When I finished high school, I didn’t walk away. I ran away. I left all those terrible years behind me. I wanted a new life. It’s not that the people I ran around with in high school were so bad. But to me, back then, it didn’t matter.
Of course, now that I contemplate the past, I see I wanted to leave me and all the embarrassments associated with my Catholic school years behind. Ftttz . . . gone.
Much of the negative feeling I had for those years had to do with teen angst and a troubled home. I imagine undiagnosed manic depression and alcohol dependence caused a lot of my pain. Nuns and priests moralized. While they meant something different, I suppose, I felt as if my actions, all of them, condemned me to hell. Whatever the reason for my misfit-ness, I was unable to deal with a past. So, I rejected my own and created a new one the day I left high school.
Shedding my high school friends proved easy. We lived all over the city. While many students lived in nearby regions of Kansas City and Raytown, I lived, literally, all the way on the other side of Kansas City from Archbishop O’Hara High. Even those who lived “close” to me domiciled two and three miles distant. Only one of my classmates lived a couple of blocks away. I never saw her in the neighborhood. She wasn’t someone I ran with anyway.
For a long time, I felt redeemed, freed from my past. For the next few years, I did what I wanted and went to college when I felt like it. I had girlfriends and girlfriends of girlfriends. I ran with a new crowd, people a little older than me who knew things I couldn’t even imagine. I learned and explored. With no one and nothing to hold me back, I pursued a life I desired, that I conceived, that I built.
And I did construct the life I wanted. But that one didn’t work very well, so I built another, and another after that. The one I have now is pretty good, and except for the death of my wife or children, I don’t see me creating a new one.
Now some of those people I went to high school have died. I hear about it through the few people I have kept up with or met up with again over the years. There’s only about four of them. But they tell me when people die. Cancers and strokes get them. Heart attacks. Car accidents have claimed a couple.
They remind me of two things. The first is that I’m at an age now when people my age die. That’s just fact. When a group of people start getting over forty, over fifty, nearing sixty, their mortality goes up. You can’t fight the inevitability of death. As Chuck Palahniuk wrote in Fight Club: “On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.”
I’m conscious of that myself. I start my day innocent, not thinking of my own mortality. I look forward to the next 24 hours and think, well, I have to do this and that. I want to get these things accomplished. It’s only when I get into a car that I think, well, this could be it. But people are more likely to die at in an accident at home than they are in a car crash. But my thinking of death doesn’t enter the house until night. When I go to bed at night, frequently I think that I might not wake. I better have accomplished what I wanted because there’s no turning back.
(By the way, of all the ways there are to die, I hope I go in my sleep. The day is done. Another won’t start. What a fitting end, like the parenthesis at the end of this sentence.)
The second thing that these deaths remind me of is that the people I went to high school with turned out, for the most part, to be just regular working people. Most of us got married, some divorced. We had children, bought homes, went broke, or made millions (though I don’t think many of us did that). We held jobs, started and built or blew careers. We did our best to be good citizens, even if we weren’t thinking exactly, “I’ll be a good citizen today.” We voted, or at least I hope we did. We argued about politics. Some of us even thought of the big questions: What does all this mean? Where is it all going? What’s the point?
Right now, I wonder what I missed when I cut these people out of my life. I know for sure there are certain among us whose high school careers were the high points of their lives. Everything ran downhill after graduation. I wasn’t one of them, and for the many others who lived full lives since high school, I hope that what they found was rewarding.
In chopping away my past, I may have deprived myself of many good things. All those people from high school, what happened to them? How could their friendships have enriched my life? My kids life? While I was out trying to figure out everything on my own, what kinds of experience did I cut myself off from? One of the people I’ve kept around since high school kept in some kind of contact with many of the 228 people in my graduating class. I always ask, when it comes to mind, hey, what’s so-and-so up to these days. He’s a font of fascinating facts about my high school mates.
Fortunately, I’ve had friends from my college days, people I have known and who have been my friends for 37 years. I could count at least one person who dates all the way back to my freshman year in high school, one of those four who I’ve kept up with all these years that I mentioned earlier. My relationships with my close friends have lasted at least 32 years. Others have been around for 27, from the time I started my second new life. Many more have joined their ranks over the decades, and some are new to me, starting in the last couple of years.
When I run into someone from high school, which happens once every couple of years, I find I’m interested in what’s occurred to them in the intervening years. It’s an easy conversation to have, as I’ve found that asking questions is the best way to keep people engaged in the conversation. Get them to talk about themselves. They give me highlights or low points and I’m always impressed.
What’s most important is they are not dead yet. Just because I walked away from them doesn’t mean we can’t start again.
Everybody has room for more friends.