DJ Willoughby shown with Gina Molling, Boys' Latin theater artistic and managing director; and Charles Franklin, Upper School assistant head & dean of students.
DJ Willoughby shown with Gina Molling, Boys’ Latin theater artistic and managing director; and Charles Franklin, Upper School assistant head & dean of students.
DJ Willoughby shown with Gina Molling, Boys’ Latin theater artistic and managing director; and Charles Franklin, Upper School assistant head & dean of students.

At Boys’ Latin, the mandatory senior speech is a long-held tradition that each student develops, prepares, and delivers to the entire upper school. Some are funny; many are reflective. Then there was DJ Willoughby’s speech, a searing poem-slash-personal note to the mother of his best friend and former Boys’ Latin classmate, Zakary Aaron Osiris DeGross, who died from cancer at the tender age of 14.

DJ’s speech, which seemed to tumble out from somewhere deep down inside of him, profoundly affected the entire student body. “It was such a powerful speech delivery that shook the entire school,” recalled Gina Molling, Boys’ Latin Theater Artistic and Managing director. “There was not a dry eye in the house.”  With DJ’s permission, we re-print his speech below. EH

This is a poetic letter addressed to the Ms. Leslie DeGross.  In loving memory of my fellow classmate, friend, and brother, Zak DeGross.  It is entitled, “I Can Only Imagine.”

How do you live when you lose the person you can’t imagine living without?  I can only imagine that your days are plagued with doubt and disbelief? I can only imagine that each day falls down aimlessly like an autumn leaf?  I can only imagine that your days are cold even in July heat?  I can only imagine that grief sucks the life out of you slowly and unknowingly, like a leach?  I can only imagine that death grips your stomach so tightly that you can barely speak.  I can only imagine that the road to recovery is narrow and sleek.  I can only imagine that your eyes are heavy because the closest thing to death is sleep.  I can only imagine that your night air is saturated with noises and voices, of which you hear every peep.  I can only imagine that when you see my face, time collapses on space.  I can only imagine that you see flashes and split second images of his future that was limitless.  I can only imagine that my eyes are painstaking reminders.  School rings on fingers are splinters in your heart.  Everything I am and will be reminds you of everything he could have been and should have been. 

And still, I can only imagine that every hill is steep and that every hole is deep.  I can only imagine that your mind is filled with images of his empty seat.  The hole in your heart produces an empty beat.  An empty seat placed at graduation only cements the validation that your precious creation is gone.  You’re left with questions like, “Why does it hurt so long?”  You think you’re okay, and then you hear his favorite song.  You long for his presence because he was the very essence of good.  You wonder if it’s your fault, but you did everything you could.  With eyes full of fiery rain, you try to constrain, but that only heightens your pain which is so deep.  Every precious memory you keep, tucked away in the back of your mind because through your memories his light shines.  The glare from your son causes you to run from thinking of him, and tears run down your face because of the bitter-sweet taste.  Sorrow fills the air, and it’s hard for you to share.  Rightfully so, it’s not fair that you had to be the one to bear losing your one and only cub.  When you look out your window, the wind blows like ghostly souls, and sounds of death travel on the wings of crows.  Out of their beaks, loneliness flows, and the echoes remind you that every song is now a solo.  The eerie feeling turns your torso, and you wonder if your body is hollow because you poured out your soul in tears of sorrow.

But who am I to say these things? He, who only imagines, cannot fathom the eternal hurt of a childless mother.  Who am I to say these things? I can only imagine.  I can only imagine.  Words so deep tend to grip you by the spine, but I thank God for every single line.  The truth is explosive when left unspoken; but when let out in the open, it helps grieving souls that are coping with the loss of an individual that is critical to their survival.  Still, I am left pondering the ever perplexing question, “How do you live when you lose the person you can’t imagine living without?”  The answer is…you don’t.  You live FOR that person.

I hereby, dedicate my life to Zakary DeGross.  Everything that I will do that is pure and good shall be for you, Zak.  I give your soul permission to live vicariously through me.  It shall be my life’s work to do something worthy of your memory.  As Shakespeare said, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” and we must move on…not with Zak, not without Zak, but For Zak.

17 replies on “Boys’ Latin Senior DJ Willoughby Delivers Moving Elegy in Memory of his Best Friend”

  1. What an amazing speech! He writes so well, and he is so empathetic. I am an admirer of DJ Willoughby!

  2. I am a proud BL Alum who now has experienced one of my proudest BL moments. How I would love to be able to express myself as eloquently as DJ for someone as obviously worthy as his friend Zak.

  3. DJ, you captured my thoughts, feelings and emotions perfectly. Thank you for thinking of me and remembering Zakary.

  4. Oh my God…….that is simply breathtaking. What an amazing tribute — I want to follow DJ’s path — I have a feeling he will accomplish great things. Thanks for printing this for all of us who weren’t privileged to be there.

  5. Absolutely beautiful. Thank you DJ … for the wonderful memory of Zak DeGross.

  6. This is absolutely beautiful! Leslie you clearly raised an extraordinary son for his friend to honor him in such a special way. All the best to you, DJ!

    1. What a beautiful tribute! Anyone that writes this well will surely do amazing things in life! Best of luck to you DJ, and I am certain that Zak is proud of you!

  7. Out of the mouth of babes….one of the most moving pieces I have ever read and I am 70yrs young.

  8. So deep and heart felt a speech that it makes you wonder and ponder about our own loved ones that have departed prematurely. Thanks DJ for being so thoughtful and comptemplative beyond your years!

  9. DJ Willoughby,
    Your words honoring your friend, Zak,struck deep into my heart today. You seem to be a young man with the gift of extraordinary language, well beyond your chronological age. Experiencing the death of a close friend is one of the toughest of all life transitions; it most always causes us to question what’s out there, not only for special friends (your friend, Zak), but for all of us upon our death. When darkness comes you experience yet another day without seeing, hearing or joking with your friend. For many of us, sleeping becomes problematic after turning forty or so. It’s when I began to really feel my subconscious mind opening voluntarily to the souls (lives) of those who have gone on before us. The closeness that we feel at those times is very powerful; we remember every great detail.I want to forewarn you that eventually the details fade. If we are lucky, we learn to live with the faded memories of our friends & family. They are always there, but not as clear as the crisp bright images in the post death transition.They turn to sepia-colored picture cards to make room in our hearts for others. I hope you will continue to live your very best life, not just for Zak, but for yourself and others who haven’t come into your life yet, DJ Willoughby.
    We don’t know one another, but after reading your letter, I felt ‘godsmacked’– ‘a good thing that attempts to express an overwhelming spiritual experience after reading exceptional prose, listening to others speaking it, hearing a song for the first time, and/or music that creates a certain magic, touches our hearts.” Thank you for writing such powerful words that touched mine,DJ.
    Keep writing.
    Barbara, Creative Writer

  10. I read this 3 years ago and I am still scratching my head thinking how could DJ be so wise well beyond his years? Well done DJ, well done!

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