Mere Mortals, All of Us

I’ve somehow become a member of the SHS Memorial Page. A Facebook page dedicated to all the people who went to my high school and died.

It may be “a thing” these memorial pages, but I find it discomfiting, and, I’ll admit, macabre.

But I Can’t Look Away

But, like a rubbernecker at a train wreck, I find I can’t look away. I keep paging through the years looking for familiar faces. Knowing when I find one, they’re dead.

I left Sprayberry High School in 1968 and I could count on one hand the classmates I’ve seen since then.

I never looked up anyone from high school, and the few overtures I had from others, I ignored. I saw high school as the last obstacle to overcome before I escaped my parents’ house and gained my freedom. I’d had friends, although no close ones. Most of the kids I knew had no idea of the life I had at home, and never understood my frenzied drive to get away. But they were teenagers and, how mature were any of us before age 30?

I’ve recently had what my children describe as a near death experience: four days in cardiac ICU. After I came off the drugs they gave me while I was there, I began to contemplate my mortality and the sum of what I would leave behind. Thumbing through the photos of my dead classmates I thought, too, of what they had left behind, and what I knew of them from long ago. At least what they had left behind that was my memory of them.

It is as if there is still a whisper, an imprint of those memories that is real, that people will pass through that shadow and be affected by it. And it is as if I can see those imprints. They are almost tangible.

jana anders, sprayberry class of 1969I think the most surprising death I read about was Jana Anders. Probably because she was so full of life, She died 10 years ago, a relatively young death in this time of 80-year life expectancy.

Even though I knew Jana from the second grade, we weren’t friends. It was more an acquaintanceship, but I admired her and sometimes envied her, starting at age 7.

We were in a play in front of the school, parents, teachers, etc. and Jana gave an Oscar-worthy performance of some character named duck or goose … It was so good that even now I remember my mother talking about it for a week and wondering how Jana had the moxie to put on such a show for so many people. Most of them adults.

My family moved out of that school district at the end of second grade so my path didn’t cross Jana’s again until the ninth grade. That year and every year after, she was the cheerleader who was known all over the state, along with being one of the most popular girls in school.

She wasn’t classically pretty, she was ‘cute’, maybe a little elfin, but she lit up a room when she walked in and I can’t remember her ever being unkind. And, she was a fabulous gymnast. Most of the complicated routines the cheerleaders did were designed to showcase her because, who else would do? No one. And … she was always marvelous.

I saw her two times after high school

Five or six years into adulting, I was commuting from Marietta to Atlanta to work. I carpooled with a couple of other people, one of whom, Donna, had also gone to Sprayberry and knew Jana. We were on 75N, almost home, when Donna fairly screamed, “There’s Jana!”

It was the sort of shout out one would make upon seeing Garth Brooks’ tour bus or finding Joe Perry in your favorite tattoo parlor. Jana had that kind of star power.

Donna blew the horn, waved, and kept yelling to get Jana’s attention. I waved, too, all the while surprised and a little disappointed to see her driving a rather old, ratty VW bug with the windows down which meant she could hear us plainly, but also that she was suffering through a summer in Atlanta with no a/c.

She was, after all, the ‘Star of SHS’ the entire time I was there. More so even than the boy athletes, she was probably the most well known student, I’m sure, for several years and not just at Sprayberry, but every high school who had played football or basketball against us also knew her by reputation. She was our own celebrity.

The next and last time I saw her we were 35 and in a maternity store buying clothes to wear while we carried babies we were already too old be be having. As I left the changing room, I said, “Jana? Aren’t you Jana Anders?”

“I was,” she said. It seemed sad to me considering the thoughts I’d had the time I saw her in her little bug, but I think her meaning was she had another name because she had married. I hope it was that and not that she’d lost herself somehow.

I told her that she had known me as Teresa Shultz, a name I didn’t use anymore, and as I saw recognition in her face I knew it was only the name she remembered. She admitted she wouldn’t have known me if I hadn’t told her who I was.

We didn’t have any sort of meaningful dialogue, but that meeting stayed in my mind, because I was once again reminded that I had expected her to leave this small town and perform. Perform Something. Somewhere.

cirque du soleil

And now as I read the notes about her death, aged 57, from colorectal cancer, I am so saddened by it. And I think to myself, ‘Oh, Jana, if only we’d had Cirque du Soleil in our youth! You could have been an international star of Circus of the Sun, and I could have worked with show horses my whole life.

When I ran away from home I could have gone where I’d have been welcomed for my oddness and, well, like everyone else who met you, they’d have been mad about you! Neither of us were really suited to a desk or a boring life and we hardly knew where to look for anything else. We could have been running away to the circus. And what a grand one!

She may have been ecstatically happy with her professional life, I don’t know. I don’t even know what she did. She may have been happy to stay in this small town her whole life. I don’t have any impression of her other than my own memories, few as they are, and the expectations she brought to my mind with her exuberance for life.

 

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