Remembering Names

If you are in your 50s in the age of Facebook you can probably sort the names of people you went to high school with into four categories. There are your friends, the ones you still talk to and know, the ones who hold all your secrets. A few years ago, one of my best friends from high school and I were on a trip together. I marveled at the way we effortlessly set each other up for punch lines. I wondered why it was so easy, until I remembered that we’d been practicing for 30 years.

The second category are the people you know and liked. You’re happy to check in with them regularly, to see that they’re there in the world. You interact with them more on Facebook than you would if just left to phone calls and visits home. But they do not hold the key to your heart the way the first category of people do.

The third category are the people you look for. These are people you always liked, but didn’t really know, the boy from homeroom who said funny things under his breath, the girl who always had an extra pencil on test days. The boy you wound up in one class with and so you dated sophomore year, but didn’t have any friends in common, so never saw again after that. The girl you went to middle school with and lost track of in high school only to see her on graduation day when you said to each other, “Oh my god, we didn’t think we’d survive 8th grade Spanish, but look, we’re graduating high school now! We should totally get together this summer.” Only of course, you never got together over the summer and you haven’t seen her since, even though you both stayed home for college. Sometimes, you find yourself idly searching Facebook for these names, the barely missing parts of your childhood. If you go to your reunion, you look for them. You hope they are well and that they still make funny comments and carry extra pencils.

The fourth category are the names you don’t even know you remember. You’ll be talking to someone from category one or two and they’ll say “Remember, John Smith (not his real name)?” And you say, “No. Wait, yes. Wasn’t he the guy that fell during that assembly?” Then you laugh and you think, “Wow, how could I have ever forgotten that name?” But still, you don’t look for them on Facebook. Nothing against the John Smiths of the world, but life is busy.

Tonight on Facebook, in a group for alums of my high school, I saw a woman’s death announced. I didn’t recognize the name, but then, I thought I recognized the last name. I checked my yearbook and found a boy with hair piled high in a way that could only happen in a 1986 senior photo. I asked a friend, and she confirmed, this boy had transitioned years before.

Honestly, what I remembered most about this person was the thickness of their Kentucky accent, and a theater teacher desperately trying to get them to change it. I can picture them, but cannot recall a single conversation in detail. They were a fourth category name to me.

But I was intrigued, and so I looked. The woman I found on Facebook was a powerhouse. An activist for trans causes and people living with HIV. A supporter of Black Lives Matter. She posted a picture of Kamala Harris dressed as Wonder Woman. Apparently, Kamala had been her first choice for President. I find myself so sad she won’t get to vote for her for Vice President in November. But, I’m also glad this woman found herself and that she got to live her life in a way that was true.

Yesterday, if you had asked me, “What do you think happened to …” I wouldn’t have been able to offer a guess. Today, I think we’ve lost a great person.

In the past few months, death has been everywhere for me. My brother-in-law died. In six months my husband has lost an aunt, a student, and a co-worker. A woman I considered my 3rd grandmother died, as did the father of an old friend.  Still, I find myself mourning a woman whose name I didn’t even know I knew a few hours ago.

A friend whose parents both died recently said that she misses them every second of every day. Yet this woman is also going on with her life. She is raising her beautiful children, supporting her husband and friends, following her interests. Grief does funny things to time. It causes it to bend and stretch. Grief makes time elastic. So you can miss someone every second of every day, and still have time to laugh at your son’s jokes. You can say goodbye to an 18-year-old boy you once knew and meet a 51-year-old woman and mourn her all in the same few minutes.

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