One of my high school classmates was laid to rest today. Beside her in the ground, also gone to her final resting place, is her youngest daughter. Left to mourn are the remaining members of her family, and countless others whose lives she (and her daughter) touched in this world.
I hadn't seen my classmate since high school, although I remember her well. She had a way about her that brought ease into the room; it was hard not to smile when she was around. She was just one of those people whom you never heard a bad word about. A rare and genuine article, she was.
When news of her death came to those of us who knew her "back then", we were shocked and saddened to hear of a light like hers leaving this place, after such a brief time. I, like many, surely, wish I had kept up with her after graduation. I would love to have known her as an adult. I think I would have liked her, just as much as I did "back then".
I didn't keep up with her, though. In fact, I kept up with very few people from the small town I left as quickly as I could after my graduation in 1982; a year earlier than I could have. I graduated a year early, just to get out of there sooner. I felt stifled, like I lived in a fish-bowl, in that town. Truthfully, I was more like the fish outside the bowl when it came to the small Texas town I grew up in. I flailed about, never feeling as if I fit in. Better to bail out, than to stick around a place I felt doomed to be one step behind the crowd in. And so, I left.
It's been over 30 years since high school graduation, and a whole lot of living has taken place since then. For probably the first 10 years after I left town, I blamed the kids who picked on me, and called me names for a bad attitude I developed.
Then, in 1993, I got married and spent the next several years having children. I didn't think a whole lot about my old hometown in those sleep-deprived years. Who has time to wallow in self pity when the demands of babies and toddlers consume every-waking-moment and then some? Oh, I gave the town the odd thought now and then, mostly when we'd go visit my parents, who still live there, in the same house we moved into, that summer before my third grade school year.
Those fleeting thoughts were not happy ones, you see, because, my third child, as a baby, hated riding in the car. He screamed his lungs out for the full hour-and-a-half it took to get from our home to my parents'. My thoughts were along the lines of - why in the H-E-double-hockey-sticks did my family EVER move to this gawd-forsaken town in the first place?! If I never drive back over here it will be too soon!!
Those years of my children's baby-hood passed by in the blink of an eye. The next time I turned around, they were all in elementary school, taking a place in four of the six grades represented there. I became entrenched in their lives and in the inner-workings of their school. I couldn't get involved enough. I felt almost driven to leave a mark on that school. I had finally found something that gave me the sense of belonging I'd lacked all those years ago in my own elementary school days and beyond.
I never understood the feeling of complete acceptance until then. And, once I understood the feeling, I understood exactly what I had missed out on as a child. It was then that I started to mourn what could have been. I started to look back at small town life with new eyes. I saw the kids I grew up with, not as tormentors, but as comrades, as people I shared a common bond with. As it opened my eyes, it also opened my heart to the humanness in each of my classmates. I saw us, each, not only, as individuals, with lifetimes lived between us, but also, as a group. A group of people interwoven into each other's history. I began to understand just how special that tapestry is.
Nothing prepared me for the shared feelings of grief as we lost a classmate last week. There are others, among us, who've been lost to death over the years as well, and I began to mourn each of their lives, as I came together with the group, to circle around a family in pain, as they lost their wife, their sister, their mother, their daughter... I thought of each life we'd lost, and thought, as well, of each person represented in life, and I felt blessed.
Life will never be the same for me after this week. I feel a depth of emotion I haven't felt in years, maybe ever, before. I feel equal parts anguish and joy. I never knew these two emotions, juxtaposed as they seem, could be felt, so uniquely separate, yet together; today I feel them both. I feel the heartache and anguish of lives cut short, but also, I feel a flood of joy, as I witness the open hearts of people I've not seen in 30 years, shared together as if we never left each other's presence.
I hate to think that it took a tragedy for me to see what a blessing my hometown was to me all along. I wish I'd known what I had while I still had it; I wish I could have embraced it a long time ago, but life has a way of taking its sweet time when it comes to teaching its lessons. Especially to such stubborn a pupil as I. Today? Today I feel grateful, as I stand on this little spot of grace, no matter how circuitous the route getting here, I'm here now and it feels blessed, indeed.