Last year I celebrated my 50th college reunion, which is a milestone of sorts. I went to Williams College, a small school, and my class had a few more than 300 members. As one of the editors for the 50th Reunion yearbook, I got to look at them all, at their photographs anyhow, those living and those gone. When we editors began the yearbook, 52 of us had died, and before we were through, one more had joined them.
I decided that I would collect memorials for all of our dead classmates. I found as many obituaries as I could, through the college and the internet. (More recent obits were on line, but the earlier ones were recorded only in print.) I contacted their roommates, sports teammates, family members, asking them all for stories about each departed person while at Williams. Some of them I knew myself. This process turned out to be a real labor; popular, outgoing men were no problem, but the shyer, more reclusive ones required me to make many emails and phone calls trying to track down people who would speak about them. It all became something of an obsession. Eventually, I got memorials for every deceased class member, mostly with multiple stories.
In the introduction to the memorial section, I wrote: “Most of us died of the old favorites, cancer or heart attack, but one classmate was taken by an auto accident, another from diabetes, a third in a boating accident, one other from falling off a ladder. Two died by suicide. One of us was killed in an apparent homicide, which was never solved.”
During this process I became more aware of the end that awaits us all. There’s no escaping it, only perhaps postponing it for a time. One classmate named Bob Mitchell, an athlete and writer who suffered five heart attacks, received a postponement when, months before the reunion, he underwent a heart transplant. (He’s now living happily in southern California with his wife and his new heart.) The class had a memorial service reading all the names, while playing videos of two moving songs by our late classmate, singer/songwriter Jesse Winchester; in the lobby afterwards I talked with Bob. He had been crying. “I knew it could so easily have been me with them,” he said.
In consequence, I’ve done some real thinking about dying. Bob was right, of course; in fact, it could have been any one of us having his name read up there. And sooner or later it will be all of us. This is a God moment, as we consider the end of this journey we’ve each been given. When I looked at the pictures of my old friends who have already ended theirs, I thought, you’re safe now. And the rest of us will be also, soon enough. God bless us all.