The cycle of friendships formed in grade school starts out innocently enough with birthdays, graduations, first from high school and then college or basic training.
In hindsight it is remarkable we thought we knew what our life’s path would be at age 18. What was really happening was we were crossing over from adolescence to adulthood, one day at a time.
The pace quickens. Now it’s weddings and receptions and baby showers as we make life-altering decisions cloaked in euphoria. At the third and fourth decade after high school you begin to celebrate retirements for the lucky ones who made it to the finish line. They briefly savor the rarest of all feelings, momentary freedom from responsibility, before resuming the journey to that unknown destination without a firm date of arrival.
The final stages are wedding anniversaries and funerals. We attend too many funerals now and it gives a person pause. Everyone loves new beginnings; it’s the end game that is the real challenge. Like Woody Allen’s famous quote: “It’s not that I am afraid of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens!”
Last week members of my Andrew High School class of 1962 said goodbye to another of our 19 classmates. For some of us we’ve known each other since kindergarten, so it’s not just sadness, it is rather more like losing a part of ourselves as well. The class has friends who seem like brothers, cousins who seem like sisters.
For years we were bulletproof. Now there are seven less of us and we feel their absence more acutely with each new loss. It’s too late to dump these people and cultivate younger acquaintances. These are the people who knew and accepted me before I became what the world knows me as today.
It’s not like we exchange Christmas cards or photos of the grandchildren, although we talk about them. It’s simply knowing they walk the earth, that they lead full lives that keeps my world in orbit. These are the people who fill out the details of my life, who remember the small triumphs, the moments of growing up.
In recent years several of our classmates have made it their mission to bring us together for several meals and accompanying conversation. To a person we’re grateful for the time we spent in the company of those who later have become the unseen presence. You know by the ache in your chest how much they figured in your life.
Of course it’s all about a shared experience, those years together at the little school in Andrew, and a high school that no longer exists. Andrew’s school was a safe place to be introduced to a world larger than our farming community.
The community’s cemetery is just across the way from the school. People who were friends and neighbors in life in this community are buried close by in this city of stones. My parents lie buried next to my aunt and uncle, my mother’s brother and our beloved Aunt Kay.
I suppose we’re close to being described as professional mourners by some, a group who appear together at these passages. It has become a source of comfort, to know the memory of that shared experience so many years ago is still important enough to be honored.