Under the look of fatigue, the attack of migraine and the sigh
There is always another story, there is more than meets the eye.
W.H. Auden, “At Last the Secret is Out”
On a grey Friday, the seventh day of December, 1984, one of my best friends from high school, Chuck Fuller, ended his own life at age 20. Chuck suffered from depression, but none of us knew it. No one saw it coming—not his parents, not his closest friends. All who knew and loved Chuck experienced the gamut of emotions that one feels at the news of suicide: grief, devastation, anger, guilt. If only we’d done this or that, maybe, just maybe, we could have made a difference. We always think that. It shook all of us to the core, and we carry it with us still.
Twenty-five years after Chuck’s death, I wrote his parents a letter to tell them both how much their son meant to me and how his life had touched mine and so many other lives. Chuck’s father told me of the pain of losing his only child, and said this about Chuck’s death and depression: “This life is filled with mysteries and it is not meant for us to understand everything. We would be as wise as God if we did. From time to time each of us has a terrible burden to bear. Burdens of the mind are surely the heaviest. I learned from Chuck’s death that mental anguish is virtually invisible and no matter how deeply we might love and care for someone we often have no idea the burden exists.” The darkness behind the light.
Here’s to the hearts and the hands of the men
That come with the dust and are gone with the wind.
Bob Dylan, “Song to Woody”
I first met Will Brown at the Memorial Hospital gym. Will was a radiologist resident at Memorial and a gym rat like me. The Memorial gym, on the third floor of the Health Institute, has been my home away from home for nearly 13 years, and I’m there a lot. But no matter how much I went, it seemed that Will was there even more. No matter what time of the day or night I went, he was already there. Will riding a stationary bike, reading his Ipad. Will with his retro headphones on, bench pressing nearly 300 pounds. Will doing pull ups with a weighted vest. Will doing sit ups with a 45-pound plate on his chest. Will laughing. Will smiling. Will in the zone. Will being Will.
Like everyone else, I was naturally drawn to him, and we connected instantly. Our conversation and friendship was natural and easy. I learned so many new things to do in the gym just from watching him, but of course we talked a lot too. No matter what he was doing, it was something to see, and I was in awe of him. Will being Will, he’d have none of it. He would invariably say, “If I can do it, you can do it.” I’ve never known anybody who wore all of his accomplishments and talents so lightly, and they were many—champion athlete, musician, physician. And he was right, at least to a point: I tried all sorts of things I hadn’t done before in the gym, and learned that I could do them. And Will being Will, he always acted as if he was in awe of me. He always encouraged me, acted as if he wished he could look like me, and always complimented me. We would see each other across the parking lot, and he’d yell, “Here comes the gun show!” “Stan,” he’d say, “please cover up those arms, you’re putting all of us to shame!” Never mind that he was twice as big as me; that was his way, Will being Will, as I learned very quickly watching him interact with other people.
When he found out that I was 15 years older than he, it just ratcheted everything up a notch. He seemed incredulous. He didn’t just say “I hope I look that good when I’m almost 50,” he would say, “I wish I looked like you right now!” As if he didn’t. With a smile and a body that could conquer cities, he somehow found a way to make you feel like the special one. Will being Will.
One day you’ll look to see I’ve gone
For tomorrow may rain, so I’ll follow the sun
The Beatles, “I’ll Follow the Sun”
Last fall I decided rather late in the game to run the Rock & Roll Half Marathon but didn’t have anyone to run with. Most people who had run it before that I knew would have nothing to do with it again. They had better sense, which is why I of course approached Will one night in the gym and asked him if he’d run it with me. He said, “I haven’t run at all since I ran the Half last year.” I waited. He grinned. “I’d love to run it with you.” That’s the kind of person he was. As far as I could tell, he didn’t train much at all, if any. He even bought a new pair of running shoes the week before the race and planned to wear them, another no-no. The day before the race I drove over to the Savannah Convention Center to pick up my race packet, and as I was walking in, Will was walking out. He was in scrubs, I was in a suit. I realized later that it was the only time I’d ever seen Will when he wasn’t sweating. Will being Will, he gave me a big hug and wouldn’t stop talking about how sharp I looked in the suit. We finalized our plans for the next morning. I would drive to his house at 5 a.m. His friend and fellow doctor, Lee, would meet us there and we’d drive downtown together.
I got up at 4, anxious to get the day started, and left the house at 5. Will lived just minutes away, and I called him to tell him I was on my way. No answer. I got to his street, unsure exactly which was his house but figured it would be the only one with lights on. They were all pitch dark. I called Will again. And again. And again. And again. No answer. Crap, they’ve left without me, and I was only a few minutes late. I’ll never find them downtown and I’ll have to run by myself after all. I was getting a little panicky, driving up and down the street, the minutes ticking by, when I noticed a car sitting in a driveway with someone in it. Taking a chance, I parked and walked up and knocked on the window. “Are you looking for Will?” He was. It was Lee, whom I’d never met. His calls had gone unanswered too. He tried again. This time Will answered. He had not only slept through at least 10 phone calls but through 8 different alarms, having worked late the night before. Nevertheless, Will being Will, he was out in less than 5 minutes, smiling, looking fresh as ever. Off we went.
Lee was a lot faster than both of us, and he was in a different corral. Will being Will, he pumped both of us up as we shivered in the pre-dawn cold, fist-pumping, hugging, high-fiving, “We’re gonna do this!” At the gun, we took off together and stayed together. He kept our time on his watch, and I pestered him throughout: How we doin? How’s our time? After every mile, he’d fist bump, high five, and never stopped encouraging us both: “We’re doing great! You’re awesome Stan! I’m having a hard time keeping up with you!” I’d tell him, “You gotta keep up with the old man!” And he’d just laugh and smile that smile. Will being Will.
At mile 8 the blisters came and I wasn’t sure I could run 5 more miles. Will never stopped encouraging and pushing us. He was in new shoes, for cryin’ out loud. He even took phone calls. Our pace would slacken and then increase. Finally, at Mile 13, Will slowed down. I could sense the finish line was near and wanted to turn it up, but I didn’t want to leave him behind. Will being Will, he could sense that too. “Go on Stan, get your best time! Go!” “No way man, we’ve been together for 13 miles, I’m not leaving you now!” “Stan, go on! Get your best time brother! I’ll meet you at the finish line!” I’ll never forget those words. With a thumbs up, I took off and left him behind. He finished right behind me, just five seconds off my pace, but I felt terrible when it was over. Will being Will, he’d have none of that either. He gave me a big Will hug and told me how proud he was of me. He told me he’d have never been able to finish but for pushing him and keeping him going. We posed together, had our pictures taken together, basked in our collective glory.
I learned so much a bout Will that day, about true friendship. I learned about his loyalty, that he would get up at 5 in the morning—or at least try to—to run with and encourage a friend in a race he’d already run before, a milestone he’d already accomplished; about the sheer physical and athletic skills he possessed that allowed him to do something so grueling without training or preparing, on little sleep, and in new shoes; about his selflessness in encouraging me to go on without him at the very end to achieve a personal milestone. He made me feel that he could have never run and finished the race without my encouragement, when actually the opposite was true. I learned that day about the character of Will Brown. I had always had a sense that he was something special. That day confirmed it. Looking back, every encounter I ever had with him confirmed it. Will being Will. The memory of that November day, of my strong and gallant friend with the heart of a lion, will remain with me when many autumns have become distant, vanished memories.
They say that all good things must end someday
Autumn leaves must fall
But don’t you know that it hurts me so
To say goodbye to you
Wish you didn’t have to go
Chad & Jeremy, “A Summer Song”
It was only fitting that the last time I ever saw Will was in the gym, sweaty as always. He was in great emotional pain following a personal setback the day before, and I sat with him and told him that I was his friend and that I was there if he needed me, and even if he didn’t. He was devastated, shattered. I had never seen him like that. I told him that I would check on him in the days to come to see how he was doing. Will being Will, he thanked me that day and managed to smile, and we said goodbye.
Forever and forever farewell, Cassius;
if we do meet again, why we shall smile;
if not, why then, this parting was well made.
William Shakespeare, “Julius Caesar”
The next week, I sent him a text to check on his emotional state: Hey buddy, how you doing? He responded immediately: “Hey Stan! I’d be lying if I said I was doing well. Been praying a lot.” I told him that I was free on Friday night and that we should get together. No response. When Friday night came, I thought about calling him and inviting him out again but decided against it. I didn’t want to bother him; I had offered my company and he hadn’t accepted. I didn’t want to push myself on him.
Will suffered from depression, but I didn’t know it. In talking with his friends and hospital colleagues later, we all had a little piece of the puzzle, but none of us had the whole picture or understood how it all fit together. Later that evening, in the early morning hours of Saturday, May 24, Will took his own life. He was gone at 34.
The saviors come not home tonight,
Themselves they could not save.
A.E. Housman, “1887”
Memorial Day in Savannah was dark and rainy, as if the heavens themselves were weeping. It was for me a day of profound sorrow and mourning, of feeling what I felt for Chuck all over again, nearly 30 years later—grief, devastation, anger, guilt. But this time I knew and accepted the fact that I had reached out to Will in his last days and that he chose not to accept the lifeline that I and undoubtedly so many others had extended. Will had many friends who loved and cared about him, and he was gone by his own choice. It was a journey that none of us could have prevented. The darkness behind the light had finally overtaken him, and most of us never even knew it was there.
And in the streets the children screamed;
the lovers cried and the poets dreamed;
but not a word was spoken.
The church bells all were broken.
Don McLean, “American Pie”
The following Friday I drove 500 miles across the Florida panhandle to attend the memorial service in Will’s hometown of Gulf Breeze, Florida. The small Episcopal Church there was packed to overflowing, as was the service at Memorial Hospital here in Savannah the following Monday, at which I was privileged to speak. The Rev. Christie Olsen led a beautiful service in Gulf Breeze. The connecting theme, repeated over and over again by all who spoke at both services, was that this remarkable young man touched so many lives and, as one of his friends said, his soul was as bright as his smile. He was the real thing. We all struggled to reconcile the Will we knew with the Will who felt compelled to take his own life. Afterwards, I met his parents, Tom and Lita Brown, and his three brothers, Tad, Alex, and David, at the home where, as his father put it, Will was conceived, born, and raised, and to which he returned all his life to reconnect and renew his spirit. His father Tom and two older brothers, Tad and Alex, all are doctors. His younger brother David is a paramedic. Extraordinary children come from extraordinary parents and families. To the Browns, I say thank you for the wonderful gift you gave the world in Will. He touched and changed our lives in ways that none of you—nor he—could imagine.
Friendship is hard work. All things in life that are worthwhile are. Friendship has to be cultivated, maintained, refreshed, renewed. We all get busy and we lose touch. It’s hard enough sometimes just getting through our own day and dealing with our own troubles. We’re all too busy trying to shove our own rocks up the hill every day. Paying attention to other people’s moods or problems, no matter how much we may care about them, is often just too much work, too heavy a load. But in the wake of Will’s death, I hope now that I pay more attention to those around me and to the burdens they carry within them. Take the time to ask people how they’re doing, and really mean it when you ask. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: be kind to all those you meet, because we really don’t know the silent struggles within or the dark but quiet battles people are fighting. Even in the midst of all the hurries and bustles of modern life, I hope I can stop long enough to pay attention to those around me, and that somehow, some way, next time I can better see the darkness behind the light.
When he shall die, take and cut him out in little stars;
and he shall make the face of heaven so fine
that all the world shall be in love with night.
William Shakespeare, “Romeo & Juliet”
As Mr. Viviana said to Sherlock Holmes in “The Abbey Grange,” there are those in this life who are what you might call large-souled, who are a privilege to know. Will Brown was one of those. Will didn’t just make those around him better, his friends and colleagues, though he certainly did that. He made the human race better, and the world desperately needs more people like him. Will wasn’t a saint, nor was he perfect. None of us is. But he was a good and compassionate friend who always worried more about other people than himself, who invariably made everyone feel better and more cheerful after having spent just a few moments with him. I will struggle all of my life to keep faith with Will and all that he was, but I am so grateful for the privilege of having known him, for all that he taught me and gave me in so short a time.
One thing I know as I stand on the threshold of 50: real friendship is a rare and fleeting thing. I grieve the loss of this special friend. I am angry and heartbroken that there will be no more of him and all that might have been—no more learning from him, connecting with him, running with him. There should have been years and years and years left for this friendship to grow and for it to nourish us both.
But ultimately, the light that shined through Will—and that now shines through all who knew him—was much more powerful and lasting than the darkness behind the light. All the good that Will did and the joy he brought to so many others will far outlive the darkness that ultimately took him from us. And I realize now that Will needed to finish the race before me. As I left him behind on that November day—however briefly—so has he left us. Go on Will; get your best time. Will being Will, he’ll be waiting for me—for all of us—at the finish line. Godspeed my beautiful friend.
The light shines in the darkness,
And the darkness could not overcome it.
The Gospel of John, 1:5