I went looking for Mark Anderson the other day. I hadn’t heard from him in years, but wondered about him, off and on, since we graduated from high school together. Our class numbered 698 teenage souls, but my circle of friends was a mere subset. Mark was part of my crowd, my group, my comrades in arms. He and I both wrote for the Beak ‘N Eye, our illustrious school newspaper. The yearbook featured a full-page photo of Mark, an artsy shot in grainy black-and-white, hard at work on a manual typewriter.
Mark was never my boyfriend. I would have laughed at the very idea. I was too interested in the cool guys, the vaguely scary ones; it’s a problem of too many girls and women. (Have you ever heard a female singer mooning over “the boy next door”? I rest my case.) It would have been like dating my brother. His long note in my yearbook made clear how well we knew each other, and how comfortable our friendship was. It ends this way: “It’s really been great knowing you all my life. Good luck forever.” Being classmates from kindergarten through high school, it did feel like all our lives. It’s easy to throw around words like “forever” when you’re 18.
I stayed in touch with exactly two friends from high school. Gail had been my best and most loyal friend through all kinds of trials and tribulations, wild hilarity and mischief. Jennee was an artist, an old soul from a huge family who vowed never to have kids. Visits were rare, but letters, and then emails, flew all around the country, keeping us close. Now Facebook has brought dozens more to my laptop, a mostly good thing punctuated by alarming news about that nice girl or guy who turned, somehow, into a political nutcase.
It was easy to keep making excuses for avoiding actual reunions. Too far, too formal, and who are those people, anyway? Then my old friend Joyce – we’d reconnected on Facebook – called my bluff, offering to fly up from Virginia for our 45th as long as I promised to go with her. I promised. My husband told me, “I think you’re going to enjoy this.” I rolled my eyes. His class numbered 40.
It helped that it was held at Davenport’s baseball stadium along the Mississippi. No dancing, no sequins, just a big, private room with a view of the ballgame for a hundred or so folks with one huge thing in common. Did it matter that Kevin had added a few hundred pounds to his once athletic frame? Did I care if one nice guy I chatted up did not remember me at all? Was it a terrible thing when Tim told me my high school boyfriend was a “really nice guy”?
No, no, and no. Maybe at the first few reunions, too much showing-off goes on, but by the 45th, we’re all in the same boat. We are the same age, which is a great relief when you’re heading toward the Medicare years. Some of us looked fit and trim and mysteriously dark-haired, but this isn’t Hollywood High; no face lifts that I could see. At least this fraction of my graduating class, twelve percent by my count, seemed at peace with the insults of age.
Bob was right after all. I felt like I was in “Cheers,” where even if everybody didn’t know my name, they could read my nametag and launch into a great conversation. It was magical, as if someone had waved a wand over a random group of people and dropped me into their midst with the astonishing guarantee that every one of them would be delighted to see me. Good news was greeted enthusiastically, sad news with real sympathy. We had all been through so much. What a comfort to see how much deeper and wiser these kids had become.
The saddest news was projected onto a screen in one corner of the room, a PowerPoint loop of names, dates, and 45-year-old yearbook pictures. Someone had been keeping track. This memorial listed 47 souls who had died, some of them just years after graduation, others just months before. I would not get to talk with them at future gatherings; I’d lost my chance already. A few entries included a cause of death. For the youngest, death was more violent – drowning, gunshot, motorcycle accident. The more recently departed succumbed, mostly, to the ravages of age – heart failure, pancreatic cancer, a lifetime of diabetes.
It was just days after the gathering when I learned my old friend Mark belonged on that memorial list. His cousin, another classmate, answered my Facebook request for help locating him with the news that he had died fifteen years ago, when he was only 48. His obituary revealed a few details. I wasn’t surprised to learn Mark was a microbiologist and geneticist, doing research on bladder cancer at a big hospital in Texas. Surviving him were his parents, a daughter, a son, and a “special friend,” obituary code for “sweetheart.” Memorials were to go to a homeless shelter in Davenport.
Now I’m looking for others. I am a librarian, after all, and if there’s one thing I know how to do, it’s research. Actuarial tables predict that a class of 700 will have lost 140 people by the 45th reunion. That means we have upwards of one hundred more people to find, and to honor. As I do this work, a line from “Death of a Salesman” keeps me going: “Attention must be paid.” Whether I knew them well or hardly at all, these kids who shared one very big experience deserve some attention, no matter how sad the news.