Passing Familiar: The Death of a Classmate

A classmate from high school died last week.

We were barely acquaintances. He was one of those people I grew up around rather than with; companionable enough but not someone I was otherwise connected to. We were on swim team together. Within the social hierarchy of beach-influenced San Diego, he had gone from being a geek like me and my friends to a popular kid because he had taken up surfing. (Yes, these leaps in the social order were possible, and surfing, for whatever reason, was one of the ways kids at my high school could elevate themselves.)

When my classmate joined the swim team, he had no swimming technique, but because of the hours spent surfing, he pulled himself through the chlorinated water with such strong-willed ferocity, he ended the season doing at least as well as I did, if not better. That’s what I remember most about him.

We knew each other, and we shared experiences around each other, and now he’s gone. And yet I’ve been thinking about him ever since I heard the news.

As I’ve reached middle age—an ‘achievement’ in and of itself that still baffles me—my reaction to deaths like this one are ever more visceral. I immediately think of the wife and child he left behind, the realities of being a widow or widower, the financial struggle and the emotional turmoil of having to confront the loss with a child, or children, in tow.

This will be me, and it will be my family. There’s no avoiding it, there’s no false safety of years. When I was young, I could think this same thought with a comforting delusional belief that such passings were far off in some distant maybe-never-going-to-happen future. That’s a lie I can’t pretend any longer.

But that’s not what is haunting me. No, it’s the lingering sensation that someone has been stolen from me. A person who up until this was week was frozen safely in my memories. Someone protected by his existence in my past. Rationally I of course know that he’s no longer strutting through the high school halls, no longer cruising the So Cal beaches as a carefree, sun-blessed teen. But before my rational thoughts can engage, there is a sense of vertigo, of displacement.

Someone is missing. Someone was taken. Plucked from my memories, removed from my past. Wiped away.

Perhaps what I’m sensing is time’s circularity, its constant turns and circumlocutions. There is no line from then to now. There are only ripples, and tides, and currents. There are only long ago surfers carving up still cresting waves.