During the summer between the ninth grade and my sophomore year of high school, I did two things that would have a profound impact on my life.

First, I took driver’s education in summer school.

I was 14, but my 15th birthday was on the horizon, and if I took the course and got a copy of my birth certificate, once I started school that year, I would be able to get my driver’s permit and all of the future freedom that it promised.

Second (when I was not in summer school) I played tennis.


I would ride my bike to the tennis courts at the junior high school where I had just finished the ninth grade.

If there was no one there, I would hit the tennis ball against the north wall of the former high school — now junior high — gym where my father had once coached basketball.

At some point during the day, other people would show up, and I would get to play an actual game of tennis instead of simply counting the number of consecutive times I was able to hit the ball without missing.

One of the people who often showed up that summer was a neighbor from around the block, Brian Willoughby.

Brian was a good tennis player, but the quality he possessed that was even more important to me that summer was that he was exceedingly reliable. As adults Brian and I reconnected on Facebook, and he was as reliable and supportive as I remembered.

Each August when crochet season kicked off, he would offer me encouragement, do “virtual” chores, and check in on a regular basis to see how my project was going.

I came to take all of this for granted, and each summer in late July, I would tag him to remind him that crochet season was coming up.

Then yesterday I woke up to a message from a mutual friend informing me that Brian had died in a house fire.

Like a lot of people, I was shocked, and throughout the day I found myself experiencing a mashup of anger, denial, and loss.

After a couple of hours checking the news to make sure he really had died and it wasn’t simply some other Brian Willoughby whom I had never met, I decided it might be more helpful to work through my fresh grief with crochet, so I got out my current project, a crochet granny rectangle, and got to work.

The first thing I had to do was pick a green:

green yarn
Choosing a green yarn

After I settled on the Red Heart Super Saver spring green on the far right, I crocheted and crocheted and crocheted until I had gotten this far:

granny crochet rectangle
Thirteen rounds in on a granny rectangle

I know that when August 1 rolls around this year, I will feel Brian’s absence anew. I will miss his enthusiasm for life and the messages like this that he would leave on my wall:

conversation with Brian
Conversation with Brian

Sometimes you don’t truly understand the the place someone occupies in your life until they are gone, and you find they have taken a piece of you with them.