Saturday, February 28, 2015

Revisiting an Old Friend – Willy Was His Name

Like many of you, over the past week or so I have been laid up with a nasty flu bug.  Too tired to do much of anything except sleep, I did have ample time to think – about all kinds of things. Since I have been focusing lately on dysfunctional families and how we might navigate through holidays and visits with difficult family members, I think it is time for a shift to positive relationships. I am blessed to have had many close friends who over the years who have helped shape my life and how I approach many of life’s challenges today. 

I was a skinny eight-year-old just getting off a train I had been riding for a few hours – all alone, wondering what in the world was in store for me. With a bunch of other young boys, I boarded a bus to take me to summer camp in the New Hampshire woods. We were at a crossroads called White River Junction and wrestling with duffle bags that outweighed most of us. We pulled into what would turn out to be the magic of Camp Pemigewassett – my summer residence for the next five years.

Even at the age of eight I was imbued with a natural calm and keen sense of adventure. Willy was the camp counsellor who was in charge of all of us junior campers. He was strict, but not unreasonably so. After all, he was in charge of some serious cargo. Willy was a Princeton graduate and a schoolmaster professionally. He coached baseball – a sport in which  admittedly I never had any interest. I was a tennis player when it came to sports, but most of my waking hours were spent at the Nature Lodge. Collecting hundreds of specimens of any imaginable living organism – mostly plants, moths and butterflies occupied many formative hours of exploration.

Willy had little interest in the Nature Lodge and upon reflection was the serious guy. He was very well respected by all of the other counsellors, and feared by most of the campers – almost to a fault, except for me. We developed a close bond out of which grew a true friendship. Over the years after camp we exchanged Christmas cards. He even came over to visit me once at my boarding school. Being a typically emotionally stunted schoolboy, I did not understand the fragility of friendships.

Then one year, I received no Christmas card. I was 17. My mother handed me a letter hand addressed to me. I did not recognize the handwriting, but noticed the postmark was Princeton, New Jersey. Willy’s family lived in Princeton, and the letter was from his brother – another camp counsellor. Willy was dead. He had died from a brain tumour. This was my first experience losing what I can only describe as a kindred spirit. I was shattered. I had no one to turn to for consolation. I had no choice but to just move on.

I think of Willy every Christmas. I see his infectious smile in my minds eye. I remember that he was the one person to whom I would turn if I needed someone to talk to. He was the one who would bring me a treat of bubble gum. He clapped the loudest when I won nature awards – which were numerous. He was my safety net.

So lying in bed wondering about what to write about, his memory came flooding back. I began thinking. What was it about our paths having crossed that left such an indelible impression on me? I’m not sure I have it figured out, but what I do know is that he is not alone in my mind. I have other friends who were snatched away from this physical plane far too early. The light bulb that went off in my mind was that I have gone through life with blinders on, my eyes never wide open to the value of true friendship.

In looking at this dynamic from the point of view of the Six Pillars of Civility, the two principles that stand out are awareness and gratitude. How often are we fully tuned in to our close friendships? How often do we take the time to be grateful for these friendships? In Willy’s case, I am discovering that it is never too late to connect – the mind is a powerful tool. And although I cannot thank him personally, I can be thankful knowing I was lucky enough to have had such an awesome mentor in my life - now that I realize it.

How many Willies have you been lucky enough to know? Hold them close; visit with them from to time and smile when you do. They’re smiling back.