Loss of best friend in childhood lasts yearsPublished 9:48am Friday, May 3, 2013
Column: Notes From Home, by David Behling
This is a story about a death by drowning, about a boy slipping beneath the surface of cold lake on a hot summer day. But the story isn’t really about that boy, the one who drowned. It is about the other one, the one who lived.
Both were not yet teenagers and had been best friends practically since birth, perhaps even before, since their families were also close. Along with a group of other boys, they had biked out to the reservoir to go for a swim. Locals called it the Fordville Dam, a small, artificial lake created for the dual purposes of water storage and outdoor recreation.
There were never any lifeguards on duty at that lake, but that didn’t concern anyone; swim at your own risk was the basic rule in libertarian North Dakota. Kids, families, pretty much everybody in any of the small towns in that part of the state drove out to the reservoir to swim at some point during the summer. The water was clean, clear, cold and close by.
This time, however, something terrible happened.
Boys being boys, the two friends challenged each other to swim across the lake and back again (it wasn’t a very big lake). So they set out, smooth, strong strokes pulling them over to the other side and back again.
They were evenly matched physically, usually keeping pace with each other, but this time one pulled ahead. Almost to the shore, he turned to shout a friendly insult at his friend. But there was no head to be seen.
He turned to the group of other boys splashing each other in the shallows and laughing. Where was his friend? Could anyone see him? Instantly there was silence. The boy turned to swim out again and look, but others grabbed him, pulled him back.
Some adults were picnicking nearby and a man dove in while a woman raced up the hill to the payphone at the public restroom (this was before cellphones had taken over voice communication). By the time the rescue squad got there and a deputy had arrived with scuba gear, it was already too late. When they finally pulled the body out of the water an hour later, there was no need to attempt resuscitation.
At that moment life suddenly got very hard for the boy who survived that swim. Suffering became real, not something watched on TV or in a history book at school. There were no easy answers to his questions, no easy way to make the tears and anger go away, though there were some who tried to give him easy answers, including a pastor from the community (who should have known better, as far as I’m concerned).
By the time our family returned to town, the funeral was over, the grave had already been turfed over and the boy — whom we had left in charge of our pets and vegetable garden while we were gone — was not the same young man we had known.
We had enjoyed our week spent with in-laws at a cabin resort on a lake in northern Minnesota (no TVs, no radio reception, only one phone in the main lodge). When he and his mom stopped by to pick up the money we were paying him, I could see his deep unhappiness reflected in the stiffness of his body and his silence. His mother had to speak for him and tell us what had happened.
It took him a long time to smile again and longer to laugh. He stayed active, in sports, in school, so he wasn’t depressed, just intense. And angry. From what I can tell, God died for him that day at the lake, not just his friend; it took me a long time to realize it wasn’t because his best friend had drowned, but because he had been left behind to live with the pain.
That boy is all grown up now, and successful in his career. We are still in touch, and chat every so often about his new baby daughter, about a decision to quit smoking. I hope that new life finally helps deep healing to begin. But only more time will reveal if that hope gets realized.
David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.