24 years ago this very day, my best friend Keith M was killed in a car accident.
Keith and I had lived together during our freshman year in college, but I had not formed a very close friendship with him until after we had both graduated. What brought us together the summer after graduation was, of all things, soccer: Keith and I would often attend Minnesota Kicks soccer games together. Although I had a car, Keith was gracious enough to come pick me up, which saved me the cost of gasoline. He owned a beat-up Camaro which he drove way too fast, and I was often terrified of riding with him, but it was nice to have a friend, and a ride.
We became quite close and spend a great deal of time together. Like all of us, Keith had a few rough edges, but he recognized his flaws, and was slowly working on becoming an even better person. He was generous with his time and possessions, and would likely give someone the shirt off his back, if he thought they needed it.
Keith had been out of town on a winter camping trip to a State Park a couple of dozen miles away, but had come back into town on Thursday morning, December 17th. We spoke by phone that afternoon, and made plans to get together the next evening. He was going to stop by my place to pick me up after work, and I think we were going to go out to a movie.
That Friday evening I was late getting out of work. I ran into the downtown Dayton's and quickly bought a Murphy's Law calendar to give to Keith as a Christmas present. It seemed appropriate, since we were always joking about how everything seemed to forever go wrong for us. I rushed out of the store, and barely caught my bus home.
NCB and I were living together at the time. I had met him when he and Keith were roommates, and we had formed a close friendship. NCB was already in the apartment when I got home, fixing dinner with a girl named LP, and just the sight of the two of them together made me kind of upset. I had met her first, and had tried to go out with her, but she had started dating NCB. Although she had shot me down, I still kind of had the hots for her, and was mad at him for dating her behind my back.
I rushed in the door and NCB told me to sit down, that he needed to speak with me about something. I told him I was in a hurry, and rushed past him, into my room. I didn't want to speak with him while LP was there, but he summoned back out to the living room. NCB insisted, again, that I sit down, which I finally did. He looked me in the eyes and told me, plainly, that Keith was dead. I asked him how it had happened, and he told me: Keith had been killed the night before in a car accident. I asked him if he would BS me about something like that, he said no. Researchers and pshychologists say the first two stages of grief are shock and denial. While doubtless I was in schock, I experienced no denial. I knew instantly that Keith was, in fact, gone.
It seems that on Thursday night, December 17th, Keith had gone into town to the U of M to play basketball with AR and some other friends. On his way back home, at about 9:45 pm, he was travelling in the westbound lanes of what was then State Highway 12 in his new red Ford Fiesta when he was struck head-on by a large sedan travelling Eastbound in the same lanes, against traffic. The driver of the other vehicle was legally drunk but was not severely injured. Keith was dead on impact and, as this happened on a slight curve, probably never even saw what hit him. I recall hearing that the damage to Keith's small car was so severe the cops could not even tell if there had been tinted glass in the vehicle.
Keith's parents paid me what I feel was a huge honor when they asked me to be one of the Pall Bearers for Keith's coffin. I was there with DL, Keith's cousins and Keith's brother. At a time when I felt rather lonely and friendless much of the time, and being asked to participate in the funeral in such a capacity validated one of the few friendships I had managed to establish and sustain.
It's hard to say exactly what effect that Keith's death had on me. Certainly I was saddened. That is only to be expected. But I believe it went much deeper than that. I never fully or properly grieved my little sister's death - the one who drowned when I was nine years of age - and I suspect there are, to this day, quirks in my personality that are the result of unresolved grief from that event. Keith's death just added to confusion in my heart and soul, and I spent the years following in a series of depressions, which have only in recent years begun to abate.
NCB and I patched up our differences over LP - well, she and he broke up - and we went on to become even closer friends. We have played a big part in each other's lives: I introduced him to the woman he has been married to for over twenty years, and he was the best man in my own wedding. He and his wife are godparents to my children, and we try to stay in touch as much as our schedules and lives allow.
Every year for the past 24, NCB an I have gone out the Maple Plain cemetery to lift a Mountain Dew in a toast to the memory of our good friend. And most years we have managed to squeeze in a visit with Keith's parents, as well.
It's strange: for the first few years I thought people might think it morbid that we visited the gravesite, and I never mentioned it to anyone, let alone Keith's parents. But one day I let it slip that we'd been out there, and they seemed genuinely touched that anyone still remembered to do so. Keith is our fallen comrade and we remember him fondly, and his family appears to appreciate it. I do it, then, for me, and for them.
Unfortunately, this year NCB is living out East, and will not be able to join me, so I am going alone, for the first time since Keith died. I will call NCB on my cell phone from the cemetery, and he and I will raise a Mountain Dew each to Keith's good name, and then I will stop by Keith's parents' house for a visit.
A last note: I've come to the reasonable conclusion that it is wrong to become obsessed with death and those who have died. Life really does go on. But it is equally wrong to go on with one's life without taking time to reflect and remember those who have passed. I don't consider my trips to Maple Plain's cemetery as a duty, but a privilege and a kind of responsibility, to honor the memory of someone who was dear to me. As I get older, there will be more and more of such times, but trust and pray I am able to do right by each of them.
Oh, yeah, one more thing: please, please, please don't drink and drive.