on the table that we’ll spook Will. I think he needs to keep living here with us, ideally getting into Lewis & Clark, or worst case some other college here, and finishing the year. Then we know he’s back on track. If there are some openings from a few students dropping out, there won’t be a lot of competition for those seats, and if Atkins puts in a good word, who knows what could happen. If it comes together, his parents should go for it because they’d only have to pay tuition and books, no dorm and stuff. What do you think?”
“I think it’s a great plan. It’s the kind of plan you hatched that got Gary into Community College, so why not?”
“So, you’re on board? You think it’s a good idea?”
“Well, yeah, of course! I’m sorry if I was acting weird or dumb. I think it’s a fabulous idea. I’m there one hundred percent. What do you need me to do?”
“Does Will still have those arrangements he did for Susan of contemporary songs for choir? One was Attics Of My Life, right? Any other original music material?”
“I’m almost certain he does, but at home, not here. And, the other one he did last year for Susan was Across The Universe. Oh, and Let It Be, too”
“That’s what I figured. I think they’ll be key with Atkins. So, here’s the plan. You convince him that it’s time for you guys to drive to his house in Newberg and get some more clothes or toothpaste or whatever, since he’s going to keep staying here until…we don’t know when. He didn’t come with enough anyway, and we’re having to do laundry too often. Tell him he needs more underwear. Then while you’re there you find and bring back all that musical stuff, and his acoustic guitar. My hope is when we haul Will in with us to see Atkins on Thursday, that he’s impressed enough he’ll recommend him for one of the open seats. You figure out between now and then if you spill the beans with Will, or if we just all drive to campus on Thursday, and it’s a total surprise for him. Maybe Wednesday night we get him to play and then you two do some singing, and he’s kind of warmed up. I bet he hasn’t sung a note for the last two months.”
He grinned conspiratorially. “Sounds like a killer plan to me. And, more importantly, Babe, you’re cool with me driving the BMW down to Newberg and back alone. I mean me and Will?”
“I trust you with my life…and with our car.” He’d had his hand over mine on the gear shift the whole time, and was stroking the back of it with his fingertips now.
Lois and Gary arrived about 11:30, and the first thing she asked when she came into house was, “What’s that smell?” I grinned.
“It’s a recipe from the cook we had when I was a kid. It’s braised red cabbage with onions and apple, finished with apple cider vinegar. It’s cooking off in the oven. Smells good, huh?”
She smiled knowingly, and we took their coats and settled in the living room. The timing to eat was fluid, and that meant we could relax in the living room and catch up on everything. Lois and Will were close friends, and Gary knew Will well enough that we were able to get the commiseration out of the way in the first fifteen minutes. They both expressed their sorrow at what happened and told him how happy they were to see him looking so good.
Will was quiet for a minute, obviously collecting his thoughts, and finally, after he glanced our way, looked back to Gary and Lois and said, “Those two saved me. Kevin’s mom blamed me for his suicide, she told me her son was in hell because of me, and that just put me over the edge. These guys came and got me, brought me here, crawled down into the deep dark hole I was in and pulled me out. I’ve kind of had my shit back together for a couple of days now, and that’s been long enough to start to understand.”
Lois and Gary started out shocked, then understanding, then empathizing, and finally supportive. They both went over to him and pulled him out of his chair and into a hard three-way hug. They were all crying together. Finally, Will said,
“Thanks, you guys. I’m Okay now, and I love you, too. You want to know what I’m starting to realize in a whole new way? That the stuff we were saying to each other, to all of us last year, about being a fellowship and stuff, was true. But now it’s even more true. I guess we all get our turn on the receiving end, but even though I love my parents, I know that no matter what, no matter where or when, I’ve got you guys.”
There wasn’t much to say after that which wouldn’t sound trite, so I suggested we eat, and we all moved to the dining room. We had a pleasant dinner after that. Jackson and I had bought a ham at the store and it went well with the braised red cabbage, and we served it with roasted potatoes and salad. Everyone had their part, and we exchanged gifts afterwards and just appreciated being with each other. My mind was filled with reverberating echoes of the comments we’d made over the past year about building a family together. It was coming true, even if in a completely unplanned way.
They asked about JC, and Jackson told them that he had to fly the day before and the day after Christmas, so he’d said he’d work Christmas day as well—for double time! We were all going to drive to Seattle to spend New Year’s Eve with him. By mid-afternoon Gary and Lois were ready to head home. He had to be back at work the next day. It turned out that having landscaping clients meant there was work even in the winter, and he’d now built a small greenhouse in the back yard, down near where Jackson had had his fort, and was propagating his own plants.
When Jackson and Will set out Wednesday morning, I said to them, “There’s one other thing you can do while you’re in Newberg. Deliver our Christmas present to Susan and Ellen.” He nodded, and we loaded a gift basket in the floor of the back seat. I planned on spending the day catching up on some house duties, calling Michael and Jane, and also calling JC and Frank. I also thought it was important Jackson and Will were out together, moving that one more step for Will back toward independence.
Will’s Mom had prepared a nice lunch while they were there. Jackson had called Susan and Ellen’s home when they arrived, to discover that Susan was at the church. He wished Ellen a Merry Christmas and then called Susan. After lunch they loaded up some more of Will’s clothes and his music notebooks and guitar and headed to meet Susan at the church. It turned out to be a pleasant meeting, Susan thrilled to spend some time with a couple of her favorite students.
Being in the house alone gave me the perfect opportunity to call Fred and update him on the situation. After we exchanged holiday greetings, he told me he’d gotten back in town the day before Christmas, had been busy with family, and now had a few days to catch up before going back to seminary. He asked me how things had been going, and I caught him up on Will’s situation, the music therapy approach, and our hope we could get him into college in Portland and back on track.
“You’ve done wonders and have a great plan. You know what jumps out of that more than anything else?”
When I told him I didn’t know, he said, “what Jackson told me about taking more counseling courses than theology courses, because that’s what I was likely to spend more time doing. I was so sorry to learn about Kevin’s suicide, and could only imagine what it did to Will, but it sounds like you two have pulled him through it. It is criminal that his mother would blame Will for Kevin’s death, and worse yet that she actually told him that. Thank God you got him sorted out on that piece. If not, it would be the ultimate guilt to carry around with you for your entire life. If I can ask, do you know what transpired with the funeral and burial arrangements?”
I told him that I’d spoken to the Salem police, and that’s how I learned it was a suicide, but that since Kevin’s mother had blasted Will on the phone, there had been no contact with the family. I added, “I’m pretty sure the last thing they want is to have contact with Will or any of his friends or family. Why do you ask?”
He was hesitant at first. “Well, because there is one more piece in this dark puzzle. Not only do we know where the blame lies and that his mother was falsely and cruelly trying to place in on Will, there is another part here you may not understand as a Protestant. As pious and strictly practicing Catholics, his family believe that Kevin has gone directly to hell. Because he committed suicide, which is viewed as murder upon your own body, he would not have even been eligible to be given Catholic rites of the dead or to receive a Christian burial.”
“My god, it’s that severe? Everything that happened was bad enough for Kevin, but this almost seems like it was specifically designed to inflict pain on the family as well.”
“I doubt it was designed that way, but it is a severe doctrinal position, just like the one about homosexuality is, and once again, there are severe consequences for friends and family.”
I told Fred I didn’t think Will needed to know any of this additional information. We chatted about a few other things and agreed that if he had any free time the few remaining days he was in town, we’d try to get together. He made me promise to give Jackson his best wishes.
I heard the BMW pull into the driveway around 4:00 PM, and they both came through the front door. They set down some packages, and looked in the living room as I walked their way. Will was looking at me, and I said softly, “Lovely to see you again my friend.” He smiled, his eye showing some emotion, and I pulled him into a hug, and could see Jackson watching approvingly.
After they unpacked the things they’d brought from Will’s house and then settled down in the living room, I walked in with a glass of wine and asked if I could bring something in for them. Jackson asked for a glass of wine, too, and asked Will if he was up for it. He smiled, did a bit of a double take, and then said, “Sure, that sounds like a good idea.”
We then settled down with Elvis Costello playing in the background. Jackson smiled a little conspiratorially, and I looked at him quizzically.
“I told Will on the drive back that there’s a chance he could get into Lewis & Clark, and that we’re going to campus tomorrow to find out.”
I looked at Will. “What do you think?”
“Well, truthfully, I hadn’t been thinking about it. Just goes to show you guys are looking out for me, and I appreciate it. I know it has to happen eventually, but it wasn’t on my radar.”
“You’re right, Will. It does have to happen, and the sooner the better. The reason is you need to get back in the swing of things. The academic routine. That’ll be part of you getting back to normal all around. We think having you go to college here, finishing the year, and living with us is great. Even if it doesn’t happen at Lewis & Clark, there are other college options. You’re part of this family, this home, so it makes sense.”
Will was nodding and smiling. “Jackson emphasized the maybe part, like it depended on some students dropping out after last quarter, just like I did at the U of O. I feel bad for them and hope they didn’t for the same kind of reasons I did, but I hope it happens. I can’t imagine being anywhere but here and with you guys for now.”
We talked for a while longer, then got organized for dinner, during which Jackson suggested that instead of listening to records afterwards Will should get out his guitar and they’d fool around. He did a good job of setting it up, reminding him about the band, how well they’d sung together, how it was long overdue, and Will finally relented. I cleaned up after dinner, and when I joined them in the living room, they’d moved on from the folk song stuff I could hear from the kitchen to some of the rock songs they’d played in the band. They were having fun, and Will had clearly overcome his initial inhibitions. I settled down into the couch with a glass of wine and silently watched. I could eventually see that Jackson was slowly working him through progressively harder songs, ones where he’d have to sing accompaniment. Jackson was singing easily, still in the groove from three long practice sessions per week, but Will, while a little rusty, had a good enough voice that it didn’t take him long to get into decent enough form.
Eventually they both looked at me and grinned. “What do you think? Do we sound Okay?” Of course, the only answer was, “Absolutely. You guys should form another band.” Jackson asked if I had any requests. “How about Let It Be and I’ve Got To Be Me? You know, the songs you sang for the Spring concert last year?”
They both said they hadn’t sung them since, and they probably had forgotten half the lyrics, but they fussed around and started and stopped and finally remembered enough of them to do a good rendition of both. Jackson sounded really good on the Sammy Davis song.
“Any other requests?”
I knew better than to ask for God Only Knows, knowing how emotionally it had hit Jackson about what happens when you lose your love. “Well, Timor et Tremor would be a stretch because it’s written for four voices, right? Just like the Brumel Kyrie, and I bet working the melody out on a guitar wouldn’t work. What else did you do that night? Oh, easy – sing Somewhere Over The Rainbow.”
They did and it sounded great. Then they both looked at me a little let down. “What?”
They looked at each other, and then Jackson said, “You don’t want to hear Heroes?”
“Are you kidding me? I just figured you guys hadn’t sung it for a while and needed a band. We haven’t listened to the Bowie album for a few weeks, but I’d love to hear it if you’re up for it.”
Will was smiling widely. “Okay, we’ll try. We’ll try for you because Jackson told me when we started working it out that you were his hero and he was going to dedicate it to you the first time he sang it in public. Remember? It’ll be a stretch trying to do an acoustic guitar version and then adjusting the vocals for it, but we’ll give it a try.” He looked at Jackson, “Let me try and play it through first, Okay?” Jackson nodded.
He went for it, and I could see it was mental work making the adjustment to acoustic only, instead of lead and rhythm guitar and no bass. He blew it a couple of times and had to start over, but did so with a grin, and finally got through it. “Okay, let me play it through one more time. I think I’ve got it now.”
He did, and he did. Jackson was watching intently, listening to the changes necessary to rearrange it and play it on a single acoustic guitar, figuring out the changes he’d have to make vocally.
Will looked at him and said, “You ready to give it a shot?”
Jackson nodded, and they started, and it was passable. They got through it, and then like good musicians, started talking to each other about how they could have done this or changed that. I didn’t understand what they were suggesting, but they started working on sections of the song, and pretty soon were smiling at each other.
“Let’s try the whole thing again.” They did, and it was great. At least great for a living room rendition following twenty minutes of adjusting the arrangement. They both looked quite pleased, and I rose and gave them a standing ovation!
Jackson asked, “Are we done?” Will nodded.
Jackson smiled and said, “Your playing was good, and your voice sounded good too. Thanks, man. I appreciate it.” He reached over and squeezed Will’s knee.
“Now, you know what’s going to happen?”
Will looked at him a little suspiciously. “No, what?”
“You see where David is on that couch? I’m going to go over there and sit down next to my boyfriend so he can put his arm around my shoulder and pull me into this really warm and loving hug. And you know what you’re going to do?”
Will looked blank.
“You’re going to follow me, and after I sit down next to David and he puts his arm around my shoulder and pulls me into that hug, you’re going to sit down next to me so I can put my arm around your shoulder and pull you into a hug, and then we’re all going to have a kind of cuddle thing. No kissing and no sex, just a lot of love.”
I could see Will hesitate.
“No arguments, Will. I love him. He loves me. We both love you. You said you love us. What’s the problem? Let’s go.”
We were maybe five minutes into it, enjoying the feeling and the warmth and the love, and Jackson said, “I should have put some music on. Will, will you go pick an album and play something?”
He got up and went over to the stereo and put on Then Play On. As he sat down, I said, “So, you like that sound?”
He smiled as he wiggled back into Jackson’s embrace. “Yeah, it’s mellow and rhythmic. I like it a lot.”
Both of them were cleaned up and looking sharp when we left to drive up to campus. Robert Atkins was in his office as promised and we were there a couple of minutes ahead of schedule. Jackson had Will leave his music notebooks and guitar on the secretary’s desk outside the office. His greeting was warm, and he made a point of saying hello to Will, whom he remembered from the Fall concert.
He seated us all, saying, “Merry Christmas gentlemen. I hope you had a pleasant holiday.”
“We’ve had a holiday that got better and better by the day, Robert, and thank you for asking. I hope it was the same for you and your family?”
He nodded and smiled. “Yes, we had a terrific Christmas. It cost more than it should have, but so it goes.”
“Jackson and I learned something really important the other day?” He looked interested.
“If you wait until the day before Christmas to buy your tree and ornaments, they are incredibly inexpensive.”
He paused, then got the joke and chuckled.
“It’s the kind of thing,” I said with a smile, “only a single guy batching or a couple of gay guys living together for the first-time stumble into.” We all had good laugh about that.
He looked at us all and said openly, “So, what are we here to discuss?”
I’d kind of broken the ice on the phone with him, so I started, “Will is interested in attending Lewis & Clark, and I understand from Admissions that there may be two or three openings due to students dropping out. I heard Jackson tell you he’s a better musician and has a better voice than Jackson does, so it seemed reasonable to start with you and discuss a possible fit in the musical area. There are a couple of complications we’ll need to discuss as well, but I’ve been hoping that bolstering your musical student roster would be attractive.”
“Adding good quality musicians and vocalists is always desirable.” He turned to Will. “Jackson’s told me a little about you, and I remember the way he sang your praises at the Fall concert. How about you tell me something about you and your music.”
Will was a little hesitant getting started, but it felt like Jackson had prepped him. He started by describing learning guitar and to sing, how he’d been one of Susan’s student since Junior High School, that he’d sung in the mixed choir that she directed all through High School, and had organized a band a couple of years ago that was basically a garage band. “That is, until I got Jackson to join and be our lead singer, and then it got real and we played quite a few gigs last year, including Homecoming.”
They talked for a few minutes about the choir music he’d sung, and he walked him through the mix from the Spring Concert, including Renaissance Polyphony and choral arrangements of contemporary pop tunes. Robert commented that Susan had told him about that program and how well it had gone. He turned to Jackson and said, “So, is there anything about him that he’s not telling me, the type of thing I should know?”
Jackson grinned. “Yeah, he’s way too modest. He’s a natural leader, as in band leader. He’s the one who got Susan to work with us. I think I told you she coached a rock band on the side last year. Anyway, she was great, but she helped Will on the musical arrangement side and me on the lead vocal side. But the other thing is he was a big part of her choir, and worked with her on arranging some of the songs we performed in the Spring Concert. He arranged a couple of other contemporary songs for chorus, too, ones we didn’t perform last year. So, you should know that there’s more here than just a voice and a guitar player.”
Robert was listening attentively and looked at Will. “That’s very interesting. Did Jackson tell you how difficult it was and how long I looked to find a choral arrangement of O Fortuna for small choir that didn’t required a whole orchestra for the performance?”
Will nodded. “Yeah, he did, and I thought the one you selected was terrific because there was just enough instrumentation to carry it and to provide the emphasis, meaning the kettle drums and cymbals, but you almost had to listen real hard to figure that out because the choir was up front and the main focus.”
He smiled. “You didn’t happen to bring any of your work with you, did you?”
Will glanced at Jackson, who nodded his head at the door, and Will said, “Yes, Jackson told me to come prepared, so I’ve got a few notebooks of arrangements I’ve done and a few random compositions. Would you like me to get them?”
Robert nodded, Will stepped out and then when he came back attempted to hand them to him. Robert wouldn’t take them and stood up, motioning Will to follow him over to his desk where he pointed down and said, “Now, show me your work. Walk me through them. Go slow and be thorough. I want to understand what you’ve done, what the motivation was, how you went about it, things like that.”
They spent twenty minutes going through it all, starting with the early stuff Will described as ‘pretty poor,’ up to the most recent work from last school year that included his arrangement of Let It Be, Across The Universe and Attics of My Life. Jackson and I sat and listened, thrilled that they were so engaged.
When they were finished, Robert directed Will back to his empty seat and sat down with us. He glanced at me and then looked at Jackson. “I have a lot of respect for you, but I didn’t know what to expect when you gave such a glowing introduction to your friend that night after the concert. However, I’m impressed.”
He looked at Will. “I have to tell you that I see a lot of student work, and most of it is poor to mediocre just because at the high school and college age most students are getting started and haven’t developed their skills and craft. Most aren’t Mozart, you know!”
We all laughed. Jackson wasn’t taking any risks. “I know I didn’t have to audition because I had the letter of recommendation from Miss Albright and the scholarship, but would you like to hear us sing? I mean hear Will play and sing?”
You could see from his expression that this was a request not to be denied. Robert smiled and nodded. Jackson said, “Let me get his guitar.” Robert looked at me inquiringly. I raised my hands in the palms up position, as in “I have nothing to do with this.
Will tuned his guitar and looked at Jackson questioningly. Jackson looked at Robert and said,” How about if we do an acoustic version of the arrangement Will did last year of Let It Be for Miss Albridge? You won’t have all the choir voices, but you’ll get the drift.”
He nodded, Jackson looked at Will and nodded, and he stated playing and they were off. It wasn’t anything like you’d hear on the radio or at a concert, but that was the point. Jackson was trying to show off the arrangement and Will’s musical ability. When it was over, he looked at Will and said, “Do you want to do Heroes, or I’ve Got To Be Me? “
Will grinned. “I don’t think our acoustic and two voice version of Heroes does justice to the song. Let’s do I’ve Got To Be Me.” He looked at Robert and said, “this is one of the songs Miss Albright selected for the Spring Concert, and it’s a nice arrangement. Jackson’s got lead and sings it really well. I do backing vocals.”
They performed it even better than the night before, and when they were done, Robert gave then both an admiring smile and a lovely little golf clap. Then he said, “Most prospective students would be too panicked to do what you two just did, perform off the cuff like that. I will tell you that I’m impressed with your work, I think you’d be an asset to the music program. Thank you for that.”
Then he turned to me. “David, you said there were a couple of complications. Would you care to fill me in, and let me know what you have in mind?”
“Certainly. First, you should know that Will is among our closest friends, so sharing with you some of the details may be uncomfortable, but isn’t a problem. Will had to withdraw last quarter from U of O due to an acute personal problem. A very good friend committed suicide at Thanksgiving, and it was a total tragedy. There was no way he could successfully complete the quarter, so I told his parents that the best thing they could do was withdraw him for medical reasons rather than have him fail. He’s on the other side of that tragedy now, living with us and ready to move on. He wasn’t really involved in the music program at U of O, to their loss, and I hope you can see he’d be an asset here. So, here’s the situation. I’ve spoken to the Dean of Admissions, and there will be two or three openings next quarter due to dropouts. With a letter of recommendation from you, there’s a reasonable chance that Will would be considered and possibly accepted. He’s living with us, and the goal is to get him re-matriculated and back on a successful academic track.”
Robert was quiet, considering. I didn’t think that was bad. He had plenty to consider. He looked at me, then glanced at Will, and then looked at Jackson. Before he could say anything, Jackson asked if he could. Robert nodded, and Jackson pulled out two envelopes and said, “On the subject of letters of recommendation, I’d like to give you these.”
He handed Robert the two envelopes, and he opened and read each one. His eyebrows rose as he read them. He folded them up and returned them to the envelopes. Then he said, “Gentlemen, thank you for this most productive session. I really mean it. I’ve enjoyed it and been impressed, and thank you for the case you’ve made and the music we’ve enjoyed. Will and Jackson, would you mind stepping outside to the foyer for a few minutes so I can have a faculty-to-faculty chat with David?”
They smiled, nodded, and stepped out with Will’s notebooks and his guitar. Robert turned to me. “Is this for real, and how confident can I be that the tragedy you described is resolved?”
“It’s for real. Everything they said and played is one hundred percent for real. The tragedy was the kind of personal experience that tears your heart out, but he’s through it, he’s on the other side, he’s got his life back together and is ready to move on.”
“David, it’s been less than six weeks since Thanksgiving. How can that be? I’m not asking you to disclose private information, but reassure me.”
“One can recover from tragedies with the right support. Jackson provided it. He and Will are best friends in the world. After his parents pulled Will out of U of O, he was still in a total funk. We went down to Newberg and brought him home to our house. He’s living with us now. We worked through it all with him. Jackson came up with a novel approach to use music to get in there and get to him and start the dialogue. I was amazed. I’ve seen music therapy used at end of life, but seeing it used as an interventional modality with a teenager was new to me. I can only tell you that all signs are that it worked.”
“That is quite amazing. Needless to say, I’m interested from the theoretical point of view, not about the private details. How did it work? What was the structure?”
I smiled wryly, “Well, you’ll probably be put off because it wasn’t classical or sacred music, it was soft rock. But he’s a guitar player and they were in a band. Anyway, this fall Jackson discovered my collection of Moody Blues albums and listed to them all many times. He flipped over the cover designs, and was then on his way. Anyway, he pulled out seven or eight songs about friendship and dealing with questions and problems in life, and we played one every morning, then talked about what the lyrics meant and how that applied to what Will was going through. I’ve done my share of counseling, though I’m no psychologist, but I have to say Jackson’s intuition was right, and I was quite amazed at how it worked as a vehicle to get inside and help him get in touch with his feelings.”
“I take you at your word. Will would be a great asset in our music program. What do you want me to do?”
“Sending a letter of recommendation to Admissions today would be wonderful. We’re meeting with them tomorrow. If you’re up for calling the Dean, I would be eternally grateful.”
“Done. What else?”
“What was in those envelopes Jackson gave you?”
“You didn’t know? It was two letters of recommendation, one from Susan Albridge, and the other from an attorney named Spencer Sullivan. You know how well I know Susan, and Mr. Sullivan is on Session of your old church and an attorney. Do you know him?”
I nodded. “I do know him. He’s a wonderful person and very competent attorney. He was actively involved with Will and the family as they recovered from this tragedy, so you can rest assured that if he’s recommending Will as a Session member, attorney and family friend, it is completely credible.”
He smiled. “I will take it that way. I also know Susan wouldn’t write one if she didn’t believe every word she put to paper. I’ll send my letter over to Admissions this afternoon, and as it turns out I will be seeing the Dean this evening at a faculty function, so will talk to him as well. You know it’s too late in the year to think about a scholarship?”
“Robert, that’s not even part of the equation. This is about getting Will accepted back into college so he can get back on track and hopefully also getting a good asset into your program.”
He paused, looking at me. “I know you’ve given Jackson all the credit for this little exercise.” A smile broke across his face. “However, I detect the fingerprints of one Reverend David Ayers on this caper, and some evening over a Scotch or a Martini, and you’ll have to fill me in on the details and also bring that set of Moody Blues songs.”
I grinned widely and thanked him for his time.
When we got back in the car I said, “That appeared to go well. You guys sounded really good in there.”
They both still looked concerned, clearly not sure how this was going to go. I went on, “We don’t have a final answer yet, but Robert meant it when he said he was impressed, and he’s sending his letter over to Admissions this afternoon.”
I heard a sigh of relief.
“By the way, what the hell was in those envelopes?”
Jackson grinned. “They were letters of recommendation from Susan and Spencer. See, I’m not just a dumb, dorky teenager anymore. I learned from watching you, and when we were in Newberg, I asked Susan when we saw her at the church, and she called Spencer and I picked his up before we left town. He said to say ‘Hi,’ by the way. He was pumped to see you let us drive down in the BMW.”
The visit to Admissions was pretty straight forward. Will filled out the application form, and then we met with the Dean for what turned out to be a much more formal discussion. He said he was pleased to meet Will, appreciated his interest in Lewis & Clark and explained that they now knew they had three openings for the Winter quarter, and that he’d be meeting with an ad hoc admissions committee made up of a few faculty members on Tuesday, the day after New Year’s Day. They would be making the decision of whom would be admitted, to provide almost a week’s advance notice, and that we needed to understand that there was a waiting list that carried over from Fall quarter. We thanked him and headed home.
My main message was that we’d done the best we could, that we didn’t expect an acceptance the same day, and to be positive till we heard one way or another. It was Friday afternoon, and too late to do anything with the other potential colleges in Portland. That would be the order of business for Tuesday after we got back in town, so we had a fallback position in place.
As we drove home, I asked, “What’s on the social schedule for tonight?”
They both looked at me blankly, clearly having had their minds on other things.
“What do you say we walk to the Sellwood Grill for dinner, then take in a movie at the theater? I bet with this being Christmas vacation that it won’t be that crowded even if it is a Friday night.”
They agreed, and it turned out we were seated for dinner quickly, and also got in to see Every Which Way But Loose, the Clint Eastwood movie where he was a boxer with a pet orangutan who was trying to run down his lost love while being chased by a motorcycle gang. The story was a total stretch, but the movie was really funny and great entertainment.
We spent Saturday morning being domestic, doing laundry and cleaning house, then packed and headed north to Seattle to visit JC. The drive alternated between low clouds and light rain but wasn’t bad at all. When we got to JC’s house, he’d seen us pull in and was at the front door as we walked up. I’d kept him updated on what was going on with Will since Thanksgiving. Will had followed us up the walk from the car, and after JC hugged and greeted Jackson and me, he stepped between us and in front of Will and said, “Hi, Will. Welcome to my home. I haven’t seen you since graduation but it’s wonderful to see you again and great you could be here. I hear you’re part of the family now in a whole new way.”
He was smiling widely, his sincerity shining in his eyes, and Will responded a little timidly, then understood it was for real, and a smile broke on his face and you could see the emotion in his eyes. He swallowed hard and simply said, “Thanks, JC. It’s really good to see you, too. Thanks for letting me be a part of this.”
“Are you kidding me? There was no way you couldn’t be part of this. I’ve gotten to know that son of mine, that best friend of yours, well enough to know just what he’d be doing to me if you weren’t part of this. I’m pretty sure it would be painful, and a long and drawn out form of misery. Anyway, you wear one of those bracelets too. I know the story cause I’m the guy Jackson called to buy them for you when you and your band friend decided to wear them to stand up to the bullies. That was a gutsy move, and the kind of thing only true friends do.”
He was grinning mischievously now, and stepped forward to pull Will into a huge and warm hug. “Now give me a hug and get your ass inside where it’s warm, and we’ll get you settled with these other two.” That started a very pleasant evening. JC had planned dinner in, and did steaks on the grill while he put the rest of us to work in the kitchen on salad, potatoes and vegetables. It was cool but not raining, and we took a short walk around the neighborhood after cleaning up dinner, then settled in the living room. His first question was “What’s with you guys and the three almost identical jackets. Are you forming a club? If so, you should have all gotten the same color and then you could have gone on maneuvers together.”
He was smiling as he asked, and Jackson grinned back and said, “Now Dad! We’ve all got the same coats because we needed new ones, and these are the coolest ones around. We have different colors, so we don’t look like some weird club or a bunch of dorks. You should be wearing something so cool!”
He smiled at the response; happy Jackson wasn’t just going to take some harassment. “I guess this is a new version of the Three Musketeers, is that it?”
“More or less. We have strict entrance requirements, so if you’re interested, just ask and we’ll let you know what’s required.” Jackson was having to struggle not to break out laughing, and Will was pretty much giggling on the couch. JC told his son that he’d give it some thought, then started quizzing him about finishing the quarter. He was impressed that Jackson had taken on the role of women in Greek society as his term paper.
JC had figured out the night before that Will had never been in the Space Needle, so the next day we set out to see it. JC drove his Dodge Royal Monaco, which was a 1977 model in really good condition, and had the big 440 V8 engine. It may have been a two-door, but it had lots of interior room. Will was duly impressed with the Space Needle, and afterwards, JC drove us to the Museum of Flight, explaining that it wasn’t just located south of Boeing Field, but was informally associated with Boeing and didn’t just have one of almost all Boeing’s commercial aircraft, but also a B-29 Superfortress and a B-52 Stratofortress. They were awesome and impressive, for their size alone, as were also a mix of World War I and II fighter aircraft. But the real eye-opener was Huey UH-1. It was the troop transport version of the helicopter JC had flown in Vietnam. The fighters and big bombers made for a lot of interesting conversation, but nothing like the candid talk about flying a MedEvac helicopter and what that was like to fly a Huey in Vietnam, after we saw it up close and personal. Will’s Dad had served in Vietnam too, so they had a common bond.
On the drive home, JC filled us in on our plans for New Year’s Eve. We started with a later dinner at the Bluewater Grill in Leschi, overlooking Lake Washington. During dinner the conversation at one point turned to Jackson and I and the first time we came up to visit JC, and then Jackson made sure Will understood that this was the trip where he’d asked JC to put the Love Birds bracelet on my wrist. He was impressed and raised his wrist to show his. “I don’t think I’m ever taking this off. It means too much in too many ways.”
After dinner, we drove to Seward Park where there was a peninsula jutting into the west side of Lake Washington, and which provided a perfect view of fireworks on Mercer Island. As we pulled in to park, Jackson said suspiciously, “Aren’t we going to be sitting here a long time? It’s only 9:45.”
JC grinned at him and said, “Oh ye of little faith! Hang in there. This isn’t just a good fireworks show, it’s an early one because Mercer Island is a residential community. They do their show at 10:00 PM. The big midnight fireworks show is up north by the university, and there’s another one downtown by Elliott Bay. I don’t know about you three, but I won’t make it till midnight. Anyhow, we’re driving down to Lakewood to visit my Dad on your way home tomorrow, remember, so we don’t want to be out until all hours of the night!”
We all grinned our agreement and then walked over to the edge of the lake to watch the fireworks. After a bit of a sleep-in the following morning, we had breakfast and then headed south. We were taking two cars so that we could continue on to Portland from Lakewood, and JC suggested that Will ride down with him, and Jackson and I drove down in the BMW.
Frank greeted us with gusto, clearly happy to see his grandson again, and it was evident to me that JC had prepped him because he treated Will like he was part of the family. We sat and talked for a few minutes and then Frank asked if we wanted something to drink, and Jackson asked him if he needed some help in the kitchen like last time, and Frank grinned like a Cheshire cat and said he thought he’d pass on that drill this time. Help carrying the drinks would be appreciated, but there would be no quiz about sex life. Will looked questioningly at Jackson, who said, “Don’t you remember I told you that my Grandfather asked me some interesting questions last year about getting it on?”
The light went on for Will and he grinned, too. Frank was unperturbed. “What’s past is past. We’re not re-visiting that subject, remember? Now you two come help me with the drinks.”
JC and I could hear them kidding around in the kitchen, and when they came back Jackson had to deliver yet another briefing on the quarter, classes, choir performance and his expected grades. Frank was nodding and smiling. JC finally said, “We all weren’t able to celebrate Christmas together, but Dad and I have something for you two young gentlemen.”
He went behind the couch and came out with two gift-wrapped boxes. The first he handed to Jackson, and I could see it was heavy. Jackson raised his eyebrows. “Wow! What is this? It weighs a ton.”
“It is heavy, and that comes with the territory. This is from your grandfather and me.” It turned out to be a socket wrench set. “You and David now have a home and a car, and you need to start building up an array of tools. I looked in the garage last time we were there, and beyond the lawnmower and a rake, you don’t have much. So, this is a start. By the way, it has both US Standard and Metric, so it’ll work on that imported vehicle you guys drive.”
Then he handed Will a package. Will was clearly surprised and a little embarrassed. “Don’t sweat it, Will, you’re part of the family now, so relax and just accept it.” Will did and opened the package to find a pair of really good quality aftermarket automobile speakers.
“Jackson told me your folks gave you a new cassette player to install in your car. That probably means it only came with a mediocre radio and an even more mediocre set of speakers, so these should help you put out some decent tunes.”
“Wow! This is so cool, and over the top. You didn’t have to do anything like this for me.”
JC looked at Frank, who smiled back at him, and then he looked at Will again. “I know we didn’t, but we wanted to. I talked to Dad about what we should get you guys, and he said, be practical. We figured you’ve already got most of the cool stuff anyway, and Dad has always been a study in practicality. You know what? I’ve still got a socket wrench set in the garage that he gave me for Christmas when I was a junior in high school and got my first car. I’ve used it a lot, too.” Jackson and Will were duly appreciative, and both men were equally happy that their choices had been good ones. We all jammed into JC’s car, Will, Jackson and me in the backseat, and went to Frank’s favorite restaurant for lunch, then drove back to his retirement center, said goodbye to them both and headed south.
We were halfway back to Portland when I said over my shoulder to Will, “You’ve been pretty quiet back there. Doing some heavy thinking, or are you mind-mapping how to install those speakers?”
“The speakers will be easy. I’ve got a 1967 Chevy Nova Sport Coupe, and the speakers mount under the deck behind the rear seat, and there’s clear access from the trunk. That’ll be easy. The harder part will be installing the cassette player. I don’t want to pull out the factory radio from the dash, unless it’s a really precise fit. I’ll have to check that out.”
“It sounds like you’ve got it mapped out.”
“Yeah, but that isn’t why I’ve been quiet. I’ve been thinking because of what JC said on the drive down to his Dad’s place.”
Jackson had turned in his seat and was looking over his shoulder at Will, a little concern on his face.
“No, no. No worry. It was good, all good. He’s a great guy. He’s so easy to talk to, and he’s like really real. Anyway, we were talking about a bunch of stuff and then he said he understood from talking to both of you that I’d just gone through a really hard patch in my life and wanted me to know he understood and really felt for me.”
He was quiet again, and Jackson undid his seatbelt so he could comfortably turn in his seat and face Will.
“I was surprised at first, and I could feel the ‘it’s none of your business response’ starting, you know what I mean the way we all just react. Anyway, I shut that down because he’d told me I’m part of the family and I know he meant it and he was just trying to help. So, I asked him what he knew, and he said that he knew I’d lost my first boyfriend and that it was suicide and that it had to be incredibly hard to process.”
He paused to catch his breath. “I told him it had been pretty terrible, and that I wouldn’t even be in the car with him having the conversation if it wasn’t for you two coming to get me and pulling me out of that black hole. When I said that, my mind filled with all those images about the mole burrowing up to the sunlight, and bringing my candle of life out of that dark place, and coming back to my best friends. So, I told him about that, and the Moody Blues songs, and he was quiet and listened and asked a few questions, you know, to help me talk to him about it, and it was so great. You want to know why?”
He paused, and Jackson said quietly, “Why? Are you Okay telling us?”
“Yeah,” he said, swallowing hard and struggling to hold back the tears “It’s because I could. I mean, I…I could, tell him about it. I never thought I’d be able to, but I was. I told him about it, I mean not all the nitty gritty details, but that we loved each other and that Kevin was always struggling with the religious guilt, and that he couldn’t get past the guilt and the inner conflict, and that I was beginning to understand all that and not blame myself.”
Jackson reached his hand back between the seats and took one of Will’s. “That’s so brave, man. That’s so brave.”
I could see Will smile weakly in the rear-view mirror, and then he continued. “But the really important part, the mind-blowing part is what JC said after that. He told me about his twin brother and how they were so close and that he was gay and that he died in Vietnam, all of that. And then he said to me that the situation was different cause it was his brother not his boyfriend, but he wanted me to know that he really knew something about losing a person really close to you when you’re a teenager.”
He paused again, swallowing hard, fighting back the tears. “He told me I’ve got to do the work to get through it, and how it sounds like I’m on my way there because of what you guys have done, but that it’s so important not to let it control me. He said he knew about that, because if I let it, that’s what it will do--control me. And he said that’s what he let happen. He let the anger take control, and it consumed his life for a few years, and ruined a lot of his relationships and almost cost him his career. He said the pain will never completely go away; it’ll just lessen with time. But I’ve got to do the work, not be afraid, be in control of it, and go on with life.”
“Wow! That’s heavy,” Jackson said, “and so personal. That’s as open and personal as he’s been with us.”
“Like I said, he’s real, and I know it’s because of what happened and he, he…what’s the word? David, what’s the word when you feel what the other person is feeling because you’ve kind of been there?”
“You mean empathy? As in empathize?”
“Yeah, that’s it. He told me that stuff and said what he did because he empathizes. He’s kind of been there. He also told me not to be afraid of other relationships. Do the work, know it’ll get better with time. And he said again, not do what he did and spend a few years consumed by anger, becoming a loner and kind of derailing his life.”
He stopped talking and we were all quiet for a while. I finally caught his eye in the rear-view mirror. “He’s an even more amazing guy than I knew. You do understand how deeply he cares about you, don’t you, for him to tell you that stuff and talk to you that way? War veterans just don’t do that. Has your Dad ever talked about his time in Vietnam with you?”
“Not hardly. And I know it really meant something for JC to do it. I don’t know what I did to deserve having all you guys for friends.”
Jackson still had ahold of his hand. “You were you, Will. You were Will. That’s enough.”
We got home in the early evening, unloaded the car and unpacked, and then had a light supper. We talked about how we needed to get on the stick the next day working up a list of other colleges and then getting applications in, so we were executing on the fall back plan.
In the morning they both went to the local library to make a list and get the admissions office information. I knew Reed College and Portland State University would be on the list, but beyond that I just didn’t know. They were back around lunch time, and as we ate, we went over the list. It turned out that in Portland, meaning with a short drive, there were two other options, Portland Community College and University of Portland. Will’s first comment was that University of Portland was a private Catholic school and that would mean expensive. We also knew it meant something else that didn’t need to be said.
So, we had a short list of three schools, and they had the applications and started filling them out while I did the dishes. The phone rang and Jackson answered it and came back into the kitchen saying it was for me. I wasn’t gone even five minutes and walked back to the kitchen and stood in the doorway. Eventually, Jackson looked up and said, “What’s up?”
I paused for effect, then said, “You guys can stop filling out those applications.” It took about five seconds, then reality started setting in, and the smiles started appearing, then turning into grins and the usual “Is this for real” kinds of questions. It ended up with high fives and hugs all around, and a pretty happy household.
“Okay, so here’s the deal. The committee met this morning, and though there was a waiting list that carried over from Fall quarter, none of those applicants came with a letter of recommendation from the head of the Music program and two outside letters of recommendation. Jackson, that was a super strategy you executed. And you may have forgotten, but those letters carried double weight because this used to be a Presbyterian school, and they still aim to accommodate students from Presbyterian churches, so having those letters from a Session member and the Choir Director from a church was a big deal. So, you’re accepted and tomorrow we go on campus and complete the application process and then next Monday is registration day and you’re off and running.”
They were now acting like kids that just had a second Christmas. When it quieted down, I said, “I think the next thing that has to happen is you call home and let your folks know. Let’s do that now. You can tell them about New Year’s and that you got accepted, and when you’re done let me talk to them, or your Mom if your Dad’s at work, and I’ll sort out the details with them.”
Will was smiling happily, more radiant than I’d seen him in months, and I grinned at him as he walked down the hall to the phone. I heard the conversation from afar and it all sounded positive and upbeat. Eventually he came down and waved at me to take the phone and I assured his parents it was all true, that I’d pay his tuition the next day and they could reimburse me, and we agreed that on Thursday we’d drive down so Will could get his car, bring back whatever else he needed in the way of clothes and school material, and they could give him what he needed to handle book costs and other expenses.
It turned out that the admissions visit the next day was just Will filling out a couple more forms, declining living in a dormitory, listing his residence address, and then I wrote a check for his tuition. It was over just about that fast. We walked over to Robert Atkins office on the chance that he was there, to let him know, and it turned out that he, like most faculty members, was on campus preparing for the next quarter. We filled him in, and Will went out of his way to thank him for his support. He said he was happy to help, and then while looking at Will directly, said, “It’s going to cost you, you know?”
He was smiling, but Will started. “Jackson got into choir and Glee Club without an audition because he received a scholarship. I very much want you singing in both, but we’ll have to go through an informal audition. It won’t be any big deal, and I can assure you that your voice will be welcomed. That means choir practice on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and Glee Club on Wednesday afternoon. Are you up for that?”
Will smiled at him. “Sure am. Jackson’s been telling me all about it, and I really want to be part of it. Miss Albright was pretty direct about being involved in both, too.”
He smiled back. “Good, that’s settled. I’ll see both of you next Tuesday then, for choir practice.”
We were heading across campus to show Will the Campus Ministry center when we ran into Carter coming out of the building that housed his office. We exchanged holiday greetings and introduced Will and told him about the acceptance and that he’d be starting class this quarter.
“You’re Jackson’s best friend from Newberg, right?”
Will nodded. “Yeah, we’ve known each other since elementary school.”
“Long term friendships are to be treasured. I’m sure you’ll be a great addition to the school and to Robert’s music program. Now, let me ask you all, what are you doing Friday evening?”
I shrugged my shoulders and said, “No plans at present. Why?”
He said, “You all come with me to my office so I can call Marcia and confirm. We’d talked about having you and Jackson over for dinner during the holidays, but our schedule got away from us. I know we’re not engaged Friday evening, so unless Marcia has made other plans, I’m inviting you to join us for dinner.”
We followed him to the office where he made a brief and friendly call with his wife and then turned to us saying, “That’s settled then. We’ll see you at our home around 6:30 PM, how’s that?”
I told him it sounded wonderful and asked what we could bring, and he demurred, but I insisted and told him we’d bring desert. We stopped at the Campus Ministry center and showed Will the layout, though he’d have to wait till next week to meet Mona and the students in the discussion group. On the drive home Jackson told him how the discussion group had been going and that I was trying to get a gay support group going, and that we’d both been working on a non-denominational worship service.
The trip down to Newberg was easy and upbeat. Will’s parents seemed to be in a new space, friendly and accepting, and it was reflected in Will’s mood. I hadn’t seen any slumps into depression, but he’d had pretty regular stimulus for the last week. We helped him load the additional clothes and notebooks and stuff from his bedroom, and Jackson pointed at his electric guitar and amp. “Gotta bring those, man, we’re playing again and who knows, we may start a band!”
Will’s Mom made lunch, and he told his parents about JC giving him a pair of good speakers to compliment the cassette player, and they thought that was pretty good news. When we were done and had said goodbye, we drove to Spencer’s office so Will could thank him in person. He was incredibly happy to hear the news, and pleased Will saw fit to thank him in person. Then we drove to Susan and Ellen’s home before heading back to Portland, and they were equally thrilled. Susan was particularly happy to hear the details about the meeting we’d had with Robert Atkins; the arrangements Will had shown him and that we’d sung one for him. “He’s a good and in-touch with the times kind of director. I think this will work out well for both of you. I never told you, but Robert was the one who kept encouraging me to add contemporary material to my programs. He’s a pretty, how do you say it…is it ‘hip’ kind of person?” Both of them grinned, nodding their heads at her.
Most of Friday was spent with the Will and Jackson mounting the cassette player and speakers in Will’s Nova. It turned out that his Dad, being in the auto parts business, knew what he was doing, and the cassette player was a model sized for mid-size Chevrolet vehicles, and slid right into the space in the dashboard that held the radio. It accepted the power supply cable, but the speaker wires had different connectors, and Will decided they should use heavier wire, so they made a run to the auto parts store and changed out the wiring to the rear deck and it sounded really good. The dawning reality after that project was that when you have a cassette player you need cassettes, so there was now the need to buy tapes for the car! It was all good, though, and it was refreshing to see Will in such a positive mood three weeks after we’d brought him home. While they did that work, I went grocery shopping and bought a nice bottle champagne as a gift, a bottle of wine as well as a cake from the local bakery to take to the Higgins.
We cleaned up, and were at their home on time, and Marcia was effusive about the wine and the cake, and both were pleased with the bottle of champagne. They went out of their way to welcome Will to their home and to campus, and it was transparently sincere. The meal and the company were very good, and both boys did a great job of participating in the dinner conversation. Marcia, from having her own decorating business, was a pro at interacting with people of all sorts. She got them engaged in a music conversation that ranged from what their band played in high school to the latest hits, from what was likely to be in the coming quarter’s choir program to the highlights of the current season of the Portland Symphony. It was clear to me she was an amazing social asset for Carter, on top of being an all-around terrific person.
After dinner we adjourned to the living room, and after we’d settled down and Marcia poured each of the adults a glass of sherry, and soft drinks for the boys, Carter said, “We want to thank you for that nice bottle of champagne you brought, as well as the wine and dessert. We have something for you.” He handed me a wrapped book and I’m sure I looked surprised, and he continued. “You’ve told me a little about working on a non-denominational service, and some of the questions you asked about worship in early Christianity got my attention, and so I want you to have a copy of a book that was published last year that I predict will completely change the assessment of early Christianity.” He was smiling, and then said, “Please go ahead and open it.”
It was the first published version of the translation of the Nag Hammadi Library, and he understood my surprise. “I’m guessing that you know it contains quite a collection of Gnostic manuscripts, and I’m guessing your exposure to Gnosticism is the standard Christian one that focused on it as a heresy and found nothing of value in it. What has been occurring within scholarly circles in the last few years as the scrolls have been translated and published is that these manuscripts are forcing a complete reassessment of that approach, and in as much as they were all written in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, they certainly seem to fit the approach you’re taking.”
“You’re right, Carter, in seminary Gnosticism was essentially dismissed with no serious engagement. If you say this is important, I’ll take you at your word and read it seriously. On one condition.”
“And, that would be?”
“That you’re available to discuss the contents and implications as I read it. You don’t want me doing this alone do you?”
He smiled widely, and said, “Of course not, that goes without saying. You should also sit in on my lectures on Gnosticism. I’ll also fill you in on a lecture I recently heard Joseph Campbell give about experiencing the mystery of God.”
My eyes widened and I smiled thankfully.
Marcia stood up, stepped to a bookcase, and then came back with two gifts, one each of which she handed to Jackson and Will. “Merry Christmas, boys.”
They were speechless, and thankful, and found she’d given each of them a Lewis & Clark sweatshirt. “I know you don’t have one,” she said, looking at Will, “and I’m pretty sure you don’t have one either,” looking at Jackson, “though I may be wrong. In any event, they’ll keep you warm and promote the college as well.”
Will commented on the way home how cool it was to be able to get to know faculty and learn they were normal and fun people and feel like they really cared about you as a student. Jackson asked what I thought about the book. “I really don’t know. I don’t know enough about it to even make an assessment. Carter must think it’s important to give it to me, and also to invite me to attend his two lectures on Gnosticism. He’s a pretty perceptive person. I think he’s figured out more about where I am and the changes I’m going through than he lets on.”
Saturday morning after breakfast we needed to run a few errands, and while we were out Will asked if we could go to the mall. “Sure, what do you need?”
“Well, Jackson was laying it on me when we went home to get my stuff that I needed to get underwear.”
“That was a joke. You knew that, right?”
“Yeah, I did,” he said smiling, “but I don’t have enough underwear…or socks. I guess I wasn’t paying attention at the end of last quarter. I also need to get some bathroom stuff, you know, toiletries, if I’m going to be living in your house. Is that Okay, can we stop on the way home?”
I assured him the mall wasn’t that far away, and we headed that way. Being Saturday, the parking lot was pretty full, so we had a lot of parking lot to cover to get inside. Neither Jackson nor I had been mall shopping here before, so we did the requisite stop at the mall floor map, and the closest stop was a drug store, so we headed there first. Then it was down the main corridor toward the department store. We’d all been talking and joking, and I heard Jackson kidding Will if he was keeping his eyes open for good looking guys. Will acted offended, and Jackson reminded him that JC told him not to be afraid of relationships. It was all good humored, and we reached a turn in the corridor and walked straight ahead into the department store, entering through the lady’s department, dresses to the left, jewelry and cosmetics to the right.
We were looking for the overhead signs as we walked down the aisle, and finally saw one pointing to the Men’s Department straight ahead and to the right. We started out, took a couple of steps, and turned to make sure Will knew where we were going, and there was no Will behind us. We stopped and looked around, then looked at each other, and suddenly it went from surprise to concern and then panic. Will was nowhere in sight.