The meaning of this one escapes me
When tragedy strikes and someone we know is suddenly gone, we are still compelled to go looking for them in some strange, sad way. We find them in memories so bright, vivid, and distinct that it seems we could simply open our eyes and be right there with them again, picking up on the same conversation, putting our hand on their shoulder in a sympathetic gesture, grinning over something silly we both saw on TV last week. I mean, they were RIGHT THERE just a moment ago, so how can we not keep looking for them?
Or we look for meaning, perhaps even more elusive. Why did it happen? What conclusions should we draw from it? What should we, as a society, do about it? In my field, we look for themes, angles, symbolism, context. Anything to explain it, to help us understand.
So when I heard that Drew Anderson had been shot and killed last week trying to help his sister move out of her home in Robbinsville — and that his sister and mother had been killed along with him — my first reaction was that this must be some kind of mistake. I have known Drew for a couple of years and just saw him a few short weeks ago when he stopped by to tell me how things were going at Western Carolina University, where he had transferred after spending a couple of years at Southwestern Community College, where I teach and had had Drew in three classes during that time frame. We also talked about the Dodgers.
We always talked about the Dodgers, before and after class, in the hallway, during office hours, whenever we both had the time. When I first met Drew, he was wearing his Dodger cap in class, which I commented on during roll call. Afterwards, we talked about the team’s pitching rotation and bullpen for a good 10 minutes or so, and he finally told me that he and his dad, who is my colleague in the faculty at SCC, go to Florida every year to see the Dodgers in spring training. I was touched, impressed, and not a little envious to hear this news, and told him so. What would I have given to go with my dad to see the Dodgers in spring training just once? I did see one Dodger game with my father when I was 11 or 12 — the Braves spanked the Dodgers 10-0 and Hank Aaron hit a home run — and my dad bought me a Dodgers batting helmet. It is one of my favorite childhood memories by far.
I knew going every year was a special thing for Drew. Even if you don’t quite understand the fundamental importance of the fathers/sons/baseball connection, you could have seen how much it meant to Drew just in the way his whole demeanor was transformed when he talked about it. It was as if he had suddenly been plugged into an electrical outlet.
“We have a great time down there,” he said. “Man, I have a great family.”
I don’t really know what to say in this column if you want to know the plain truth. It is my job to find a theme, I guess, or maybe quote an appropriate stanza from a great poem, perhaps even one Drew enjoyed in class — it would definitely not be from T.S. Eliot, since Drew regarded that gentleman with the same contempt he held for the Duke Blue Devils or the dread New York Yankees.
I wish I had something helpful or cogent to say, but all I can think of is that I am sick with grief and angry at this man who killed these three people, leaving behind two children, a brother, and a father who in a few short months is going to have to confront the arrival of spring training and in the meantime is going to have to find a way to put his life back together.
The least I can do for Drew is to tell you this: You would have liked him. He was a big, almost imposing, redheaded fellow with freckles and dimples and an easy laugh. He loved the Tar Heels and the Dodgers and Star Wars. One day, he brought a lightsaber to class — this was not some cheap, knockoff thing he picked up at the Dollar Store. No, he had tracked it down on eBay and paid a handsome sum for it, and it really was quite remarkable. Of course, we lit it up and took turns striking Jedi poses before and after class.
Drew was the funniest person in the room. Any room. He was also one of the smartest and least pretentious. He had a surprising vulnerability that he guarded fiercely, only revealing it in rare moments in a poem, or a reflective essay. The juxtaposition of this aching sensitivity with his usual rants and broadsides about professional wrestling and demented people was startling. How could all of this come from the same person? How could it be reconciled?
In the teaching life, we are blessed to have students who touch us, who challenge us, who improve our lives. If we are lucky, we’ll make a difference to some of them. They definitely make all the difference to us. Drew was one of those. He made a difference. I miss him already.