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Oldie, 3/29/10: 54? She was a baby!


Excuse the long absence.  Nothing to write about.  Until this morning.

So...how do y'all feel when you hear of the death of a classmate or other contemporary?

My first such experience was at age 18.  A young man that I'd dated in senior year of high school became a homicide victim shortly after the beginning of his freshman year of college.  That one shook me on so many levels.

First, there was the obvious:  The whole "forever" aspect of death.  GT and I had broken up the day we graduated from high school, and in the intervening months, I weighed whether or not I wanted to try and re-establish contact.  Our breakup had been the result of teenage immaturity and that old classic, "communication issues."  I always felt there was unfinished business, and his death brought home the fact that there would never be a chance to test that out.

The loss also made me obsess over the question of whether something like that could happen to me.  I didn't worry about someone murdering me, but just dying in general.  What would people say about me -- would I have died without anyone truly knowing "the real me?"  Talk about being voiceless!  I had accumulated an impressive stack of diaries and journals by age 18, and it alarmed me when my parents, remarking on GT's passing, expressed the opinion that any such writings he may have left should be destroyed.  My silent thought:  Would they have said the same about Shakespeare?  Dickens?  I wanted people to read what I'd written (notice the past tense -- 33 years later I'm not sure that would have been the greatest idea...).  I just wanted to be known...understood.  It bothered me when people talked about GT and painted such a superficial picture of him (nice guy, good student, friend to all, blah-blah-blah).  I didn't want that for myself -- didn't want to be just another nice dead person.  I'd have much preferred to have people speak the truth about me after I was gone, even if it sparked controversy.

This experience made me realize that it can take a very long time to recover from a loss, even if the deceased isn't someone you were close to at the time.
Since then, the most jarring loss has been that of Ruth, a co-worker in Atlanta, about 2 years away from retirement, killed on the interstate in Florida, less than a year after I left that firm and moved away.  At that job, we had a little "secret pal" club, in which you're matched up with someone and agree to leave them small, inexpensive, anonymous gifts throughout the year.  I got to be Ruth's secret pal and enjoyed hearing her reactions to the tokens I left on her desk after she went home (though I later learned, she figured out it was me rather early on).  She was an outspoken and independent lady -- the sort of person with such a strong life force, you can't quite believe they're really gone.  It's easier to think of them as just off on a long vacation.

And Ms. Lera, a lady in the neighborhood -- we didn't know each other well, but she was always at the meetings, and the person who would call to remind us of upcoming activities and encourage participation.  Not young, not healthy, but still gone too soon.

Frances, one of the first people I met after moving here.  She lived four houses down and came over to the house at 11 pm to let me know that my car had been vandalized as it sat in the driveway.  She left two grown sons, one of whom had significant trouble dealing with her death and had to be locked up for awhile.

The list grows longer as we age.  That's inevitable.  People no longer say "S/he was so young!"  They talk about what the person accomplished, and how s/he'll miss the kids' or grandkids' weddings, graduations, etc. Sometimes people will say the deceased saved their lives, by prompting them to get a colonoscopy or a blood pressure check.  But I think once you're old enough to have kids beyond elementary school age, the possibility of your departure doesn't come as that much of a shock to the rest of the world, especially if it was preceded by illness.

Treena, who graduated 3 years before me, was one of the stars of the music department at our high school.  She had a sweet, ethereal, crystalline singing voice -- her rendition of O Holy Night at a concert is one I will never forget, and one that I've never heard anyone improve upon.  She apparently had cancer, which went into remission, only to reappear.  She left a son.  Before Facebook became the preferred mode of keeping in touch, she maintained an impressive website for our high school.  One of her last messages was a plea for someone to take it over -- she referred to herself as a "cancer survivor," and said only that parenthood kept her too busy to give the site the attention it needed.

You get to know people and you think they'll always be around.  Even if you don't talk to them or even friend them on Facebook, you keep their living existence as a marker of sorts.  The way Yellowstone "will always be there."  Or the moon in the sky.  It's unthinkable to refer to them in the past.

Do we grieve for them, or for ourselves?

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