I met Will last summer, while interning with Project Vote Smart, on the Great Divide Ranch. Anyone who knows me at all knows how special and life-changing my time there was, so needless to say, the people who were there with me hold a strong place in my memory and heart. Will was no exception. After a grueling car ride that ended with me arriving 3 hours late to the ranch, my nerves were at an all-time high. I was nervous, anxious, unsure what to expect from the 10 weeks that lay before me, and positively terrified that I wouldn’t fit in with the smarter, more experienced interns that were bound to be waiting for me. When I got out of the car upon pulling into the driveway, I was greeted immediately by three beaming faces, coming out to welcome me. The first thing anyone on that ranch said to me was from Will- “We thought we were going to have to send out a search party!” Immediately I could tell that they were a welcoming bunch, Will being the most-so. He quickly offered to help me bring my bedding into my room, and chatted with me in a friendly manner while I did some initial unpacking. He told me that he was taking a year off between high school and college, and that he wanted to see the world before he buckled down to study.
Over the 4 weeks I had with Will (he had been on the ranch for 6 weeks of a 10 week internship when I arrived), we developed a very close bond, along with 2 other interns. We began to call ourselves the “Core 4”, as we were the oldest 4 on the ranch after Kylie left, and the later bunches of interns arrived. We did everything together. We practiced for softball games together, gorged ourselves on candy together, jumped into the lake together, and watched movies together. My second full Sunday on the ranch, the 4 of us sat in Liberty and had extremely deep, frank conversations, which I could hardly believe I was having with near-perfect strangers. We all admitted things which we all admitted we don’t ever speak about, which left me feeling closer to them than I had ever expected to feel that entire summer. I remember referring to Sunday nights fondly as “family night”. One family night, we pulled a mattress into the middle of the floor of liberty and all watched The Patriot together- Will perched up on his bunk bed and watched from above the rest of us, only half-listening, as he simultaneously watched something else on his computer. I soon realized that was somewhat of a norm for Will, to do his own thing, while still staying connected with others.
My favorite memory of Will happens to be my favorite memory on the ranch. It was a Tuesday, and I was so sleep-deprived that I couldn’t bare the thought of sitting at my desk all day. So, I found Steve our maintenance guy, and asked if I could join Eddie and Will painting the decks of the dorms. He said why not, and I happily bounded out to join them. For the first couple of hours, we painted and talked, joking in the way you only can when you are deliriously tired. After a while, Will plugged his headphones in and began to listen to (AKA blast) his music- heavy metal, no less. Eddie and I at first rolled our eyes, but eventually we told him we should all listen to it together since it would be better for his ears. While listening to Lamb’s Blood or Slayer or whatever the “music” was called, Eddie and I held back laughter. I remember Will’s sheepish smile as he defended the music. What a smile it was, too. Despite being associated in my mind now with this horrendous racket of a song, that smile was innocent, boyish, and that of someone who was just a tad unsure of himself. I don’t think I’ll ever see a smile like it. After lunch, I was happy to turn Pandora on on my phone, and play “Build Me Up Buttercup” radio, singing and whistling along with Eddie. Meanwhile, Will resumed his headphone routine, only breaking from his music occasionally to ask us something, or when we occasionally asked him if he hadn’t gone deaf yet. I remember him standing on the ladder, painting the unreachable side of the railings, while wearing a giant raincoat. It was pouring rain, and by the time our next break came around and it was my turn to be outside of the comforts of the roof, he had to change because he was soaked to the bone. Later that afternoon, a paint fight broke out, which Will stayed determinedly out of, in fear of the wrath of Steve. I will never forget all the little memories like that, which all helped to make up what has been, and may always remain, the best summer of my life.
Will was 20 years old when he took his own life on Sunday evening.
When someone commits suicide, you can’t help but think that something could be done. “If only” becomes a commonly used prefix to sentences and thoughts. You try to wrap your head around how things could have gotten so dark and so hopeless, that they think their only way out is to stop where they are. You try to put yourself in their shoes and wonder what they were thinking when they saw their friends and coworkers for what only they knew would be the last time. Then you wish you had done something- that you had called, or written on their Facebook, or something…anything. The hardest thing to accept is that there is nothing anyone can do now, except to focus on not focusing on that part of their life.
It has only been two days, so I know the process of wrapping my head around this has only begun. It’s going to hurt when I talk to everyone else I lived with on the ranch. It’s going to hurt to rehash fond memories with them, and especially when and if I ever return to the ranch. I don’t think it will ever not hurt, because when someone changes your life for the better, it becomes unfathomable that you can’t help them when their time of need comes.
I have a voicemail from Will, about this time last year, maybe a few weeks later. I was going through the hardest time in my life, after the most important relationship in my life had ended. In the message, Will simply said, “I had this weird feeling that I needed to call you about something….I’m not sure what though…but I hope you are okay” I will never delete it, and I will never forget the wave of gratitude I felt for him. He may never know what it meant to me, but I really hope he knows, somehow.
In the next few days, I will try to my best to live life as I normally would. I won’t dwell, or wallow, or think obsessively about last summer. Will wouldn’t want that. I will remember the amazing memories that he helped create for me, and take away the lesson that all you have is here and now.Life is too short to not be with the people you love, and to make sure they know you do every.single.day.
Will, you carried a weight on your shoulders that none of us could see or help you carry. I pray that you walk freely, and lightly, and that you rest in peace, knowing full well how much you will be missed.