Death of a Classmate

The first time a classmate of mine died I was in third grade.

A cowlick in Jackie’s brown bowl-cut hair bounced in the air as he chased me on the playground. It was recess. It was loud. Kids sang and shrieked and giggled in anticipation of early dismissal that Wednesday and the long Thanksgiving weekend ahead. Jackie chased me and chased me and finally caught me. He stole a quick kiss that left my cheek feeling like it was sparkling. Cooties and all, in that split second I only saw and heard the cute boy with the crooked teeth standing in front of me. And then the bell rang and broke the spell.

The next day, after our first holiday dinner, my dad dropped my sister and me off at our grandmother’s house. There we met our mom and the rest of the family for dinner number two. Inside the house, the air was hot, thick with the smell of turkey roasting. The table was set with my Gram’s white china with the delicate silver ring around each piece. Grandpa Stan and three or four uncles talked in the living room. Each of them at least six and a half feet tall, their deep booming voices matched their giant statures. In the dining room, my stepdad sat me down and told me a boy at my school had died.

I don’t know exactly what he or my mom said to me. I don’t know how they said it. I don't know how you explain the death of a child to another child.

They had brought the article from the Record-Courier for me to read. I saw his name and the words “train” and “river” and confirmed it really was him with “third grader” and “Walls School.” I learned he had been out playing along the tracks with his brother and his friend. As the train barreled towards them, the brother and the friend jumped, but couldn’t convince Jackie to take that step off the bridge and plunge to safety. Instead he curled up next to the tracks. I scanned the piece over and over. I knew the who, the what, the where, the how, but maybe if I read it enough times – got in between the letters and the lines – maybe I could figure out the why.

The following Monday as I walked alone down an empty hall at school I felt a hand touch my shoulder. I turned around. No one was there.

In Junior High, it was Troy who died. He was the older brother of a boy in my grade, our neighbors. I missed the bus the day he started to walk home from our stop, collapsed from a brain aneurism and never woke up.

In high school we said goodbye to Tracy and Tim, boyfriend and girlfriend, the older brother and older sister of a boy and a girl in my class. And soon after it was Curt, John, Marty, another Troy, and Cher. Cancer, cancer, car accident, accident, carbon monoxide  –  and the list goes on – way too long for when we were just kids.

I was not close to any of these classmates, although I had briefly dated two of them. I remember Marty’s soft, spikey blond mullet and his checkered Van’s. I can still picture Tim wearing a brown, floppy suede hat and his tinted John Lennon glasses. Tracy loved – loved – Adam Ant. I remember Troy’s inflection, and the way he walked. The other Troy drove way too fast, and was the epitome of cool. Cher had a sweet laugh and they called her Cher Bear. John’s hair was thinning even in high school, and he had seemingly perfect skin. There was a tiny scar under one of Curt’s eyes that reminded me of a flower. One night we were driving on a dark country road and he hit a possum. He backed up the car and ran it over again. I thought he was being cruel, but he explained to me, in a caring and concerned tone, that he was trying to keep the animal from suffering needlessly.

Later this week, a young woman I’ve never met will bury the dream of marrying the love of her life. She’ll say goodbye to her fiancé and to their plans of spending the rest of their lives as one. I hadn’t seen or talked to Mike since high school – more than 20 years ago. I don’t remember what classes we had together, just that my last name started with “Al” and his with “Ay” so when seated in alphabetical order, our desks were close to one another. After school I hadn’t thought about him again until recently one of us friended the other on Facebook. Two weeks ago I congratulated him on getting engaged. Last weekend, the morning after Thanksgiving, she posted on his wall that he had passed away just after midnight.

I knew very little about his life. I learned more about him from his obituary than I ever knew – his mother died before him, he mentored people in recovery, and he was three weeks younger than me. Maybe that’s what makes it so difficult to wrap my brain around – with all of these classmates who died so young. They were not only close to my age, but from the same hometown, drove the same roads, walked the same hallways and learned in the same classrooms. Our lives were rooted in the same place geographically. In that sense, we had grown up together.

On Thursday, Mike’s friends and family will surround his fiancée and say goodbye to him. I will feel a sense of loss over the death of someone I never really knew. And I will find little more comfort or understanding than I did the Thanksgiving I was in third grade.  

 

 

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