Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Mortality Bite - A Requiem

Even now, after years of living a fairly cosmopolitan lifestyle on the European side of the Atlantic, I'm still a bit superstitious in a countrified sort of way, especially when it comes to things occurring in triplicate.

Back in November, the week before Thanksgiving, one of my cousins from North Carolina telephoned me to tell me that a man whom I'd known when we were both teenagers, someone my own age, had suddenly died that morning. I hadn't seen him since our paths crossed partying when Virginia played Wake Forest in some sort of sporting event back in the mid-Seventies. He lived in a town where one of my cousins was the local GP and I used to spend some weeks every summer there as a young girl. The next week, my oldest friend e-mailed me to tell me, again, of the death of another man, with whom we attended elementary and high school, someone I'd not seen in almost thirty years.

I remember remarking at the time to my husband that there must be a third death. 'Things like that always happen in threes,' I said.

At the moment, I'm mentally (and physically) preparing to go back to the US for two weeks from next Monday. Sunday evening, I received and e-mail from an old friend back in Virginia, telling me of the death of yet another friend; but this time, this death hit home. He told me that our mutual friend, who is a couple of years my senior, had been feeling ill since last week. He lived on his own, near his elderly aunt, whose husband had died a couple of months previously. His aunt and cousins apparently had urged him to see a doctor, but he reckoned the illness was minor and would pass. Saturday morning, he was found dead in his home.

I haven't been able to stop thinking about him since. This was someone I grew up with from a small child. He was the older boy that young girls fancied. I certainly fancied him as an awkward 8th grader, when he was a more knowledgeable sophomore, who always seemed to have time to talk with someone so plebeian. I took Spanish because he studied Spanish. I read books he read. I had the ultimate crush to end all crushes. He graduated two years ahead of me and went off to study at the University of Richmond, the prototype of John-Boy Walton's fictitious Boatwright University.

My second year at Virginia, I was getting ready for a date, when Jackie suddenly appeared at the door of my dorm room. In his last year at Richmond, he stopped by en route home from college for the weekend, deciding on the off-chance, to visit, taking the trouble to stop by the Student Union and ask my address. I promptly went to the hall payphone, called my date and pleaded period cramps. Jackie made it as far as Charlottesville that weekend, and Jackie and I made it.

That was the beginning of a poignant yet unusual friendship-love affair. It was a bit of both, but more of the first than the second. Rather than being lovers who devolve into friends, we were friends who slept together on occasion, usually when we would find ourselves between relationships or just when we found ourselves within a five-mile radius of each other. But there was never a time that it happened when it didn't need to happen, even if it meant cancelling other arrangements previously organised. It had its own pattern during college. Jackie would just 'show up' on a Friday evening or a Saturday afternoon. If another boy were hanging about the premises, he would have to go - even if it meant I never saw him again. If I found myself at a loose end on a Saturday afternoon, I'd ring. 'I fancy a drive to Richmond,' I'd say. 'There's a girl down from Mary Wash,' he'd say. 'But don't worry. I'll get rid of her. Tell her it's a family emergency. Get driving.'

When he finished uni, he worked for a couple of years in DC and lived at home. By my third year, I was seeing a boy who was a rigid Republican and destined for law school. But everytime I came home, there was Jackie. It drove my mother crazy that I had what she termed one boyfriend in Charlottesville and another hanging home. But I could never explain to her that what I had with Jackie wasn't a 'boyfriend thing'. It was almost inexplicable.

It wasn't the sex, although that was part of it, certainly. It was the talking, the laughing, the connecting on a certain level. It was making contact with someone who'd known me from the word dot and who I was letting know me in a way I couldn't open up with my proper college boyfriend. Maybe it was friendship on another level.

He was the last person I saw before I left for Spain. He was the first person I saw on the morning of my 21st birthday. The year after I graduated, he accepted a position out West and left for a couple of years. I taught school locally for three years, living at home, then relocated back to Charlottesville to teach middle school there. At the end of my initial year there, I came home, planning to stay only for the weekend. As soon as I entered the door, my mother informed me that Jackie was back. His grandmother had died the previous month and he was back sorting out the legal details of the house. He'd already called and would be calling back that evening. Within five minutes he was on the phone.

We went out to dinner, and I came back to my parents' house on Sunday morning. He'd broken off a relationship and I'd just broken an engagement with my lawyer fella. I suppose we were what each other needed, before the end of the summer when he left for Boulder again.

After that summer, somehow, we lost touch. I got married and went to live in England. It was years before anyone in my home community heard from him again. Then suddenly, out of the blue, he turned up five years ago, alone, unemployed and living in his grandmother's old house. I was visiting at the time, and everything seemed normal with him at first. I visited and we spent a whole afternoon just reminiscing. We went to the grocery store, bought some steak and salad and I made a meal. Then I went back to my aunt's, where I was staying. It was two nights before I left for the UK and he gave me a hug that went on forever.

That was the last I saw of him. When I was home in March, I mentioned dropping by, calling, but my aunt dissuaded me. 'Not now,' she cautioned. 'You wouldn't want to see him the way he is and he wouldn't want you to.' That scared me, and, trusting her judgement, I did as she bode. I asked no questions about 'the way he was'; I didn't want to know.

And now he's dead. My friend, who e-mailed me with the news, reckoned he had pneumonia. To me, untrained, it sounded like heart failure or something coronary-related. The funeral, a cremation, is Thursday; and I'll miss that to; but I wouldn't have wanted to go, for the same reason I never went to either of my parents' funerals. They're supposed to be closure, but the finality of seeing a coffin lowered into the ground or sped along a conveyor belt into a crematorium is just too final a finality for me. It's the end.

I don't know what happens after death. None of us, for all the surmisings and musings and religious hocus-pocus fairy tales, know what happens when a body's heart stops and his brain ceases to function. But seeing dirt fall on top of a coffin or watching one whisked away to be burned marks an end as dark and dire as the concept of Hades. At least, in my mind and memories, my parents still live. I remember them as they were, alive, healthy and vibrant.

When I learned of the earlier deaths of Evander, the boy from North Carolina and Mike, the boy I'd gone to school with, they appeared in my minds the way I last saw them - healthy and on the cusp of young manhood. Virile. Strong. Ready to meet and greet the world at large.

I'd like to remember Jackie like the time he first 'dropped by' my dorm room, when I was all of nineteen and he twenty-one, with his long blonde curls and his bedroom brown eyes and his slow and gentle smile. That way, he'll live for me. Forever young.

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