The running track on my elementary school playground was aligned a few degrees off of due west. It was paved with that fine-grained subsurface asphalt that usually is laid below the topcoat of a roadway, faded to a charcoal and white crust on top from the sun. Six laps around the track was a mile – a fact drilled into my brain to this day from the yearly presidential fitness exam. The east end of the oval was filled in with a metal-pipe jungle gym – monkey bars, parallel bars, and mid-height bars to turn flips on and fall off of – the site of the one fight I ever got into at school. The west end held the kickball field, the Alabama red dirt cracked and dusty in the summer and a muddy clay-like mire in the winter. In between was grass to serve as a “soccer” field in which goals were defined by sticks or rocks and guarded with great enthusiasm. I walked hundreds of miles around that track over the course of my 10-year tenure at that school, dancing with my shadow around and around and around. My shadow and I grew up together there, with all the other shadows and the boys and girls that made up the other half of their pairs.
The first death I attended was my grandmother, my father’s mother, when I was 11. She was 72 and had cancer. I remember the pastor coming to see my father, the funeral home, the cold silky feel of her softly wrinkled cheek when I touched her in the casket. The next was a junior high classmate, when I was 15. He would have been 15 or 16. I remember my mother telling me and then me going for a walk on a dirt country road thinking about it. It was a incongruously gorgeous day with bright blue skies and lush green trees and bushes lining the roadway. His name was Josh. After that came my mother’s father the week I moved away to college – I left two days into class to attend his funeral and came back straight into sorority rush that night. Before that semester was over, I got a call from my mom that an elementary school classmate had been murdered. Donald. He was 18. As far as I have ever heard, his murder is still an unsolved case. Then came a string of family members: my father’s father’s brother, of Alzheimer’s. His wife, later, simply of old age. My godmother, heart disease. My mother’s stepfather. My aunt’s husband in a motorcycle crash. My husband’s grandfather, grandmother, grandfather, great uncle, grandmother, uncle. Somewhere in that string, my sorority sister Amy. 36. Breast cancer. I found out after the fact at a dinner with the girls when I was probably 6 or 7 months pregnant and I couldn’t comprehend it. How did SHE die? And how did I completely miss it in our uber-connected facebook society? The next death was a college acquaintance who committed suicide, which I learned about a year later from his wife’s blog. The last time I had seen him was in a christmas card photo hanging on a mutual friend’s mantle. Then last year, another elementary school classmate. Of … unknown causes, probably his heart. He was 35. Crockett. I still have the last message he sent me on facebook tucked away where we exchanged the pleasantries of people who grew up together but have gone their separate ways, searching for common ground of shared memory and experience. Two months ago, my mother’s mother passed away, her lungs and heart worn down by years of chronic illness and incessant smoking. Saturday I got a facebook message that a high school classmate died of a massive heart attack leaving behind his wife and two small children. He was 36. This morning, a follow-up message that another was killed in a car crash in North Dakota. Another wife, two more small girls.
My son, those girls, they are the age that I and the dead boys were when we met and first walked around that elementary school track, ran through the pine trees on that playground, spun and kicked and screamed in excitement and the sheer joy of playing outside together. I saw it tonight in my son’s face, how young he is, and yet no younger than we were once. It never crossed my mind, ever, that we might die, that we would die, that they would die young, that they would die before me. It never occurred to me that one day all that would be left of them are my memories of our shadows forever walking around that track in the afternoon soon, stretched out before us, stretched out behind us, breaking free only when we leapt into the air just to see if we could become unbound from them.
The shadow tonight isn’t my shadow, the one that has faithfully attended me my whole life. It’s the shadow of death, the shadow of my own mortality, that shadow of their mortality. The haunting premonition that this is all just a cycle, and that one day my own children will sit at their kitchen table shocked by the deaths of their childhood friends. That one day I will attend the funerals of these small children who have just entered our lives through my children’s school. The past, the present, the future. They are all met tonight.