a quote from my favorite author

“The most solid advice, though, for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

-William Saroyan, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze

Tuesday, November 13, 2012



This piece was inspired by Penny Kittle’s “Student dies in a wreck” from Write Beside Them: risk, voice, and clarity in high school writing.  I read it this summer and was so moved I knew I had to try this format to finally capture some of my own memories and feelings about a similar experience.

BEAUFORT COUNTY—On June 3, 1994, about 2a.m. sixteen-year-old Cedrick James Olson was driving home on Old Sheldon Church Road when he apparently fell asleep and his van struck a utility pole.

This is not the guy I knew: floppy blond hair, lanky stature, claiming he would live in those awful Zumba pants if he were allowed.  I had called him that night after he had already left the house.  His mom promised he would call me back.  How could she have known?
            My sister picked me up from school that day.  I could tell something was wrong.  She didn’t want to be the one to tell me. 
            “Josh called.  He left you a message.  You need to listen to the answering machine.  You need to hear it from him,” was what she said.  But the pain in her voice said, “I shouldn’t have listened.  I shouldn’t have heard it first.”
            I knew not to press her.  Somehow the way she was visibly shook, but remaining centered for my benefit wordlessly communicated that it would be best to endure the car ride home without further questions.
            She stood outside the door as I listened.  Josh’s voice was broken.  Ced’s mom was trying to get in touch with me.  She knew he was supposed to call me back.  She wanted me to know why he never would.  In her grief, it was the one thing she had control over making right.  She couldn’t find my phone number.  Ced carried it in his wallet. 

Although he was wearing his seatbelt, he was killed instantly.  A coroner’s inquest revealed he was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol. 

I knew he hadn’t been drinking.  Ced prided himself on being straight-edge.  His brand of getting high on life involved dying his blond hair blue, wearing purple Doc Marten boots, and fastening them with rainbow colored laces.
            In fact, it was this self-assured individuality that caused him to be made fun of when he moved from his aunt and uncle’s house in Eagle River, Wisconsin to move in with his mom in Yemassee, South Carolina—a town not known for its tolerance of old souls trapped in teenage bodies. 
            The students at his new high school didn’t appreciate purple combat boots.  In fact, a group of boys waited for him after school one day to pelt him with stones.  He thought he had left the real world and landed in the middle ages.  I was shocked that these students couldn’t see his light.  Ced was well loved—one of the most popular guys at his old school.  He was welcomed by upper classmen and I felt lucky to ever get his attention.   
            One time he wore a flannel buttoned tightly all day in the South Carolina heat because he was sure this kid was going to make good on threats to beat him up.  “I had worn the t-shirt you gave me and the flannel was tied around my waist,” he told me that night on the phone.  His voice carried his isolation across miles, “I didn’t want to get blood on it.”  My heart swirled with giddy pleasure and sickened angst.  I wanted to rescue him. I wanted to be special to him, but not like this.  I wanted the others to fall under the spell of his sincerity, his creativity, his genuine charm.  I wanted them to see the Ced that I saw. 

Sixteen year-old Cedrick James Olson was a poet, writer, artist and comedian.  His friends and family described him as a free thinker—always daring to be different.

Different doesn’t begin to describe Ced.  When he left Eagle River, I already knew my family would be moving away soon too.  I was confident we would keep in touch.  After all, we had spent each summer writing back and forth while he visited his mom in South Carolina.  My parents were lenient about long distance phone calls and I knew I would be able to call him at least once a month.  Still, I knew it wouldn’t be the same. 
            The day before he left, Ced asked me to meet him in front of the building after school.  I asked my sister to pick me up late that day. 
            When I reached him, he held a shoebox out to me.  I looked at him with question in my eyes.  “It’s just a little something.  A going away gift,” he shyly told me.  Shy was not a usual part of Ced’s emotional vocabulary.  I had a feeling this was something special.
            “But you’re the one going away,” I offered, “I should be giving you a gift.”
“You will be leaving soon enough.  It’s just something I made,” he added, as if that diminished its meaning instead of exponentially increasing its value in my eyes.       
I lifted the lid to find a sort of natural sculpture wrapped gently in tissue paper.  I carefully pulled it out of the box. In my hands was a piece of dried tree bark, with a petrified mushroom forming a little ledge for pebbles and brilliant purple flowers.  I could see when the clear glue had oozed out beneath a pebble before it dried.  How tedious it must have been to work with such tiny stones, such delicate little flowers. 
“I make these sometimes from things I gather when I walk,” Ced explained.  I hadn’t needed an explanation.  His art spoke for itself. 

He wrote a children’s book called Ricky the Lizard—a book asking to please not forget about the animals of the rain forest.  He wrote his mother loving Mother’s Day cards.  He gave excellent back rubs.  He had a beautiful mind.


  1. It's a lovely tribute to Cedric, Christy. I like that not only did you chronicle his death & how, but most is about who he was. We do remember those we've lost, don't we? I had a classmate die in a car accident too, so, so long ago, but I do take a moment to remember him today, as you have. Thanks for the sweet story.

  2. Mentor texts allow us to release our voice in unique ways. This was absolutely lovely, the contrast of the stark facts layered with the warm loving description of your friend. Wonderful Christy!

  3. Beautiful. Poignant. Wistful. What could have been. Christy, this is such a wonderful piece. It brought tears to my eyes as I read it.

  4. Such a vivid piece with so much emotion. I could see the tension in your sister's face and your quiet retreating posture in the car. I could see his mother's face and the sadness she must have felt on the phone with you. I could also see your smile and twinkling eyes when he gave you that very special gift. This story honors so many things about Cedrick and all that was creative and genuinely unique about him.

  5. What an unbelievably poignant piece. Your thoughts and memories nestled in between the news report was powerful. Many goosebumps -- and then the addition of Cedrick's picture made it, so, real. Does that make sense? To me, at first, it was just a story, but seeing his face made it real. What detailed memories. I hope you feel a little more sense of closure.

    On a side note: Yeah, basically, you rock. You somehow take everything to the next level. Quite impressive and may I say, I hope you have a book swirling around in your head and your are working on some writing because I could read this all day. . .

  6. Wow! What a strong piece. You captured not only the moments, but your strong feelings and reflections about Cedrick and his beautiful mind. Now I want to go read the mentor text that so inspired you!

  7. Such a beautiful piece to Cedric, Christy. You started it out with the unthinkable, but wound your way around his life to let us into who he really was. Such a tragic thing for his parents to lose their child. I'm glad you took the time, years later, to eulogize him. He clearly meant so much to you. Thanks for sharing some of his gifts with us.

  8. Amazingly crafted piece. The sadness and celebration go hand in hand. It's not just about the choice of words. You have put yourself in this piece to give it soul. I am sorry for your loss.