Thinking of an old classmate … and her funeral


I went to my first “real” funeral when I was in high school.

Until then, I’d gotten a pass; most of my grandparents had died when I was still so young that taking me out of school to attend a funeral in a town a day’s drive away didn’t make much sense. I’d seen them on TV shows so I considered myself familiar with the protocol and elements — somber men in dark suits, weeping women in black veils, “Amazing Grace” — but had no actual experience at one.

When I was a sophomore, one of the most popular girls in my class hanged herself. The news passed through town via a macabre real-life version of the telephone game, and because I had cultivated my Bemused Outsider status since arriving as a freshman I was likely one of the last classmates to know, because nobody had my phone number. Which was ironic, because …

“The family wants you to be a pallbearer,” the guy who sat next to me in first period and lived down the block said when he reported the news. “But they didn’t know how to get a hold of you.” He gave me the number of one of her closest friends, so I could verify this was actually true; I wasn’t a popular kid then, and she had always been one of those charmed girls who had upperclassmen clamoring for her affection, so I was having trouble wrapping my head around “why me?”

One of the most uncomfortable phone calls I’ve ever made was to the family of a dead girl, introducing myself and asking if they really did want me to carry the casket of their freshly deceased daughter.

“She talked about you so much,” her mom said. “She thought you were … wonderful.” I had a brief moment of elation — validation! a popular girl talked about me! to people! — immediately followed by castigation about how despicable it was to be dwelling on that for even an instant. Of course I agreed.

Over the next day or so, I thought about pretty much nothing but her. From my first days at school, I had adored her in a way that only vulnerable new kids can understand. She was a popular freshman girl who was already dating a senior basketball player, so her approval of a weird, gangly new classmate implicitly sheltered me from any upperclassman or jock hazing. That alone had earned my fealty, but there was so much more to our Odd Couple relationship that even 30 years later, I have trouble tossing out theories that explain it, from her side.

For starters, I can easily see how refreshing and reassuring it must have been for a beautiful teenage girl to have a relationship with a guy who genuinely liked being around her … and wasn’t spending all his time trying to get in her pants.* We had a different kind of energy that was playful and friendly — we held hands across the aisle just to spite the grumpy old teacher who hated PDAs but made us watch the late-1960s version of “Romeo and Juliet” over two days in English class. It was one of the strongest platonic crushes I’ve ever had in my life, and yet outside of school hours, we never did anything together.

* I remember hearing of a “date” in which the guy drove his then-girlfriend out to the woods, turned off the engine and said, “Hump or dump,” meaning “put out or walk home.” True or not, it made me despise that guy all through high school.

What was going on in her life that could have instigated such a momentous decision? It was a total mystery to me then — I remember poring over what she had written in my yearbook and on the back of her school picture for clues, and freezing when in one spot I read, “You could even be my boyfriend, if you could call it that.” It took more than an hour for my parents to talk me down from my anxiety that any unrequited crush had been even partly to blame.

It didn’t take my family long to see that I wasn’t handling things as well as I told them I was. When my mom suggested I call up a classmate and fellow pallbearer to ask if he’d be wearing a suit to the service, I flew off the handle: “I can’t believe you think people will be paying attention to what I’m wearing!” (not realizing that her point was that I didn’t actually own a suit that fit). I was terrified that the casket would be so heavy that I would drop it, so I kept sneaking off to the garage to find things that I thought would be as heavy as my share of a filled casket, and timing how long I could hold them up before my arms or hands gave out.

At my parents’ strong suggestion, I went to the visitation. Until then, things had been illusory and theoretical to me; I had conceived scenarios where everything was just a mistake and she had survived — maybe she ran away and faked the whole thing! — but my time in the funeral home crushed those crazy hopes. I examined the body so closely that I thought I could make out the stitches that kept the eyelids closed. I sat there alone and silent for about 15 minutes, trying to wrap my head around this new reality, and also trying to fathom the finality of an act such as hers. Gone forever.

Almost 30 years later, I don’t remember anything about the funeral itself, except for the fact I wore a sweater while everyone else was indeed wearing a suit, and the casket was even heavier than I had thought it would be. (At one point, rounding a corner, I had to use two hands, and was afraid that onlookers would judge me.)

When my friend’s older sister got married a year or two later, I remember thinking that it must have pained her to know her younger sister wasn’t there to be part of the wedding party, and I wondered how long it would be before the family had a full day where her absence wasn’t felt, even once. Did they leave photos up as reminders of the life she had, or were they too painful? And what if anything did they do on the anniversary** of that one day?

** One autumn day in 2012, Mr. Brooks turned to me and said that he had just realized that the previous day had marked the anniversary of when his parents and grandmother were killed in 1987. “I didn’t remember it all day,” he said, amazed. “I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.” (I wagered that it could be both.)

While I was in college I worked as a newspaper obit clerk, which I believe helped inure me to life’s inevitable end, and its concomitant funerals. Each person’s circumstances may change, but in our culture their ceremonies are pretty ritualized — something that I think helped me deal with my father’s death in 2009. (“First there’s a visitation, then a funeral, then the military honors.”)

The cemetery where my dad is buried is halfway between the town where my mom lives and the city where my sister’s family lives, so when I was home in October for my niece’s wedding, I spent time one morning saying hi to him. After I was done, I ventured out of the veterans section and tried to find my friend among the rest of the folks laid to rest there. It was a half-assed effort, at best, and the more I wandered, the less I actually wanted to stumble upon her headstone. I decided it was enough just to be thinking about her again, for the first time in years.

And even then, it was more about reminiscing how life felt as a small-town teen — when hormones and emotions ran roughshod over you, when every day seemed fraught with social perils, and when you weren’t able to fully fathom how irrevocable and dire the consequences of your decisions and actions could really be, because you were just trying to get out of that one moment. I’m not sure who keeps promoting the idea that high school should be the best time of your life, because it’s a terrible falsehood. I just wish my friend had been able to stick around to find that out for herself.

WHAT SAM WORE: 12/31/13
sweater pants shoes021811
The sweater: Cotton cardigan from Uniqlo, New York.
The shirt: Long-sleeved cotton V-neck T-shirt, from Uniqlo.
The pants: Pinstripe trousers, from Banana Republic.
The shoes: Custom All-Stars by Converse, a gift from Funny Michael.

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