Willie was shy. That is what we all assumed.
I don't remember him ever saying more than what was necessary to answer a question. It didn't matter if the questioner were a classmate or a teacher, Willie kept it brief. So why is it that I can still hear his voice echoing in my head so many years later?
Willie and I either met in kindergarten or first grade which is to say a very long time ago. He was shy. Or at least that was the conclusion I quickly came to.
I was not shy. If anything, I was even more of an extrovert growing up than I am today. Talkative and outgoing, but also sensitive and anxious too. I wanted people to like me. Through the years, I always tried to win Willie over, to gain his trust and become actual friends.
For a quiet person, Willie was popular. He was handsome and smart. Girls had crushes on him. He played football and had a circle of friends to whom he seemed close. But in retrospect, who really knows--maybe he was as much of an enigma to the guys as he was to me?
After high school, Willie and I went our separate ways--him to Penn State and me to Cornell. I didn't give him much thought until we had class reunions and he wasn't there.
Growing up, Willie lived right near my friend Kristin and she seemed to be able to pierce his bubble a bit better than me. After college, Kristin was my only source of info about how he was doing. I heard he was sick with a chronic illness and living at home with his parents. While I felt empathy for him, I didn't understand why that would cause him to become even more withdrawn.
This part is on me: I didn't reach out to Willie. I didn't call his house to ask how he was doing and to tell him he was missed. I assumed he would not care to hear from me because as time passed, I started to wonder if he and I were ever really friends. I feared rejection. I worried about being intrusive.
Years passed. Kristin would run into Willie in their neighborhood sometimes. I remember bugging her for details about him but there weren't really many.
This summer, Willie joined Facebook. I was shocked and thrilled. Once we connected, he and I spoke more via Messenger than we probably had during four years of high school. He asked me about life in Brooklyn. I asked him what made him suddenly appear on Facebook and he told me about his desire to rejoin the workforce and reconnect with people.
I thought about telling him how welcome he would be at our next class reunion, but I didn't want to overwhelm him. I considered suggesting we meet up during my upcoming trip home for Labor Day Weekend but didn't want to pressure him.
And then he was gone again.
I never could have imagined Willie's story would end in such a dark way and my heart aches for his surviving family members.
Please know this: I am not saying that little ol' me could have prevented this tragic outcome. But I will always regret not asking Willie more questions in an attempt to connect with him and to let him know I cared.