Nonfiction

Once six o’clock — my tenth hour of work — rolled around, I figured it was okay to take a call. It wasn't as if work was particularly difficult, being my first day and all, or even that I was busy. The last hour and half or so had been spent waiting on someone else to finish up. Until that point, I felt somewhat uncomfortable taking a personal call on the job. Now? Probably in the clear.

Around noon, I had checked Facebook and saw a note from an old high school friend who I hadn't spoken to in years. Under the subject heading, "Hey...", the rather cryptic message read, "You should call me today. It's important. Anytime after 1:00. My number is (###) ###-####."

With the office to myself, I decided to give him a call. I really couldn't fathom the reason he wanted me to call; I assumed there was some sort of party being planned, or some celebration in the offing.

When he picked up, the first thing he asked me was if I had heard about Rachel. I wasn't quite sure what he meant. We were the same age, having attended the same school from kindergarten right up through college. We were both in band, we had a number of activities and classes that overlapped, and I was fairly certain I had seen her at a barbecue two days before graduating college, about three months prior.

"No," I replied honestly. I hadn't really heard anything beyond the vagaries absorbed through Facebook. Things like extracurricular activities, internships and the like. When I heard who the call was in reference to, I kind of assumed she had done something major. Maybe she won some national award? Unsure as to why this required informing me, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. I certainly wasn’t ready to hear the news.

"Dead?..." I stammered. "How? What happened?" My mind raced through any number of scenarios: car crashes, plane crashes, muggings ...

"She killed herself."

"Oh."

Several seconds passed in silence.

"Wow."

"Yeah."

...

"Damn."

"Yeah."

He related how our band director heard the news, then instructed old students in the area to get ahold of those who might not have heard. Apparently, there was to be a memorial service held on Friday or Saturday. Would I be able to make it?

It was Tuesday. Literally my first week, my first day on the job. I hadn’t even filled out my W-4 yet. I had just finished getting my new apartment ready, and hadn’t even gotten my furniture out of storage. I was sleeping on an air mattress on the floor of my living room. Not to mention I now lived in another state, an additional 90 miles on top of the 250 miles I put between me and my hometown during college.

“If it’s on Saturday, I’ll absolutely be there. I probably can’t if it’s on Friday.”

We caught up a bit, then, about where our lives had taken us after high school, but I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention. My mind just kept repeating what he had said, over and over. Finally, after wishing each other well, we hung up.

Rachel and I had our share of run-ins over the years. It wasn’t adversarial or anything like that. But from a very young age, both of us were culled from the herd as “smart kids.” Smart kids, in a school district like ours, were expected to do a lot. We were both taken out of classes for the “gifted” program in elementary school, sat next to each other in the “honors” classes in middle school, and frequented the same courses a year ahead of when we were supposed to in high school.

Smart kids aren’t the ones who wind up dead before they hit 30 – at least, not without a good reason. We can be victims of violent crime, sure. But it’s the other people in high school, the ones who don’t go anywhere, they’re the ones you read about in the newspaper. The obituary section is for the kid who never cared, who never tried; he’s the one who was caught stalking and trying to rape a teenager not a year and half after he graduated high school.

Not us.

I recalled a recognition luncheon, for a scholarship we both received. I hadn’t seen her there, but apparently my father ran into her father at some point, and they spoke. My dad told me that Rachel and her sister had apparently talked about me quite a bit. We were always at the head of the class, and whenever I would get a higher score on a test, they would return home and complain about it. I had never known this, but I always felt a certain sense of rivalry with them—and I lost just as often as I won.

I really didn’t know what to do at that point. I just stood in my office and stared at the Starbucks across the street. Standing 350 miles away from where everything was happening, where I felt I should be, I definitely felt lost.

My fingers played with my phone. I had to call someone, find someone I could share the news with. Problem was, I didn’t really keep in touch with anyone from high school. I kept in regular contact with two people: one I worked with, Dale, and one I went to school with, Mallory. Dale lived 15 miles away from my hometown; and besides, he was a guy—not the sort of person you talk to about these things. Mallory moved around a lot as a kid, only settling in Arlington her sophomore year. She didn’t really have the same connection with everyone, and talked to even fewer of them than I did.

I called Mallory.

I told her the news rather abruptly, and she was understandably shocked. She was probably more worried about me, as I kept stuttering, rushing through my sentences and trailing off. I felt bad about just dumping it on her without pretense, but how do you prepare someone for that sort of thing? “Hey, so you know how Michael Jackson died? Well, you’re never gonna believe this, but …”

There didn’t seem to be an appropriate segue.

We talked about how strange it was, how Rachel was the last person you’d ever expect to do something like that. I didn’t know much about her situation. I knew she had graduated and landed a pretty swank internship over the summer. I assumed she was still with the company, or looking for something else to do. Having just extricated myself from the pits of unemployment, I knew how difficult such a process could be, but it didn’t seem that overwhelming.

We talked for about 45 minutes, and she graciously told me I could crash at her place on Friday night if there was going to be a service on Saturday. She made me promise to keep in touch with her during the week, and we said good-bye.

I left work about half an hour later and walked to my apartment. I checked the mail, took off my shoes, sat down in front of my computer, and generally went about my business.

But in the back of my mind, thoughts were still festering. They strayed from the somber to the downright petty. I felt curiosity about what caused her to do it. Sadness and grief for Rachel’s family, who I didn’t know particularly well but had run into over the years. I particularly sympathized for Rachel’s twin sister—I couldn’t fathom how she felt. I wondered what was going to happen if I went to the funeral, and how I could possibly afford another trip to the Westside—considering I hadn’t gotten paid and had just finished buying everything for my new apartment.

As I struggled to force myself to fall asleep, my main focus was on the line of questioning Mallory kept up during our conversation.

“Why are you going to the service?” she asked. It wasn’t demanding, she honestly didn’t know why I would drive the six-plus hours just to attend a service for someone who I wasn’t very close to.

I started to speak, but hesitated. Truth be told, my reaction had been more gut instinct than anything else. No long-term planning guided my decision. I just said I would go.

“I feel a sense of obligation,” I finally decided upon.

“Obligation? Why would you be obligated to go to a funeral? It’s not like anyone’s going to look down on you for not making the trip,” she replied with infuriating logic.

“It’s not an obligation to them,” I answered. “It’s not for the people who are going to attend, it’s not even for the family… It’s for her. When you go to school with someone for that long, when you’re around them that much… You just have to, you know?”

She gave what can only be described as a verbal nod of assent, clearly unconvinced.

“What’s your earliest memory?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Probably something with my family, when I was a real little kid. Why?” she responded.

“I guess it kind of explains why I’m going,” I said. “My earliest memory, the very first thing I can remember, involves Rachel.”

“ It was in second grade, and she was wearing her glasses to school for the very first time. I can see her clearly, sitting there in Mrs. Webb’s class, and she is just bawling because she’s afraid she’s going to be teased.”

I fell silent for a moment.

“That’s why I feel obligated to go. My very first memory includes her. A lot of my high school memories from band include her. I even remember in middle school honors, we held weekly competitions where the winner would get to move either their or someone else’s seat, and one week I moved her. I don’t remember why, I don’t even remember where … but I know it was her.”

“Okay,” Mallory said after a pause. “That kinda makes sense.”

“Yeah,” I said. Not really, I thought.

They planned the service to be held in the performing arts center at the high school. This was actually going to be my first trip back to my hometown in at least three years, and the first time since the month after graduation I was going to see a sizable number of people I knew.

In another of many firsts, it was the first time I had seen the performing arts center, as it was built a year or two after I graduated. When I walked in the front doors, the first two people I saw were signing the guest book. One was my best friend throughout most of high school, with whom I had a falling-out with during junior year. The other was a mutual female friend.

I actually didn’t recognize him. I thought I knew who he was, but enough doubt remained in my mind to prevent initiating conversation for fear of being mistaken. It turned out not to matter, as the girl embraced me as soon as she saw me, calling me by a nickname I hadn’t heard in four and a half years.

As I made my way into the theater (and yes, it felt very strange walking into a theater for a memorial service), I saw grown-up versions of the kids I had known. Some of them were instantly recognizable, though only in two cases had they not aged a day. Others might as well have been ethereal phantoms from the 19th century, for all the familiar they seemed.

The crowd only half-filled the auditorium, with a clear physical delineation between those who knew her, and those who knew of her. I sat with the latter group, farther away from the stage.

Whether for good or bad, this was not the first memorial service I attended for a high school classmate who committed suicide. A boy involved in my youth group had done the same thing during my freshman year, so I felt oddly prepared for the service.

The service part was a bit strange, at least to me. I had never attended a Catholic memorial service, so I was a little overwhelmed by the iconography and rituals. Other than that, it seemed a normal (if such things can have a “normal”) memorial. The priest—for whatever reason—told us Rachel had been studying for her master’s at UW, and simply become overwhelmed by the pressures of life.

I was definitely not expecting the stories that came when they opened up the mic to the audience to share memories. The family went first, describing intimate moments most of us in the crowd were not privy to, but enjoyed for the love and warmth contained in the stories.

Then her kindergarten teacher stood up, describing how — even from that young age — she was bright, caring, and full of life. I was mildly surprised by this, as the woman who stood up was my kindergarten teacher as well. Apparently, our stories had been more intertwined than I thought.

Following that, a number of people affiliated with the college we both attended stood up and spoke of their remembrances. She had been a counselor who gave freshman tours, and a boy from her group related how personable she was. Another—who wasn’t even in her group—confirmed this. Members of the various student organizations she was involved in also spoke out, praising in her in the kindest possible terms.

By no means was I surprised that people would remember her in such a way, as it jibed perfectly with my own memories. What seemed strange about the whole thing was simply how much of her life had taken place after high school. A vast majority of the people in the audience knew her from her years in Arlington, yet there we were, hearing stories regarding things we never even thought about. Even I, who spent an addition four years at the same college, two of those at the student newspaper, didn’t know about them. Sure, some of the events sounded familiar — I knew what the tour group was, I knew the various organizations — but it still felt like hearing stories about a stranger.

As I imagine is the case with everyone, I had defined her in relationship to my own life. I don’t think this a terribly foreign concept. It’s a bit like playing peek-a-boo with a small child — once something’s gone out of their vision, they forget about it. In the same way, as people pass in and out of our lives, we are able to write their background stories only insofar as we know them. If you haven’t seen someone for a year, you can still pick up a friendship. But there are so many things, so many experiences they lived through, that you’ll never be able to truly comprehend. You’re left, instead, with a partial portrait — and I would imagine not a great many of them are ever completed.

Following the service, I reunited with a number of my favorite teachers and people from high school. A group of us hung out for a few hours, just as we used to. Then, just as I had driven back into my past, it was time to strike out again for the present.

Rachel still pops up in my thoughts every so often, though not nearly as much now as when it first happened. I’ll see a death notice while reading the news online, and that will get me thinking. Or her profile will pop in the “Mutual Friends” list when I’m randomly surfing Faceboook—that’s jarring, but not nearly as bad as the “you should reconnect” notifications that scared the absolute hell out of me.

But the strangest effect of all of this has to do with a song I hadn’t listened to in years. After getting my whole apartment set up, I went through and re-filled my iPod with a random assortment of music. While at work one day, about a week after the service, Vitamin C’s “Graduation (Friends Forever)” started to play. Even though the song was released in 2000, it nonetheless managed to ingrain itself as “the song” for every class from 2000-2005.

The opening lyrics go, “And so we talked all night about the rest of our lives/Where we're gonna be when we turn 25/I keep thinking times will never change/Keep on thinking things will always be the same/But when we leave this year we won't be coming back.”

The song doesn’t have the most beautiful melody. The lyrics are not terribly inspired. But for whatever reason, when I heard those words, I flat-out lost it.

I hurried to the bathroom, tears in my eyes, and haven’t been able to listen to the song since. I’m not sure I can. It’s the line, “Where we’re gonna be when we turn 25,” that gets me. When I hear it, I’m reminded of the simple but obvious fact that she’s not going to turn 25. The thought that, statistically, there will be probably others in my class who won’t turn 25 — maybe even me.

The second is stranger, though this time it has nothing to do with ephemeral pop culture. While it still holds true that I generally define the people I've known in terms of their entry into my consciousness, I also find myself spending greater amounts of times actively seeking them out. Where I previously just let those people go until they organically sprang back into my life (which, being 200+ miles away from most of them, didn't happen often), I now go out of my way to at least think about them, check up on Facebook and see what they're doing. Even though I do not see them any more often than before, their lives seem so much more relevant to me now, and thus their link more tangible.

I cannot, unfortunately, repeat the clichéd idea of the dead live on in the hearts of the living. I believe this sentiment denigrates the sanctity of death, shielding us from its permanence and functioning as an emotional crutch that allows denial and repression to linger on and strangle those left behind. Dead people have, in every respect, passed on. That does not, however, mean they did not have an impact while they were alive. What I will take away from Rachel are two things: the way in which my interactions with her shaped me (for the better, in every case I can think of), and the ability to pierce what previously seemed an impenetrable veil between the present and the past. I find myself much better able to comprehend others in their own right, rather than the imperfect refraction I saw when gazing through my personal perceptual prism.

Even though "Graduation" is skipped when I hit shuffle and barred from my iPod playlist, every time I hear it — or even when I’m reminded of it — I think about her, and what the entire experience meant to me. And once I'm ready and capable of hearing it without losing control, I hope it will signify a profound shift in my reaching out toward those friends who might once have fallen by the wayside.