Before I go, I have something to say

Old Acquaintance

Two weeks ago I was forcibly made a member of a Facebook group. I didn’t know this could happen, and I also didn’t know this group existed. But it was okay with me. The group is called “West High Reunion,” and as soon as I saw that, I knew what was going on. You see, I’m not from Dubuque, I’m from Davenport, and I graduated from Davenport West High School (go Falcons!) many long years ago.

Of course, at times it seems more like the blink of an eye. So it’s mighty weird to see all these posts from people whose photos look so – not old, but decidedly middle-aged – talking about how things were back in the day. (And I would just like to mention here that a few years ago my son used the expression “old school,” and I got to inform him that this was not a term his generation had dreamed up, but one the Baby Boomers had used, too. In other words, “old school” is old school.)

So here are these people, a core group of what must have been the largest graduating class in West’s history. When you are just one among 622 students, it’s hard to keep track of your cohort. I couldn’t have picked many of them out of a police lineup back then, let alone now. A handful remain my friends today, either on Facebook or email or, on rare but precious occasions, in person. But for every two people who join the group, I draw a blank for at least one. Bob Collett? Sure. Linda Kelty? Nope. I keep my senior yearbook close to my computer these days so I can look people up, hoping a long-ago photo will jog my memory, but even that doesn’t always help.

I want to remember, I really do. A couple of guys in the group have begun talking about getting members of old garage bands – remember those? Does anyone still do that? – together to play at the reunion, but the names just don’t compute. Someone suggests Dave and Mark Clark, the red-headed twins whose pictures are in my scrapbook, but I already know what someone else tells him – they died not long ago, of some congenital condition.

That’s the sobering part. One good soul has taken up the cause of finding out how many of us are, well, no longer among us. As of today, the list of the “known deceased” is up to thirty-one. One was 18 and died in Vietnam. I’m sure there were others who met their fate there. One died just last fall.

And one was my very good friend when we were in grade school. Leslie’s house was just a few streets over from mine, and I spent a lot of wonderful days there. We played with our Barbies and practiced our flutes together, sometimes taking our music stands outside to play in the yard. Once we tried to read aloud Longfellow’s Hiawatha poem – found in our Girl Scout Handbook – and found it so silly we got the giggles and could not stop laughing.

We drifted apart, as childhood friends do, but I sometimes wondered how she was doing. The last time I saw her, she was with her husband and their golden retriever at an outdoor concert by Eric Clapton. It seemed weird to see her all grown up.

As soon as I saw her name on the list, I sent a quick message on Facebook to our mutual friend, Kathy, who also lived nearby and often joined us on those long summer days out of school. She wrote back to tell me that Leslie died in her sleep of a brain aneurysm when she was thirty-eight, leaving behind a grieving husband and two daughters. Unbelievable.

Someone else in the group, in response to comments about all the people we’d lost, said that it was probably not remarkable that any graduating class would have lost one percent of its members – that would be some sixty people for us – by the time that reunion comes around. It’s a sobering thought.

Of course those of us chattering on the Facebook page all probably feel the same way – so sad about Leslie, and Ken, and Vicki, and Phil. But it’s not going to happen to me, not at my age. Why, I’ve still got decades to go! And look at the cause of death, listed for many of them: diabetes, heart failure, M.S., motorcycle accident. Not me! I eat healthfully, I exercise, I see my doctor regularly. Not me. Not this year, anyway.

Among those names was one that gave me a start: Christopher J. Zordell. It’s not that I was unaware that my first husband, my high school sweetheart, had died nearly ten years ago. He was the father of my children, after all, and I attended the funeral, whether his parents wanted me there or not. (His second wife, from whom he was also divorced, chose to stay away.) What surprised me was that someone else had put his name on the list; someone else already knew.

I wrote to the guy maintaining the list to tell him the date of Chris’s death, his age, and the cause. I told him it was up to him if he wanted to list the cause, and he apparently decided against it. That’s too bad, I think. People ought to realize that alcoholism kills. As a slow form of suicide, it works awfully well.

Funny how, in the middle of planning a party, death shows its implacable face. All the more reason to celebrate, right? To mourn, and then to honor what is, clichés be damned, our one and only chance at this life.

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