You Can't Go Home Again

There came to him an image of man's whole life upon the earth. It seemed to him that all man's

There came to him an image of man's whole life upon the earth. It seemed to him that all man's life was like a tiny spurt of flame that blazed out briefly in an illimitable and terrifying darkness, and that all man's grandeur, tragic dignity, his heroic glory, came from the brevity and smallness of this flame. He knew that his life would be extinguished, and that only darkness was immense and everlasting. And he knew that he would die with defiance on his lips, and that the shout of his denial would ring with the last pulsing of his heart into the maw of all-engulfing night. Thomas Wolfe   You Can't Go Home Again

For Scott J. Filston, Class of '88 and never.

I used to think of myself as a tall oak tree progressing in a long and inexorable line toward the sun. I had important goals in my life, goals which gave me direction and which I hoped someday to reach. I could look down from my lofty height at the stages beyond which I had progressed. I could also look over at my friends, each with different interests, but each pursuing their individual goals along lines similar to my own.

Scott Filston was one of my friends. He was from North Carolina, which in his case meant that he had just enough naive boyishness to call a girl "Darlin" without sounding like a sexist throwback. He usually wore a plaid shirt with a red bandanna and a pair of torn jeans crisscrossed by the names of his favorite bands in black ink. He used to slap his thighs when he broke into his high-pitched cackle, a laugh that only comes from the South. When I first met him, he struck me as someone I had always known--probably from the Mark Twain I had read in high school.

My first premonition proved correct: he and I shared a lot in common. The blonde in most of his Polaroids could have been the one that I had chased in high school. He and his best friend owned practically the same green Chevy Malibu that my cousin and I wrecked. Even his most hated teacher reminded me of the walrus-like man that ostensibly taught me beginning Biology.

And late one night, after the party had broken down, he confessed to me that he wanted to be an architect, that he doodled all the time without even knowing it, and that he had a whole dream house stored in his head. He showed me a photo of a little gazebo he had built over the summer. I in turn revealed that I wanted to be a writer, that I wrote compulsively, and that I had daydreams about being on Carson and Letterman. I showed him the unfinished novel that I had tried to write in senior year.

By the time of these revelations, we had decided to be roommates. We had built up a little circle of friends that made us happy. Almost every night, we would sit around, drink vodka and smoke too many cigarettes, and swap exaggerated stories like minor-league Twains. In my words, he had appealed to me in a way that few people can to any one individual. In his words, we were brothers.

We were never roommates. Over the summer, a man who had too many drinks killed Scott with a car. He was gone.

I could try--and have tried--many rational machinations to justify his death, but they will all fail. I could try to write a work of art to put his death in some sort of perspective, but I don't have the talent. I could write a glorious indictment of drunk driving in this country and the mentality that fosters it, but statistics won't explain why he died. I could rant and rave against God (or no God), but that would not bring me any closer to the big WHY, a question everyone will have to face and will fail to answer.

The fact remains that humans are fragile and small collections of stuff that, put in the wrong place at the right time, disappear entirely from the face of the earth. Though it is nice to have aspirations, they will not change the inevitable end. If everything is meaningless and impermanent, you might ask, why write anything at all?

I have decided to write this piece because it is the only type of permanence I can give Scott. Harvard goes on as usual without him, as does Massachussets, as does the U.S. But perhaps, for a moment, some people at Harvard might think about his life and his death, and then maybe think about their own lives. That, I hope, will be his grandeur, his tragic dignity.

I can no longer think of myself as some mythical Wagnerian tree with a divine right to a noble purpose in my life. We are all leaves on a tree that grows without reason. And this tree cares nothing for the goals and aspirations of its individual leaves. Our only dignity comes from those leaves around us, the individual leaves who knew us well.