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.