ps: your friend is dead

It was on a Post-it note. A square yellow Post-it. It followed “Thought you’d enjoy this article.” The friend dying part was an afterthought.

Hi Amy! Thought you’d enjoy this article.
ps: Did you know Holly Smith? She died.

Yes, I knew her. I went to high school with her. She wasn’t part of our group, but she was the first from our graduating class to die. And news of her death aroused so many emotions at once, including incredulous anger over the Post-it method of relaying news like that. When I asked my mom about it later, she simply replied, “I didn’t know if you knew her.” Fair enough. But what if I did?

I called Melanie to confirm. Mel and Holly were close in high school but had a falling out a few years later and hadn’t mended fences. Mel was the one I needed to call. She gave me details and spoke with emotion and compassion as we shared stories, fears, and regrets. She’d found out from her dad, who employed the oral Post-it method.

“Someone died!”
“Oh my god, who?”
“You’ll have to ask your mother …”

What is it with parents? They rattle on excitedly about their friends who are sick or dying, and yet when it’s one of our friends, a person 30 years younger, there’s not much emotion. Oh, right, she died. But did you hear about so-and-so? She’s 99 and broke a hip!

After finding out about Holly, I – along with my core group of five friends from high school who are still my close friends today – joined the planning committee for our 20-year high school reunion. We did it for Melanie, who led the team with the kind of tenacity that would be frightening if you didn’t know about Holly, who was her driving force. As if planning the reunion was the apology Mel never got the chance to say.

Holly’s death triggered myriad feelings in all of us. It could have been one of us. We felt our own mortality and a strong sense of nostalgia as we drifted back in time. Bottles of wine were opened as we discussed plans. Who would come? What would they look like? More importantly, how would we look? Would they like us? My phone became a direct portal to 1986.

People typically loved or hated who they were in high school. And the status a person held is the identifying label when attending a reunion in a “society shaped fundamentally by high school,” according to Ralph Keyes in his book Is There Life After High School?

That’s why reunions are both exciting and excruciating: You can take the girl out of high school, but you can’t take the high school out of the girl.

Planning the reunion was bittersweet. We laughed until it hurt at embarrassing photos. But then we would see Holly in one. Her signature smile had taken up more than half her round face, framed with strawberry-blond ringlets. And Holly was smiling in every picture. She’d been a cheerleader and was voted “Most School Spirit,” and that smile projected all the qualities those roles required. Our world in high school needed her, as our world now needs people who smile with spirit. Cheerleaders like Holly.

Robert Zussman discusses reunions as a form of impression management in his article High School Reunions and the Management of Identity. “Although reunions take place in the present,” he says, “they are organized around an aspect of the past. As a result, reunions are not only an invitation to account for one’s life, but virtually a mandate to do so.” He says if people are ashamed of their life now, they will often fabricate stories at the reunion because the shame doesn’t merely reflect on their current life, but may also imply they were not who they appeared to be back in high school: “At reunions, the control of information is, at its core, an effort to safeguard a conception of the self by safeguarding the past.”

Since I lived out of state, my contribution to the reunion planning was to create a reunion Web site. I was privy to the effects of impression management as people started submitting information about themselves. Even those who were being honest talked themselves up. One wrote, under Occupation, “Willfully unemployed and loving every minute of it!”

I also had to create an “In Memoriam” page. I added Holly. Then Jake Lutsen. I’d heard he’d died so I put him on the page, even though I couldn’t find his obituary. I hadn’t known him well in high school, but I remembered him fondly as “cute and nice.” It turned out that our entire group all had had secret crushes on him.

A few days later I was checking the reunion email. One was from Jake Lutsen. What had I done?

Urgent calls were made.

“Oh my god, you’ll never guess who just updated his information!”
“Jake Lutsen!”

It turned out there were two Jake Lutsens who lived in the same town and the one who’d died wasn’t the one who went to our high school. Of course, we were happy our Jake was alive, but I couldn’t believe I’d casually killed him off like that. Mortification was all in keeping with the high school theme, I suppose.

We had Erin call him to explain the situation. Jake ended up laughing about it and joined the reunion-planning committee.

In a bizarre turn of events, classmate Beth Lutsen, the sister-in-law of the Jake who had died, joined the planning committee as well, even after experiencing something of a Post-it moment herself on our erroneous “In Memoriam” page.

High school reunions invariably lead to self-reflection. Was I a good person? Did I hurt someone? Do I have regrets? Have I changed? We received a hate email from a classmate upset by perceived slights at the 10-year reunion. She still harbored a lot of anger and hurt, as many do from the experience of high school itself, no matter how many years have passed.

But the reunion brought our little group even closer together. We realized that whatever mistakes we made back then, whatever we did wrong, we also did something right. We began relationships that we have nurtured for over three decades.

Out of Holly’s death and our 20-year reunion came an appreciation of the uniqueness of friendships formed in these years, and the power of friendships sustained that originated in these years. We went through our awkward, emotional times together in high school, and have since been there for each other through births, deaths, marriages, divorces, illnesses, infidelity, and troubled children. We have formed such a strong bond that when something happens to one of us, it happens to all of us.

Of our group of five, two of us moved away from the Midwest but stayed together. Patti and I have been best friends since tenth grade. We’ve traveled all over Europe together and were roommates in London for a year. Now she lives in Olympia and I live in Seattle. The whole group gathers at least once a year in either Minnesota or Washington, and every five years we travel together to somewhere exotic.

We still have sub-cliques, secrets, hurt feelings and misunderstandings, but the topics have matured as we have. And through it all, we have laughed. When we all get together we are a boisterous, impenetrable force. We all talk at once—speaking our own language made up of inside jokes, shorthand sentences, and acronyms—and laugh nonstop.

Julie said it best: “The idea of us is very different from the reality of us.”

An acquaintance recently asked, “What makes you happy?” and without thinking I blurted “my friends.” Melanie offered something similar when I talked to her shortly after we heard about Holly. She said most people she reached out to after Holly’s death did not really meet her emotionally, give her what she needed, or share the experience with her. But, she said, “I talked to my girls. My girls don’t fail me. It really made me realize that I have made such good choices in my life when it comes to my friends. And I want to appreciate them all I can because I don’t get that chance with Holly.”

Holly’s death made us realize how fortunate we are that after all these years we are still together, still going strong, and when one of us is 99 and breaks a hip; the rest will be there to rattle on excitedly about it.

I am happy.

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1 Comment

  1. Patti White

     /  June 29, 2013

    An oldie but a goodie. Just beautiful. And I had completely forgotten about the hate email! Gah!



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