The year I was going to be a senior in high school, my youth group went on a mission trip to Tijuana, Mexico to build houses for people who didn’t have them.
The homes we built were simple: four walls, a foundation, and a ceiling. I remember my youth group director, Bill, showed me how to fold thick, black paper into fourths, then prick the nail through it before hammering it into the wood. He told me to tap the nail to stabilize it, then with two or three whacks the nail would slide into the wood, securing the wall. It was repetitive, satisfying work.
One of the houses we built sat on an edge of a cliff. The man we built it for was currently living underneath a blue tarp held up by sticks. On breaks, we climbed down from the cliff, sat around for a few minutes, drinking pop. Somebody figured out that you could jump from the road, fly through the air and land on the dirt without getting hurt. It was like a sand dune.
We jumped from the road and into the bright blue sky for a few minutes every afternoon. I practiced my toe touches, having ample time to fly in the air, lift my legs and reach my arms towards my toes. I sailed in the air for about three seconds, gracefully let myself out of the pose, then tumbled down the mountain, laughing and spinning. I remember my brother, Geoff, did cannon balls with the same skill. Sometimes, we jumped together and even then there was plenty of time to jump and fly and fall.
I remember on our last workday in Tijuana, Bill handed the hammer to the man who would live in the house to pound in the last nail. The man sobbed while he hammered and I worried he’d hurt his fingers. I remember wanting to kick the blue tarp off those sticks, and hoping the wind that rarely blows in Tijuana would pick it up and sail it off the cliff.
* * *
We went to San Diego at the end of our work trips because I think that was Bill’s hometown, and he had a connection to a church so we could stay there for a few days and unwind. I remember we went to a Dodgers game, Bill’s favorite team. I remember walking up what felt like a mountain to the ballpark. “This isn’t Wrigley Field,” I complained.
The night before we left, I called my parents from a pay phone across the street from the church to say hello and check on my flight. My mom and I chatted for a few minutes, confirmed what time I’d land in O’Hare, and then her voice changed when she told me that several days ago there was an accident. She told me that Tim Lutz, a boy I had known since I was six and who lived down the street from me, got hit in the head, lost consciousness, and died.
“He was playing basketball with his friends,” she told me. Tim got hit in the side of the head with a basketball. He was knocked unconscious and never woke up.
All of this, including the funeral, happened while I was in Tijuana, twenty-three years ago this June.
Tim had brown eyes with long, thick eyelashes. He had freckles on his nose and cheeks that I swear danced when he laughed, and he laughed a lot. To say he was a baseball fan is an understatement. He and my brother were on several baseball teams together, and growing up, summer meant watching them run the bases and slide into home plate whether they needed to or not.
I think a lot about the details of Tim’s death, especially when June arrives, and what I was doing while it happened. It seems morbid, maybe even perverse to admit that. Was I hammering nails into wood when he got hit in the head? Was I jumping off that cliff when he was rushed to the hospital? At night, while Bill led devotions, and we sang songs under stars so bright I believed if I stood on my tiptoes I would at the least feel their heat on my fingertips, was Tim taking his last breath?
I could ask my friends. Decades later, I know at least twenty people who would tell me the details, go over dates and times and days. It would take three texts, twenty-five minutes on Facebook, a google search with key words: Tim Lutz, June 1993. But I don’t do any of this. Every June I think about it, and every year I do nothing.
* * *
I once saw Tim catch a baseball in the middle of Gunderson, the street he and I lived on. He was in mid-air when he caught it, and I was driving away in my car towards who knows where. His friend John, who lived across the street, threw the ball at him and Tim ran into the street, caught it, then threw it back to John. I saw it all in my rearview mirror.
I consider asking about the details of Tim’s last week on earth, and end up here, on Gunderson, with Tim playing catch with his buddy as the streetlights flickered on and the fireflies showed up. I’m not even sure how accurate my memory is, but I don’t care. Maybe it is like the blue tarp I didn’t kick off in Tijuana years ago. Maybe I thought I was protecting something for this man. Maybe I was afraid I was being disrespectful. Maybe it is easier to think about a memory I cannot create.