Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Last Suppers

Remembering a childhood friend, lost and found and lost again

What ever happened to Peter Watson? My mother has asked me this question many a time down through the years, and I was always chagrined to say I didn’t know. In latter decades I had turned to almighty Google to find my childhood friend, but there were too many Peter Watsons out there, perhaps, or perhaps I didn’t try hard enough. One way or another, I never found any footprints pointing toward Nashville, where long ago we were running buddies—not fellow joggers, as that term has come to mean, but boys who ran around together, made mischief, and learned a little something about how the world works.

Mom has an elephant’s memory for food and anything connected to it, and every conversation about Peter’s fate invariably began this way: “Do you remember the time Peter Watson came over for supper? I asked him if he liked chili, and he said, ‘Well, I’ve had some good, and I’ve had some bad.’” My mother is an accomplished Southern cook, and forty years later Peter’s indelicacy remains one of her favorite squibs of kitchen humor.

Peter was an unaccompanied minor the night he stayed for chili, as he often was during the years of our friendship. His mother was one of the few single moms we knew back in those days. She and her only child were in Nashville while she pursued a Ph.D. They shared a playful smile and a duplex at the bottom of Castleman Drive, near its intersection with our neighborhood’s busiest thoroughfare. Peter and I practiced a homemade form of bowling there: we’d roll mock oranges, the knobby fruits of the bois d’arc tree, down Castleman and onto Hillsboro Road. With any luck, rush-hour traffic would annihilate them.

We had met in elementary school, a place I barely remember. What stands out in my mind is the beginning of court-ordered school desegregation, in 1971. Peter and I were among the handful of kids who finished sixth grade at virtually-all-white Julia Green Elementary and rode the bus across town to mostly-black Washington Junior High. There we bonded as pubescent misfits—Peter a talkative, nerdy redhead; me a skinny recluse mortified by the gym locker room.

Peter’s mom sent him to private school the next year, and after that they moved to Birmingham. We were too young to drive or make long-distance calls, and we began to lose touch. That chili supper occurred on one of Peter’s rare return trips to Nashville, during a break in a glee-club school trip. We didn’t see each other again for decades.

I probably never would have found him again if my dad hadn’t died right before Thanksgiving. My father, John Egerton, was an acclaimed writer, and his death inspired obituaries in newspapers all across the country. Peter saw one of them and reached out to me through Facebook. He’d been keeping up with me online for many years, it turned out, thanks to my unusual name and my public visibility as a journalist. It was thrilling to be back in touch. Peter provided a thumbnail sketch of his life—marriage and two daughters, oceanographic research, a physics degree, a job at a science museum, consulting with biotech companies.

And, oh, by the way, he wrote in one message, “metastatic melanoma, diagnosed about four years ago.” Diagnosed on the day his own mother had died of breast cancer, and in the same hospital. But, he continued, “otherwise doing pretty good and enjoying life.”

We made plans to meet at my mom’s, who’s still in the same house I grew up in. I warned Peter that she had a funny memory of him. “I’m pretty much beyond embarrassment at this point,” he replied. So the old chili story came out, and we had a good laugh on the phone. Mom vowed to make chili again when he came for supper.

Peter came over on the night after Christmas, a few hours after receiving radiation therapy at Vanderbilt. There was a patch over his left eye—the cancer had invaded the socket and distorted his vision. He used a cane, and he labored to walk or sit because the cancer was attacking his hip bone. But there was a bear hug for me anyway, and a bread-warming stone for my mom. He ate heartily and spoke of his prognosis optimistically. He introduced my son to the word oobleck, which was born in a Dr. Seuss book and now refers to a cornstarch mixture that disobeys the laws of Newtonian physics.

Perhaps Peter was defying some of those laws himself that evening. It was his last night on the town. A day later, as he was heading home from another radiation treatment, something gave way in his hip. Everyday pain shifted to blinding pain, pain beyond painkillers, pain beyond words.

Even hospitalized, Peter continued to find hope. He took his patch off and told me he was seeing better. When hope wavered, he looked people in the eye and said, “I love you.” Even after hope was entirely gone and he’d been moved to the palliative-care unit, the humor remained. He realized he was in the same hospital wing in which he’d been born, fifty-four years earlier. “Wouldn’t it be wild,” he asked his wife, “to go out in the same place I came into the world?” And so it was.

What ever happened to Peter Watson? Well, Mom, he turned out fine, just fine. He had some bad, and he had some good, and before his time ran out he did a lot of good, too. He became a father, a husband, a scholar, a chili lover. He turned into a friend for the ages.