Monday, March 07, 2011

Class Writing Prompt Gets Personal -- Warning: This Ends with an Obituary

Today I subbed for my friend Beth. I met with her Writing 115 class and started by reading them "The Masked Marvel's Last Toe-hold" by Richard Selzer.

It's a narrative essay depicting Dr. Richard Selzer's experience of amputating former wrestler Elihu Koontz's legs. It's an excellent story of power and the loss or exchange of it, of shifted roles, of love and compassion. It's one of my favorite essays ever and Beth's students analyzed it beautifully.

They analyzed for structure, use of details, language, repetition, and thesis.

Then I asked them to write. I asked them to take risks they might not usually take, but were inspired to by Selzer's piece. I asked them to think about their details, possible repetitions, the use of memories. Here's what we came up with as a prompt: Describe someone you knew in their prime and where they are now.

After 20 minutes of writing, here are some of the essay topics students wrote about:

*One man wrote about the uncle he adored throughout childhood. He wrote of following his uncle around as he fixed cars, played guitar, drew cartoons. He wrote of how his uncle joined the Air Force and came back in his uniform. The writer was a teenager by then, but still followed him around admiring every aspect of him. Then his uncle was diagnosed with cancer and ultimately succumbed to it. This writer tried not to show emotion as he shared his writing, but his words showed it. When he finished, he told me he'd be saving that piece of writing, as he's never written it out before.

*Another writer took another approach. She wrote about "The High School Slut," which we all laughed about. However, what she wrote was poignant. She wrote that this girl had had two babies in high school, one at 15 and one at 17. A medical emergency led to the removal of her uterus at age 20, though, and the "slut" realized she never would have had those children had she not had babies in her teens. She became grateful. In turn, she's now a grandmother of 12 and is a happy, solid family woman, and is one of the writer's dearest friends.

Those are just a couple examples.

I love how good writing inspires us to go deep, to push ourselves beyond what we would normally sit down to focus on in writing.

I wrote along with them. I didn't know this prompt was going to lead me to write about this, but it did. It's rough; it could use better details and imagery; it could show more and tell less. But I'll share it anyway. It makes me quite sad.


My friend Kevin S. killed himself last week. This has brought me great sadness.

In high school, Kevin was this vibrant, chatty, smiling, busy person. He used to ski with his pals and tease my friend Tracy that she was the only skier he knew who wore perfume and hair spray on the slopes. He also used to hug everybody. In fact, every time he came over to my house, my step-dad would say, "Why's that guy always hugging you?" We used to laugh about this, but the truth was it was fabulous to get hugs from Kevin. There was no threatening undercurrent of a sexual come-on. Really, it was just that Kevin had a lot of love to share and his hugs meant he really liked you. I don't think it got any simpler than that.

After high school, Kevin went on to college at WWU as did a lot of his high school friends. There, he kept close tabs on all his friends, bicycling, skiing, going to the movies, arranging crazy group events like In-N-Out runs to California or U2 concerts in Canada. He even drummed up The Rosebud Society, a weekly poetry-reading event by candlelight on his living room floor.

After Kevin and all his friends eventually graduated from college, he continued to live an interesting life. He bicycled across America. He took a long-awaited trip to Ireland with his mother, who was in the early stages of Alzheimer's. He got a job as a high school math teacher.

Somewhere in there, though, he started to isolate himself from friends and family and colleagues. For the next ten years, I hear he essentially stayed in his basement, stepping out rarely. It's said he used his computer round the clock, but without any interactions with his old friends. Old friends saw him occasionally. Mick and I even saw him 5 years ago right before we left for San Francisco and dental school. Kevin crawled out of his cave briefly, overweight and quieter, to join us in a little barbecue. We'd hoped his re-surfacing had meant he'd be engaging in a physical social life again. But that didn't happen.

A few weeks ago, some of his other good pals stopped by to see him. They said Kevin was obese, pizza boxes lay strewn everywhere, and his ankles and feet were ashen gray. One friend says, "I'm a counselor. Why didn't I see what was coming?"

Later that month, news spread over the phone and Facebook that Kevin S. was dead. I learned he had taken his own life.

You should've seen all the posts of sadness, of sweet memories, of mourning the loss of a person so special to so many.

In the aftermath of such news, I can't help but reflect on the joy and zest Kevin held for life in the years I was close to him. I can't help but wonder why he cut himself off from his friends and chose to live in seclusion. But I am sure intuitively that the mere fact that he lived in solitude in a basement meant he was no longer giving out hugs -- and that alone might have just made his heart shrivel up and ache to be done with it all.

Rest in peace, Kevin. Rosebud...


Kari Quaas said...

Hugs to you, Anj. This is a nice post about Kevin. It seems I met him once, or maybe I just heard stories. Sorry for your loss and so many others' loss.

anjie said...

Thanks, Kari. He was such a love.

Anonymous said...


I am in tears. Kevin taking his own life has really rocked me to the core. I am so saddened that he was so alone and hopeless that that was the best option to him. It really, really grieves my heart to know that he was in so much pain.

I have so many wonderful memories of him. Its funny that you mentioned skiing, when I was describing him to my huband, I told him about the time I went skiing with him, his dad, Chris and Eric Wermus. He found this 20 foot "cliff" he wanted to ski off. After about 30 minutes of scoping it out and planning the landing, he finally scooted back and went for it! Problem was, that he didn't scoot back far enough and he barely got the back end of his skiis off before he went straight down. No graceful landing. Just Kevin sucked completely out of sight into the bank of powder. I think I might have peed my pants it was so funny. Even thinking about it now makes me laugh. So was Kevin, with his impish smile, warmth, acceptance (I went to Rosebud Society meeting and I SUCK at poetry!) and love of a great hug. He will be missed and I will always feel a sense of "what could I have done?"

Tracy Neilson Weber

Anonymous said...

Have you or could you get a copy of your memories of Kevin to his family or to old friends of Kevin?

They would be blessed to read your thoughts and reflect on them which will bring up more memories from them that they could share with you, Kevin's family and friends

. What a special 'memory book' that would be cherished by many.


Anonymous said...

There you are with Tracy's intense and meaningful thoughts about Kevin 'on the ski slopes".
His family would love Tracy's and your story.
You both have strummed on my heart strings. How I'd have loved a L O N G hug from Kevin.

anjie said...

I agree, Jan. I just found a Memory page for Kevin; I'll be writing down my memories -- particularly the hugs at my house and others of riding around Puyallup in his little Subaru Brat.

Jennie Englund said...

Oh gosh, Anj. So sad. What a tribute you gave him.

I wish I could hug you right now.

Anonymous said...

The student pieces were powerful. What an amazing assignment. I especially loved the "Slut" one and the changes that occurred in both the writer and her subject.
I do remember of your many friends whom I truly adored! I'm so sad for him and all those who knew and loved him.
It is true and we are haunted by not knowing if there was something we could have done to prevent such an action.
Of those I have known, it seems they loved and gave so much to others. This makes it all the more tragic and puzzling to those left behind.