“You just never know,” is something I find myself thinking lately. I’m only 53, but have lost several high school classmates within the past few years. This has led me to a relatively morbid new hobby of reading the online obituaries from my old hometown’s newspaper. After all, when death comes creeping closer to those that you’ve spent time with from the sandbox to algebra class, you begin getting curious.
My most recent read was about a guy I hardly knew named Jake. He was a nice enough fellow and managed to do very well, something that I never could–blend in. In the late 70’s I remember him with long wavy hair and an attempted beard, a flannel shirt and a cigarette hanging from his mouth, as he talked with his similar friends at the “smoke hole,” an allotted space for high schoolers 16 and older to light up between classes. I remember he was a general studies kind of guy, as were most of the 112 people that I graduated with. There were only six of us that went on to college. I was sure there, among friends, they were talking about how drunk they’d gotten the past weekend or how far they’d gotten with some girl. I remember Jake’s ready smile and the way he tossed his hair as he laughed with his friends. They all seemed so at ease and so in their right place in life. It was pretty hard for a girl like me, who had to hold my breath as I passed the “smoke hole” to avoid an asthma attack, to understand how to feel so in place or at ease in my small town.
At that time in my life I was secretly envious of people like Jake. They seemed so simple and unencumbered by the daily chore of being liked. While I was doing what all not-so-cool kids were doing, listening to show tunes in the respite of my bedroom, or going out in public with my face painted like Peter Criss of KISS, I pictured that guys like Jake were having fabulous times down by the river hanging with their friends. Turns out, I imagined mostly wrong.
Jake’s obituary was obviously written by someone who knew him very well and loved him very much, because through the eloquent detail of it, I came to better know the guy I shared so many spaces with. Jake’s life was a hard one. His mother left shortly after he was born. He was the youngest of eight children. When Jake was 10, his father collapsed and died of a heart attack in his arms. He and his siblings were placed in foster care with a relative and managed to forge on. Did I mention that I don’t remember Jake ever missing school? After graduation, he went on to become a Marine and served his country for 20 years before retiring to work as a mechanic. He had two marriages, three children, and was preceded in death by four of his elder siblings. He fought cancer for 12 years before finally succumbing a few weeks ago at 53.
So often, the things we imagine about people are simply figments of what we think life would be like if we were living on the greener side of it. So often we’re wrong. So often we don’t know the true path of those we share a space with and we make judgements based on a smile or a puff of smoke.