Friday, June 11, 2010

Graduation Day

Got an email from an old high school friend the other day. He'd just gotten back from the 45th reunion (this is up in Maryland), which I didn't make. I had a good excuse: too much to do here at home. But I could have made it. It would have put a kink in my schedule's regularity, forced the postponement of a necessary task or two, but I could have managed it. My friend had a great time, even though only 30-40 people showed up, probably because there'd been a 40th followed by a "60 years old" birthday party for everyone. There'll be another in 2015, and he really wants us all to put it on the calendar. That's because it will be the last.

He mentioned the names of some of those who'd attended. I remembered most of them, but could not put a face to some. I felt bad about it. It didn't seem right, as though I owed it to them to remember. And I can't find my damned yearbook.

(I was up there in 2005 to watch Bernadette play in the LPGA Championship at Bulle Rock, and had hoped that among the gallery I might run into some old friends. It didn't happen. I later learned that two of them, husband and wife, had worked that tournament as volunteers, but if we ever saw each other, recognition was not in the cards.)

Then he reminded us that out of a graduating class of approximately 275, thirty-one have passed away. I had known of some, of course, because a few - including my best friend - had been killed in Viet Nam. Another in an industrial accident. Another died of AIDS. But of the deaths of those listed this time, I hadn't known. One was a nice girl, almost pretty, liked by everyone, and the kind to whom boys didn't - but should have - paid more attention. (Isn't it always that way?) I don't remember seeing her at all the dances. She eventually married, had children, lived a good life, I presume: of injuries sustained in a very recent catastrophic car accident.

Another fellow had been on the football team with me, and part of my "crowd." He pretended to be a tough guy at times, but wasn't really. He'd be there for you though if you needed him. He called me out of the blue back around 1990 (or was it 95?), trying to coax me into coming up for the 25th or 30th reunion. (I have no idea how he hunted me down.) I said I'd try, but - as good as it was to hear his voice - I didn't make that one either. I haven't made any of them. This guy married too, three times last I heard, and had children of course. He lived his whole life in this little town where I first met him: of complications from diabetes.

Another I'd played basketball and baseball with. He was short, well-muscled, a pretty good athlete and a "good guy," in the sense that I never perceived that he was especially close with anyone, yet liked by all. We became temporarily close during baseball season because we both got punished at the same time (suspended one game) for misbehavior of some kind. I don't know what happened with the rest of his life: of a heart attack.

But it was the first name on the list that sent the cascade of a prickly cold chill down my spine and it hasn't gone away yet. Sometimes it does, but it keeps coming back. It was the name of a girl I'd once dated - seriously, I guess you could say - but who, in the end, I let down because I could not love her, certainly not in the way she deserved. And she did deserve it. She's one of the few people I've ever known about whom no one ever had a single backbiting thing to say. She was a cheerleader, socially at ease, and quite popular. She was also, like the girl mentioned above, almost pretty. The real source of her beauty, and hence her popularity, was in her personality, an indefinable quality that shone out like a special grace. The shine was taken when cancer took her.

I realize I've been speaking of all these people as 'good', or 'nice', or 'liked by all', and though it's always easy to speak well of dead people, I'm not lying. I remember the good. A lot of dross falls away with time. Everything back then that I might have found to criticize, "cut," despise (except in myself, of course), denigrate, mock, fight over or sneer at simply isn't important anymore. All that memory wants to latch onto is the essence of what made me like these people in the first place. I feel helpless but to wish them only the most ordinary of good things: that they have known reasonably good health, found love, got married, had children, and enjoyed whatever measure of happiness is allowed us in this life.

Maybe it's just that I hear the swish of the scythe now whispering through the field of all our lives, and I'm hiding out in the weeds in a corner of that field where I've yet to be found, knowing all the while that the whole of it must, and will, be harvested. But that can't be all of it, because that cold chill has returned every night since I heard the news and sends me to bed with a prayer on my lips, and the prayer asks of that girl with a special grace that she will forgive me. I treated her badly on a couple of occasions (in ways you would expect of a vain and shallow boy), and know that I accomplished a very simple but very bad thing - I hurt her feelings. I hope she found that love she deserved, and if God is truly merciful, he will see that she gets the message.


TS said...

Liked this. Powerful stuff, to which I can relate.

Lydia McGrew said...

I can relate, too. Maybe it's just that it's easier to see things clearly at a distance of thirty years or so, but of all the bad things I've done in my life, the ones that still bother me the most are the ones I did to people a long time ago. Why, I sometimes wonder, did one have to be so inconsiderate and outright mean at a young age?

William Luse said...

It is a puzzle. I used to think the vanity of youth needed excusing on the grounds of inexperience, or innocence. But, really, I had no excuse. And there were some kids who were not like that (like me, in other words). I just didn't pay any attention to them.

Lydia McGrew said...

Some young people (and I was one) develop the convenient fiction that they can only _be_ hurt; they can never hurt anybody else or be held responsible for doing so.

William Luse said...

That's a good way of putting it. (Although I have trouble picturing you as that kind of person. Of course, I know only Lydia, the grown-up Christian.)