Letting go of guilt: Letters from Tim

Confession time.

In my basement, I have five large Rubbermaid storage containers of invaluable paper items: old diary entries, colored pencil sketches of Pokemon, random essays from 10th grade English class, and faded movie stubs, among other things. I was fully prepared to take my own advice from my previous post about paper clutter. How hard could it be? I hadn’t looked at any of these things in over a year. Do I REALLY need fifty drawings of horses from my blue period (which is of course, the period in which I only used a blue marker for these sketches. I was an artist, after all)?

I gave myself a limit: I could only keep what would fit into one small filing box.

It was easy at first. Truly, one does not need a w-2 from their first job at the strip mall in 2003. Or utility bills from two apartments ago. These things were easy to toss. I struggled here and there with the odd paper stub or photograph that reminded me of a distant memory. If I never see this paper again, will I forget it ever happened? The photos usually made it to the “save for scanning” pile, but the random mementos from old school field trips were quickly tossed. I am not likely to forget what the Washington Monument looks like without a brochure from a museum. But then, I reached the Letters from Tim, and I was catapulted back to the fall of 8th grade.

Tim was a small, bespectacled fourteen-year-old boy who played the xylophone behind me during band practice. I had finally decided to grow out my bowl-cut bangs and experiment with shimmery eyeshadow. Tim had a crush on me, I had a crush on his best friend, and his best friend was dating my best friend. So it goes.Over the course of about a month, Tim sent me several letters detailing his feelings for me and asking me to go out with him. The first was written on a restaurant place-mat, and delivered via his best friend in a sealed plastic tape case. I almost expected it to self-destruct after I read it. But it didn’t.

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I played it cool, and ignored him. Because that’s what you do when you’re 14. My friends weren’t any help; they egged him on, suggesting he write me a note with all of the qualities he thought I possessed, like it was somehow going to help him get a date with me. He did, it didn’t, but I was flattered anyway.

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I finally crafted a short but fairly polite note explaining that the feelings he expressed were not mutual. I just wanted to be friends. We typed it on my friend’s new computer; I even kept a copy. I thought that would be the end of it.

But then, he gave me one more letter, right before Christmas break, 1999.

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 Tim was hurt. He didn’t understand why I didn’t want to go out with him. He didn’t understand why girls always rejected him. I’ll stay single from now on, he wrote. If a girl does ask me out, I’m just gonna say “no” from now on. Then they might get the idea that they know how I feel when I get put down. He was sick of me and my hurtfulness, sick of his family for annoying him, and sick of our town. He alluded to plans of running away, or committing suicide by being hit by a car. But he ended the letter cheerfully, with a  Well I gotta go now! See ya! with friendly bubbles over the exclamation points.

I considered telling an adult. Was he actually threatening to run away? Jump in front of a car? But at the time, I didn’t think he was serious, just lonely. He didn’t have many friends.

So, I did nothing but vow to be a little nicer to him.

We returned for the spring term as though nothing had happened. We talked during band practice, but he kept his distance. His parents divorced, and he moved in with his mom two towns over, right before our 8th grade graduation. We never spoke again.

That summer, I saw an article in the paper with a big picture of Tim’s face. He had been riding his bicycle to Wal-Mart for a spare part, when he was struck and killed by a car at a red light.

My friends assured me that Tim’s accident, as tragic as it was, had nothing to do with the letter he had written me. But every time I stumble across Tim’s Letters, the guilt rises to the surface and I question it. What if I had just agreed to one date? What if I had just talked to him nicely from the beginning, instead of ignoring him and letting it go on for so long? What if I had been nicer to him? What if I had told someone about his vague threats? Would it have made a difference? Was his accident really an accident at all? Or something he had been planning for years?

Of course, I’ll never get the answers to these questions.

Regret is a funny thing. Looking back, I know 14 year old me wouldn’t have done anything differently. I was under no obligation to go on a date with a boy I didn’t like. Could I have been nicer to him? Sure. I could be nicer to a lot of people. I didn’t tell an adult because it felt like he shared a secret with me, and it wasn’t my secret to tell. I didn’t want to tattle on something that was innocent, and make his life worse than it already was.

I’ve carted these letters around for more than a decade. I kept them because I did not want to forget a boy whose life ended too soon. I owed it to him to keep these letters, to keep some piece of him alive in that way.

Many of us have Letters from Tim in our closets. Painful reminders of past guilt. But the truth is, holding on to these things does nothing but prevent us from fully moving forward with our lives. They keep us stuck in the past. And that’s no way to honor someone’s memory.

I can’t change what happened. I can’t change the actions or choices of a teenage me. I will never know the truth, but that’s okay. I will never forget Tim, but I refuse to carry around this burden any longer. Today, I’m releasing my guilt. Are you going to release yours?

 

 

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