Monday, March 12, 2007


I made the mistake of taking a nap today. I was down for two hours. Stupid clock change. Now my wife is safely in bed and I'm up mulling over the impending death of a great kid.

Simply put, that's not a great place to go.

Death has only touched me occasionally in my life. I lost one grandfather in elementary school and the other as a junior in high school. I miss both greatly. I especially remember the grandfather I lost in high school--we were closer geographically, and I'd had a chance to get to know him better and longer. While it was hard when he died, it was after a solid 5-year battle with cancer (he'd been told he'd have 6 months to 2 years). I was certainly sad, but had had a lot of time to prepare for his passing. In fact, to hear my father tell the story of his last few hours, he probably held on too hard and too long. And he was 78 years old, so I didn't feel cheated or anything...just sad because I knew I'd miss the guy. I still do. I think about him often, especially when I open pickles on Christmas.

Incredibly, I haven't been really rocked by the death of a loved one since 1989...and since I'm faced with the death of another young woman, this memory is being unearthed lately.

Michelle, a great friend and occasional high school girlfriend, died in a car accident on February 11 of that year, my freshman year of college. She was a sweetheart--big smile, beautiful, kind as can be, and (much to my HS-low-self-esteem confusion) into me. I have many, many positive memories of her. She was the second girl I ever kissed, for instance. One day in chemistry, she remarked that her parents wouldn't be home that night. She basically dared me to come over to her house. I grabbed chemistry books as an alibi and headed over there in my Subaru, shaking with nerves the whole way. I got a big smile and an "I didn't think you'd show up!" Ah, life at sixteen...

I found out she died in a letter from another high school friend. She eased it into the letter in a paragraph between "I'm working very hard on the musical" and "I have a bad cold." There it was: "I'm sure you heard Michelle died last Saturday night..." Well, I hadn't. And that week of her funeral was the only time I had wished I'd gone to school in state. Michelle's death hit at what was already a low point at Kenyon for me...a month after arriving as a transfer, I hated my dorm, hated my roommate, hadn't yet made many friends, had been sorta jilted by a woman, and was questioning my decision to switch schools. News of Michelle's death came at that moment. It was not good timing. I'll never forget that bizarre the whole thing was. I dazedly walked around trying to figure out the appropriate way to act. Right off the bat, I went and bought a sympathy card, then looked up her family's address in the library. I did a listless Chasers rehearsal, hoping somebody would want to talk to me (nobody did). I decided to try to go to my afternoon classes, but when I found myself writing poetry about Michelle in the first class, I bagged on the second.

I remember spending the entire day doing a bizarre Sesame Street game. You know the Sesame Street thing where they combine sounds to make a word? "S.....UN. S...UN. S-UN. SUN!" I did that all day, trying to connect the concepts of "Michelle" and "dead." I understood Michelle...she was the cute girl back in Colorado who liked smiling and kissing me. I understood was when you stopped breathing and were stuck in the ground. Combining those two concepts was a hell of a task that day.

I tried crying. That didn't last long.

I then tried praying, but I didn't want to believe in God at that moment, so I postponed it.

Fortunately, some Kenyon friends did step up that day and just listened to me, and some Colorado friends who understood me were very nice to me on the phone.

One of them (Hiya, Brooklyn!) had been through something similar--one of his best friends had died in a light plane accident about a year earlier. He knew where I was and where I was going, and that was priceless.

It was Brooklyn who, years later, sort of framed the way I think of lost loved ones. Strangely, he did it by quoting an unexpected source: the movie Back To the Future II. I haven't seen the movie, but apparently, in the end, Marty thinks that Doc is dead, but Doc gets him a note that says that he shouldn't worry: Doc is alive and well and living in 1895.

Well, Michelle is alive and well and living in 1987, sitting in the seat behind me in Chemistry class, opening her front door with a surprised smile, and setting out a picnic with me in Bellevue Park...sitting there in my memory for good.

My grandfather is alive and well in 1982, opening a jar of pickles on Christmas, playing the organ, and developing film in his darkroom. In my memory. Forever.

Which leads me to my current problem.

As I ponder the upcoming death of my former student, I realize that this formerly comforting Back to the Future II thought is only good for making me feel better. It doesn't even out the injustice that this kid's death inflicts on the universe. For that matter, it doesn't mitigate the unfairness of Michelle's death nearly 20 years ago. It makes me feel better, but it doesn't give them the stolen years they each richly deserve. The "value the time you spent" card feels hollow at best and disingenuous at worst when placed next to the death of a young person. It doesn't address the unnaturalness of it all.

So here I am, mulling over the heavy stuff tonight.

There's little I can do. I'll offer to bring the family a dinner, which my fantastic wife has offered to cook. I'm grateful to Joe and Spoon for giving me the little kick in the ass I needed to volunteer to do that. 90% of life is showing up, so I'll at least try to do that.

The rest is me hashing it out with God. I know God's out there, and I know that, while I'm alive, anyway, I'll never understand why any of this happened. But, while I wait for sleep to catch up to me tonight, I'll steal a little of my sleeping wife's body heat. The very fact that my beautiful and brilliant bride is there, breathing and giving off heat next to me, will be an immense help. With that as background, I'll look up past that alarm-clock-lit popcorn ceiling, and see if I can attain something like peace without cheapening the tragedy of the death of a wonderful young woman.


Joe said...

My friend, these are two totally separate issues. You can't solve them with the same tools, and please don't hurt yourself trying.

Feeding the grieving is one of the most kind, Christian, human things you could do, and it's a great idea. And that's the kind of thing you can do to stand up to the remorseless statistical fairness of the world.

On the other hand, I think your image of the departed always alive in the past is also beautiful, and kind. Honestly, I don't think it's just for yourself, either. Taking care of yourself is something you need to do, for all the people who care about you, here now and here in the past. It's right, and it's normal, and there's not a thing cheap about it.

Shannin said...

Shit. My first thought - you write so well about those who have gone before us. I am so sorry you have to go through this. As a teacher you have such a unique perspective on youth that touches our lives. I know this departure will keep you focused on what's important in this life.