Thirty-Five Years Overdue

From left to right: Elizabeth, Rick, Annette, Scott G., Kathleen, Scott M., me; May 12, 1983, Lausanne Hall, Willamette University, Salem, Oregon

I got the news November 18: Scott had died in July. The news gutted me. I found the obituary online, and the shock grew. There was no mention of the cause of death, which led me to believe it was health-related: heart disease, cancer, some other illness. What was most jarring to me was to learn what a full, rich life Scott had led--not that I'd expected any less of him, but that I was learning about it for the first time.

I need to be clear here which Scott I'm talking about, as there were two. Scott Greenwood is still alive and well, and I have managed to speak with him a couple of times in this century. It's Scott Marchand who is gone.

The two Scotts, plus Rick, and I all met on the first day of freshman orientation, August, 1979. There was another guy who was briefly in our group--I think his name was Chris--but he soon went his own way, while we became "Scott, Scott, Rick, and Mark." In the next few weeks, four young women--Elizabeth, Kathleen, Annette, and Cheryl--also became part of our group. Cheryl pledged a sorority and drifted away from us; Scott Greenwood pledged a fraternity but maintained contact; and Tony, a senior and RA, became our mentor and (I believe) gave us the moniker of "The Element Gang" because of a joke I can't remember. The following year, we acquired Mary.

Six and a half years ago, in the early days of this blog, I wrote a piece about this group, as well as some other communities I have belonged to. What I write today will echo some of the themes of that essay, but its primary focus will be one person, Scott, who was my best friend, and who was gone for four months before I learned the news of his passing.

Scott impressed me in many ways. On the surface, we had little in common: he was a lifelong runner, while it took me until my mid-twenties to take on any form of exercise; he was a conservative Baptist, I was a liberal Methodist (with liberal Baptist roots); he was a staunch Republican, I was transitioning to Democratic socialism; he was majoring in French and international relations, I was studying music education. Initially, like everyone in our group, we were simply thrown together by living in Lausanne Hall, the "intensive study" dorm that was most naturally hostile to fraternity culture--though two of our friends (see above) went on to become Greeks. Lausanne had its own dining room, and we shared many a meal, telling stories of our respective classes, learning about each other, finding the very diversity of our group to be intriguing. Including Tony, more than half of us were Methodists (Willamette was and is a Methodist university), plus two Catholics, one Baptist (Scott) and, the following year, one Episcopalian (Mary). We rarely talked theology--too much of a minefield--but over time, we found ourselves bonding over politics, though again, we found much to disagree about. What made it work for Scott, Rick, and me was Model UN.

Here was an activity that tapped into our political instincts while simultaneously forcing us to get along despite our differences. MUN forces participants to take on not just the culture of a country, but its politics, and represent them as accurately as possible. I can't think of better preparation for becoming a lawyer, as Scott eventually did. Seeing the world through Cuban eyes, as we did for the General Assembly in 1981, forced us to appreciate a viewpoint alien to our own.

What made Scott most special to me was how deeply he affirmed my identity. On Sunday mornings, we went our separate ways, though Scott did occasionally accept an invitation to attend First Methodist with me, as I did to attend a First Baptist Easter service with him. Scott's faith was a given, while I was already struggling with mine, but he never evangelized me in any way. He simply accepted me as I was, insecurities, flaws, and all.

Scott also taught me to play. He was a master of the inside joke, the catch phrase, of taking a moment and transforming it into a touchstone that we could all reference with a single word or gesture. Much of what we came to enjoy was silly--we discovered Monty Python together--but also our late-night weekend Risk games were occasions for riffing on themes of international intrigue and conquest. Scott set me on the road to getting over myself, a lifelong project that has only recently begun to see fruition.

We were not roommates until our senior year. In fact, Scott had cautioned me against the idea of rooming with him, warning it might be the end of our friendship. But then, the second semester of our junior year, Scott went to France. The coveted first floor corner room opened up at the end of the term. I had first dibs on it, and I wanted, for the first (and only) time in my university life, to have the roommate of my choice. I wrote to Scott asking him to consider rooming with me. The letter he sent back was a simply "of course."

I wish I could tell Scott how much that letter, and the year spent living with him, meant to me, how much it affirmed me at a time when I was feeling unwanted and unsure of where my life was headed. I wish I could tell him a lot of things. But he's gone.

On graduation day, saying goodbye to Scott was the hardest thing I'd ever had to do in my 22 years. I was a sobbing mess. I'd found friendship with him and our group like never before, and since then, I've only known anything like it in marriage. I saw Scott frequently in the three years after that day, visiting him whenever I came back to Oregon from graduate school, seeing a lot of him the year I lived in Salem (he stayed at Willamette to complete a double degree in management and law), and again seeing him when I was visiting from seminary.

But something happened in 1985, just before I headed off to Dallas to study for the ministry. A mutual acquaintance invited us to attend his church one Sunday. It was the People's Church, an Assembly of God congregation in Salem. We found ourselves sitting in the front pew. The service put me off in ways the Baptist service had not: the demonstrative expressions of the congregation, the treacly choral music, the proof-texting use of Biblical snippets, all were foreign to me. What really turned me off, though, was the preacher. The sermon was a conservative screed that railed against one sin in particular: homosexuality. On the ride home, Randy asked us what we'd thought. "I liked the music, but I have a problem with the faith statement," Scott said, referring, I believe, to a Pentecostal dogma that was at odds with his more Evangelical roots. "I don't like to be yelled at," I said.

Then I was off to seminary. Scott went on to join the People's Church, and to work their Pro-Life booth at the state fair. The following summer, Scott flew to Dallas, caught the tail end of a lecture by my favorite Bible professor, and then rode with me to Rick's wedding in Louisiana. On the way, we had a very short conversation about the lecture. It turns out he was offended by the historical-critical approach Dr. Power had taken. Scott had become a Biblical literalist. We agreed to disagree--as best we could. Things felt awkward for the rest of the weekend. I saw him once more after that, had a letter or two several years later, and then he just went off my radar.

I blamed the People's Church for it. It had taken him from me, turned him into a different person with a closed mind. That's what I told myself, anyway, but there's no reason to believe it was true. We had an awkward car ride together. We'd started off in different faith directions, mine taking me through progressive ministry to agnosticism, his leading him deeper into a life of prayer and conservative activism. But he'd always been much more conservative, and it had never been a problem. There's really no evidence it had to a problem now, either. He'd shown no inclination to want to fight about it, to try and convert me, to save my soul from the hell of mainline Protestantism. I was reading all of that into the silence, assigning guilt by association.

I have no way, now, to find if Scott had, indeed, changed. His obituary is no help. It's as laudatory as one expects a eulogy to be, describing what a caring person he was, how much he went out of his way to help others throughout his career with the Air Force JAG corps. It spoke, as well, of a life spent exploring the world, visiting every continent (yes, that includes Antarctica), and living for several years in France. That implies to me that Scott never lost his open-minded wonder to the diversity of culture, but again, I'll never know.

I am deep into midlife now. Retirement is less than seven years away. I'm a grandfather. My body reminds me daily of its decline. And my thoughts turn frequently to regrets: relationships I allowed to lapse, opportunities I ignored, experiences I passed on. The most bitter of these regrets come with death notices. Scott is not the first member of our group to die--Annette was killed in a hit-and-run accident in 2007--but his passing underlines the inevitability of regret. At my father's death five years ago, I entered into this phase of grieving conversations never had. I never got to clear the air with Scott, never got to even check in with him, let alone take the time to learn about the ups and downs of each other's adult lives.

Of all my regrets, the deepest is that I have serial relationships. For many years I pinned this on my itinerant childhood--moving every three years on average--which dovetailed well with an even more itinerant adulthood, in which I've never stayed in a position longer than four years. Looking back, I'm painfully aware that there was no necessity to this, that, especially in this age of social networking, I could easily have stayed in touch with people had I simply made the choice to do so. And yet, even now, I'm wrestling with whether to maintain relationships I've drifted away from in just the last year or so. My energy is typically invested in the people I'm with in the present to the extent that I have little left over for past relationships--unless I'm intentional about them.

That's my 2020 hindsight foresight resolution: to stop the drift of past relationships, to intentionally stay in touch enough so that the next death notice need not open the gates to yet another flood of regret. I recommend it to you, as well.

Scott, I hope you have found death to be an opening to eternal bliss. I'm sorry I never sought you out. I've been missing you since 1986, and now I'll be missing you for the rest of my life. Perhaps we'll meet again on that far shore. If we do, we'll have some great stories to tell each other. Rest in peace, my friend.


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