A Diary for My Best Friend

Cecil TaylorBy Cecil Taylor8 Minutes

“It was in a yellow folder,” I thought to myself as I dug around in my garage and attic, searching for a yellowed memory. Finally, I found and dusted off the weathered folder, a diary capturing my senior year in high school, written for my best friend, Joe Torres.

Joe never read the diary. He had died three years earlier in a tragic accident. I wrote the diary to tell him about the senior year we never had together.

Joe and I met when our family moved to Runge, Texas. It’s a really small town, with a blinking red light instead of a traffic light, ten miles from Kenedy on the west and fifteen miles from Yorktown on the east. That’s the way we discussed landmarks in the remote rural areas on the Gulf Plains of Texas.

Joe and I were classmates from grades six through eight. I also saw him after school whenever his housekeeper mother would clean our house; over time, he was allowed to come over more often. Joe wasn’t into sports like me, but he had energy, a talkative nature, zany humor, and an instinct for how to keep the girls interested in him. He was always giving me advice on attracting and retaining girlfriends, which somehow didn’t work for me.

When I did manage to find a girlfriend, Joe thought she was too homely for me and nagged me about it. I responded, “She may not be pretty to you, but she’s beautiful to me.” Joe exclaimed, “That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard!” and never mentioned her looks again.

We introduced each other to new activities. Even as a middle schooler in the combined middle school / high school band, Joe was the best saxophone player in town. He convinced me to join the band. I still play saxophone (occasionally) because of him.

Meanwhile, I convinced him to join the Boy Scouts with me. One of our troop activities was learning to swim. We would practice in Lake Paul, the town’s small lake. Joe and I would buddy up. I wasn’t much of a swimmer, but I taught him what I knew. Joe wasn’t good at it at all and was convinced that he would never be able to swim, despite my persistence in teaching him.

When our family moved 100 miles away after eighth grade, it was hard to leave him behind. I have this vague memory of Joe waving goodbye and running down the street a short distance, pursuing the car. It would be the last time I saw Joe.

Four months later, I emerged from my room in my band uniform, getting ready to march at my new high school’s football game, when our home phone rang. My mother answered; her tone was shocked. She shared the bad news with me: Joe had drowned in Lake Paul. He had joined his brother and several other boys in overloading a leaky boat to cross the lake. The boat sank. The others swam to safety, but Joe had no chance.

I insisted on playing in the band that night, but I was in a complete fog. I went through my assignments from rote memory. The next day, our church youth group took a long day trip to Dallas to see the SMU Mustangs play football. I was doing OK, but suddenly, as we were leaving a restaurant on the way home, I was caught up in grief and shock again. My chaperone mother noticed a strange look on my face and asked me what was wrong.

“Did Joe really die?” I asked. “Yes, he did,” she replied.

And I was back in the fog. I had never experienced anyone close to me dying before, except great-grandparents and distant relatives who passed away in the natural course of life.

Grief is a very individual experience. Working through mine, I got a chance months later to talk face-to-face with Joe’s younger brother about the accident, and it was worse than I imagined. He described Joe, unable to swim, hanging onto him with a death grip, pulling him under, the brother wrestling himself free from Joe’s grasp to save himself, looking down one last time at Joe, who was drifting deeper into the darkness of the lake. I left Joe’s brother, wondering if he would ever get over the guilt he obviously felt.

I experienced some measure of survivor guilt myself. I had tried to teach Joe to swim—to survive—and I failed.

After that visit, I buried my grief. The survivor guilt and the grief surfaced again as I began senior year. I decided to keep a diary, penning regular entries to Joe to share the senior year he never got to live.

Opening the yellow folder all these years later, I was hoping for some profound communication that would inspire me and others. Well, not exactly. It wasn’t the work of a poet or a future author. The diary contained the account of a senior simply telling Joe about his day, with a special emphasis on anything involving girls and band, Joe’s two favorite subjects.

In the diary, I mention a lot of old friends with whom I have fallen out of touch. My reading stirred memories of them that had dissipated. Amazingly, in this era of social media, digital communications, and school reunions, I have been able to rekindle a few friendships, if only briefly with some. It was so touching when dear high school friends went out of their way to attend my mother’s funeral last year.

But there have been no reunions with Joe. I’m grateful that I’ve been able to experience a long life, but he never got as far as a driver’s license. It doesn’t seem fair.

I only found one yellow folder entry directly referring to the tragedy:

I realized at Sunday School, in our class discussion about death, that today is the third anniversary of your death. Happy birthday or whatever! I know you’re being taken care of.

Yes, I believe Joe is in the arms of our loving God in heaven. And one day, I too will cross over. I’ll get to see Joe again and tell him about everything that has happened since we last played sax together. Maybe we’ll play together again.