Thursday, April 28, 2011

Bone-deep connections

How can I write about something I cannot begin to understand?

I've been undone. My emotions have become unhinged. I've awakened at night with moist eyes; I've been weeping in my sleep. I've found myself crying audibly during the day. I've felt tears welling up as I walk between classes. I've lost sleep. I've neglected some of my work. As one who normally doesn't display his emotions, this is a totally new experience. And after a week, it isn't letting up. Moreover, I don't really understand why it's happening.

What has caused me to become such an emotional basket case? I recently was told of a tragedy. Just last week, I learned of the untimely death of a grade school/high school classmate--almost ten years after the fact. Clearly, I'm grieving. It's quite natural to grieve, of course. But I've never, ever, experienced this depth, level, or intensity of grief in my life--not even when my mother died (which was seventeen years ago this past week). And the classmate, who died in November 2001, was not really a close friend; she was more of a casual friend. What is happening? Why has this particular bit of tragic news so upended my emotions?

A few months ago, my wife received an e-mail from a high school classmate. With her 40th graduation anniversary approaching, a few classmates decided to use e-mail and Facebook to contact other classmates and try to organize a face-to-face reunion. In response, I realized my own high school class' graduation is also approaching its 40th anniversary, but nobody to my knowledge was organizing a reunion. So after a few electronic correspondences with another classmate, we thought it might be a good idea to set up our own "virtual reunion" on Facebook. Last week, on Monday, I did it; I set up the Facebook group and enrolled eight classmates who were also Facebook friends. It has been a great success so far; classmates who have Facebook accounts are signing on; then they're letting other classmates know of the group. Interest is spreading, and it appears that a face-to-face reunion will be organized for later in the year.

All is going as expected, right? Well, not quite. Along with the excitement and pleasure of reacquainting ourselves with long lost school mates, we're uncovering the always sad news of classmates who are no longer with us. Some of them I didn't know well or at all. Others I knew, but was never very close to. It's always a tragedy to be told of someone's death, but it's still less painful to say, "I'm sorry about ______'s passing" when one didn't know the deceased person well. However, when one classmate mentioned that she thought Mindy had died and another confirmed it, also sharing some details, I was devastated. I wanted to shout out, "Say it ain't so!" Not Mindy! This has to be wrong! Thus, one week ago, my inexplicable emotional ride began, with no end in sight.

Her name was Melinda, but she was always known simply as Mindy. It was a lovely name for a wonderful person. She was one of those extremely rare people for whom the word "special" doesn't begin to do justice. She was unabashedly friendly, and her friendliness was absolutely genuine, never contrived. She was full of energy, and always ready with an enthusiastic greeting. Most importantly, she was a warm, caring person, who always took interest in others' needs ahead of her own.

I cannot remember when we first met. We simply grew up together. Mindy was born three months ahead of me (and two days after Christmas) in the same small city that we both called home. We didn't attend the same elementary school after completing first grade, though it's quite possible that she and I knew each other by the time we were in first grade, if not earlier. I can be almost certain that she and I attended Sunday school together at the Methodist church from an early age, and that we were in the same confirmation class. It's also likely that we also both attended summer Vacation Bible School sessions together. Later, we were both involved with Methodist Youth Fellowship. By our junior high years and through high school, we would have been in many of the same classes together because we were both in the top 10% of the class and were normally enrolled in the same Advanced Placement classes. However, Mindy was clearly my superior in the intelligence department; she finished second in our graduation class of about 250, while I was several steps lower. Finally, Mindy and I shared one passion: we both loved to sing. We were in Concert Choir and Swing Choir together during our senior year, and we both sang in the high school youth choir at church.

After high school graduation, we went our separate ways, as so often happens to high school graduates in our mobile society. We attended separate private colleges in different corners of Ohio, and eventually both of us moved away from our hometown. Our families still lived there, though, so occasionally I would encounter her when we were both visiting family, usually in church over a holiday like Christmas. She would invariably give me her enthusiastic, warm greeting, like she always did, and we would briefly exchange pleasantries.

I believe Mindy attended our 20th high school class reunion in 1991 (we didn't have a 30th reunion in 2001), but I don't recall either seeing or speaking with her. Therefore, I may never know the last time I actually spoke with her. We simply lost contact with each other over time. The 20th anniversary reunion directory indicated that Mindy earned a doctorate in clinical psychology in the early 1980s, married, settled with her husband, also a psychologist, in a large city in another state, and had a daughter who was three years old at the time. However, I never learned that she had been diagnosed with scleroderma in 1983. I only learned that last week, after I was told of her passing. Scleroderma is a systemic disease; it is thought that the body's immune system turns against the body and begins attacking vital organs. Mindy suffered with it for eighteen years before it finally ended her life. The daughter would have been around 13 when Mindy passed away, so she's a young adult woman by now.

So why have I reacted so emotionally to the news of Mindy's death, when I never reacted similarly to the deaths of dear family members, including my own mother? Is the emotional intensity my way of crying out at the seeming injustice of Mindy's predicament--the age-old, unanswerable question of why someone as wonderful, generous, and kind as Mindy would be made to suffer as she must have, and made to die before she even reached the age of fifty? Or is it because the news came out of the blue and I was totally unprepared for it? When my mom died, it wasn't at all unexpected; we had watched cancer slowly devour her life over the six years after she was diagnosed. Until I heard otherwise last week, I would have assumed that Mindy was still as active, healthy, and energetic as ever. Or am I perhaps punishing myself for failing to keep in touch with a true friend? At the very least, I could have put her on my Christmas card list; we could have exchanged cards over the years. Perhaps all these are factors. But an essay by Scott Russell Sanders suggests that there might be a far deeper, more primordial, reason.

Sanders grew up in northern Portage County in northeast Ohio. During his high school years, the state decided to dam the west branch of the Mahoning River, which flowed through a valley near his home. The dam was completed during his senior year, but his family left the area right after he graduated from high school, and Sanders went off to college, so he never saw the reservoir after it had filled. About two decades later, Sanders happened to be doing some work in the area and was traveling on the interstate when the familiar town names on the highway signs lured him back to the area. He was shocked not only by the vista that the reservoir presented him, but also by the fact that the land surrounding the lake, including the area where his home had been, had seemingly been abandoned by humans and was reverting to wilderness (Sanders 7-11). But as unprepared as he was for the change in the landscape, he was even less prepared for his emotional reaction:
"My worst imaginings had failed to prepare me for this. I stood there dazed. I could not take it in, so much had been taken away. For a long spell I leaned against the guardrail and dredged up everything I could remember of what lay beneath the reservoir. But memory was at last defeated by the blank gray water. No effort of mind could restore the river or drain the valley. I surrendered to what my eyes are telling me. Only then was I truly exiled" (11).

Sanders believes that his emotional reaction to the inundation of the valley where he grew up was related to the inevitable tie we humans have between ourselves and our "native ground":
"One's native ground is the place where, since before you had words for such knowledge, you have known the smells, the seasons, the birds and beasts, the human voices, the houses, the ways of working, the lay of the land, and the quality of light. It is the landscape you learn before you retreat inside the illusion of your skin. You may love the place if you flourished there, or hate the place if you suffered there. But love it or hate it, you cannot shake free. Even if you move to the antipodes, even if you become intimate with new landscapes, you still bear the impression of that first ground" (12).

While Sanders is speaking here of what he calls our "bone-deep attachment" (14) to our formative physical geography, is it possible that we also, similarly and indelibly, bear an equally bone-deep connection to the people who were part of our formative lives? Sanders' story, especially his emotional reaction to the sudden realization that things around the reservoir did not remain the way he had remembered them, parallels my own experience from this past week. Is it possible that my life, Mindy's life, and the lives of perhaps other classmates I might not even realize right now, were woven together in some very deep, mysterious way during our formative years as we grew, learned, played, and, yes, sang together? Is it possible that this very palpable, almost physical pain that I've been experiencing since learning of Mindy's passing, a pain that is welling up from some deep, unknown, and heretofore unexplored depth of my being, has been caused by the severing of that bond--that deep, mysterious connection that was woven all those years ago? I don't know, but I'm beginning to imagine that it might be so. If so, it's a reminder that we humans are social creatures, and that we're not meant to live the autonomous, atomized lifestyle that's so relentlessly promoted by our American, consumerist culture. The bottom line is that we cannot live lives contrary to our own nature. We may ignore or neglect these connections, but we cannot escape them.

It's true that both Mindy and I, along with our families, made new friends and acquaintances in the places where we eventually settled. Mindy certainly had a secure support network that helped see her through the tragedy of her illness, and I believe I also have one. But new relationships do not replace these primordial bonds; they can only supplement them. Finally, although learning of Mindy's passing has caused me great emotional pain over the past week, I would never, never want to deny that deep, mysterious connection, even if doing so would allow me to avoid the hurt.

I began this essay by asking how I could write about something I am unable to understand. I'm ending it by imagining that, perhaps, the writing process itself actually helped me reach a kind of understanding--however inadequate that understanding might be--and has helped begin the healing of the Mindy-shaped wound that was inflicted in my soul. The pain and emotional intensity I'm experiencing now will, sooner or later, fade, and my life will go on. But it will probably never be quite the same. Such wounds never completely heal. The bonds that hold people together; the bonds that remain an essential part of our humanity, will endure come what may. Mindy, you have been and will continue to be sorely missed. May you rest in peace, Mindy, and may God continue to bless your family and loved ones.


Work Cited
Sanders, Scott Russell. "After the Flood." Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993. 3-15.

FINAL NOTE: In order to try and protect the privacy of Mindy's family, I did not include last names; I also purposely left out the name of our mutual hometown, the names of the schools and the church we attended, and the name of the city to which Mindy eventually relocated. However, I couldn't bring myself to avoid using her real name.


  1. Hi Don,

    My sympathies and well wishes to you. There is much to think over in what you say.

  2. Thanks, Adrian, for the concern. I believe I'll be all right.

    Yes, there's much to think about. I've hardly begun.

  3. Thanks for sending me this link, Don, to something that had to be difficult, even painful to write. Since you & I are the same age, it's easy for me to empathize with what you're going through. A few years ago, I lost a very good friend to cancer. This was someone I'd gone to high school with & roomed with in college; I was in his wedding party, & he was my best man; we pursued similar careers, and we *had* stayed in touch over the years. So his death was devastating. Perhaps a year after he died, I mentioned to one of my daughters that I was surprised that I hadn't gotten over the loss yet, that thinking about the tragedy of his too-early death still brought back the tears. Suzie, based on a personal loss of her own & a wisdom beyond her years, told me, "Oh, Dad, don't you know that you never get over a loss like that. You just learn to live with it." I'm sure you will too, Don ... in time. Best wishes.