Too Little Too Late
June 7th, 2010

On Friday morning I got a call from my mother.  I was on my way out the door and, after confirming that my Aunt B (who’s been feeling poorly) was okay, I hurriedly asked if I could call her back once I got in the car.  She assured me that Aunt B was fine and that I could call her back.  Then, more like ten minutes later when I was finally out the door, I pressed “M” on my BlackBerry and rang her cell. 

The reason for her call was not urgent, but was tragic.  A series of events had led her to phone a friend of hers that morning who informed her that she (the friend) would, later that day, be attending the funeral of a childhood classmate of mine.  It was shocking news, given that he had no known health problems and the cause of death, while known to be natural, is otherwise a mystery.  I was saddened to learn of his passing, as well as a bit shaken at being abruptly reminded of my own mortality. 

I wouldn’t say that I felt grief.  I hadn’t seen him since I transferred to private school after seventh grade.  But I felt sadness.  Sadness at a bright young life being snuffed out unexpectedly.  Sadness for his mother, of whom I have fond memories as a warm and vibrant presence in my childhood.  And sadness for his friends and colleagues who had much affection for him.

My memory of him is colored by the injustices of childhood and adolescence.  Our names were alphabetically adjacent, and so we were frequently seated next to each other in classes, line-ups, and other organized activities.  But beyond that, our paths didn’t intersect very often.  He was very cute, very athletic, and very popular, and I was (though I’m sure I didn’t understand it this way at the time) intimidated

And what do we do to people who intimidate us?  Sometimes, when we are young and insecure, we minimize them in the privacy of our minds in order to feel better about our own inadequacies.  To the extent that these things mattered to me at the time, I allowed myself to assume that he was uninteresting, not very nice, and not very smart, none of which, it turns out, was true.  And it is this fallacious perception that has been nagging at me since Friday. 

After our lives diverged for good at the age of 13 he was a part of my past in the most neutral sense.  I bore him no ill will, but didn’t miss him either, and in fact rarely thought of him at all.  Until I talked with my mother on Friday I hadn’t heard his name spoken in at least ten or 15 years.  But in the time since that phone call I’ve thought a lot about him.  I was particularly struck by these few sentences from his obituary which forced me to confront the long-forgotten assumptions I’d made about him as a child.

[He] loved his family first. Second was his fiery passion for sports, music and history that paired with a great smile and a better laugh made him an easy person to befriend and an easier person to love. He was not a musician but he had more knowledge, appreciation, and love for the art than many who perform. He was no longer a competitive athlete, but recognized, praised and admired those that were. He never fought in the Civil War but he knew the roads the soldiers took to battle and understood both sides’ reasons for combat.

After reading that description I couldn’t help but think, “This sounds like I guy I’d really have enjoyed!”  He clearly had a curious mind and an affecting spirit.  Then I got on Facebook (we have a number of FB friends in common) and found my homepage littered with condolences, memories, and tributes to a man whom I could tell was beloved.  And it was then that I realized how wrong I’d been, probably from the very beginning.  But my epiphany accomplishes nothing now; it is too little too late. 

I believe the assumptions we make about people are always colored by ourselves; by our biases, insecurities, defenses, and pride.  So often we see what we want to see.  When looking at people whom we love and admire we see strength of character, keenness of mind, and generosity of spirit.  When looking at people who threaten or intimidate us we see any number of qualities that vindicate us or make us feel superior.  But if we were to harness true objectivity, even for a moment, we would see that each portrait contains nuances we’d previously overlooked.  We would see that there is more to the story than we may care to admit

I was far from the most popular girl in school.  As a kid I lamented (usually privately) the fact that my insecurities and neediness masked the super-coolness I was sure lived just beneath my surface.  The cool kids just didn’t see me for what I truly was.  But I see now that – at least in this case (and probably many others) – I was guilty of the same offense.

11 Responses to “Too Little Too Late”

  1. Anne Says:

    I think it’s just a fact of childhood and adolescence…we make assumptions about people. And this young man was probably different as an adult than he was at age 13. Just as you are. No matter how distant our connection, these kinds of tragedies strike me. It’s just not fair.

  2. Cathy Says:

    I recently connected to a ton of kids from elementary/middle school on Facebook. There have been several instances when reconnecting where I’ve come to realize that my perception was so incorrect. The “snobby” girl who was really dealing with a chronically ill mother, very similar to myself. The girl I was mean to who told me when I apologized recently that she didn’t even notice she was so busy being mean herself. Middle school is such a tough time – every kids trying to find themselves, trying to define who they are. As adults, we are who we’ve been. Time has caused that to happen but a 13-year-old has no perspective.

  3. Eva @ Eva Evolving Says:

    When someone your age passes away – far too young, unexpectedly – it most certainly brings pause. Even if you were merely acquaintances, it makes you catch your breath – hammering home our own mortality. And a reminder that nothing is certain. Coming from a small town, my mom always gives updates on my former classmates. And a few times, I’ve experienced this, the sudden death of a peer. It’s unsettling, but a good chance for reflection I think.

  4. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    This is a very powerful reflection, Gale. As Eva says, there is something chilling about the death of a peer, especially at this moment in our lives when we feel like we are still building rather than slowing down.

    I was especially moved by this sentiment: “I believe the assumptions we make about people are always colored by ourselves.” What a wise and honest thought, one that I will be thinking about for some time.

  5. Nicki Says:

    Your powerful words show that you are not the person you were as a child. Death is hard, whether we expect it or not.

  6. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    I loved reading this. How interesting that, because he intimidated you, you “wrote him off in your mind.” I never thought about it like that before. You’ve opened my eyes today.

  7. Jack Says:

    Death at such a young age forces us to take a harder look at who we are now and who we were then. Sometimes we find that the past is different than we remember it.

  8. Christine LaRocque Says:

    It’s never easy to lose someone we know, whether they are close to us or not. As you say it’s a reminder of our own mortality, and a reminder of how quickly things change without us having any control. It’s scary. But after reading your piece, I’m left with a sense that it’s important to remember that your perspective was much different in your youth but no less important. You were living an experience then that you’ve moved beyond and so you shouldn’t feel badly for how you handled a life situation then. This is a bit convoluted, but I hope you know what I mean.

  9. joely Says:

    Nice life lesson learned story. I appreciate your honesty. It is difficult to admit you were wrong. I am sorry it had to happen in death, but what a touching and real story about a man you knew. I bet people who know him would have liked what you said about him. I truly felt like I was reading your diary on this blog. It was very sincere.

  10. Gale Says:

    Thanks, Joely. It was a hard realization to face. But I feel like I owe it to him and to myself to say that I was wrong. It’s the only way to make ourselves better, right?

  11. joely Says:

    I am strong believer that it is better to admit your mistakes and move on rather than to pretend you are perfect. In the end, people like you better for it, and so will you. Believe me, I hate admitting some things but I feel real and not fake for it, whether it is embarrassing or not. So , yes, I think you are so right, it is the ONLY way to make ourselves better.