Nancy Leith Musser lost two of her high school friends: Blanche Kurtz recently, and Beth Mellott last year.
I don’t usually report the deaths of classmates, mainly because I hear of so few, yet I know there must be many more from mortality statistics alone. I once had a good family friend who was a director at DuPont, and part of his responsibility was to keep tabs on the welfare of past retirees from his department. He told me many died soon after retirement, but the survivors generally continued living until their mid-80s when the mortality curve peaked again. That was only his anecdotal observation, but it rang true. Now, if I don’t hear otherwise, I assume a classmate has died.
As I get older, I see death as just another event in life, even rather minor compared to some others. Many may still be living, but in a state very different than I remember them, such as warped by incapacity and pain, or in dementia, both of which I would find worse than death. The person I knew has left, replaced by this grotesque caricature of what they once were.
In the movie, “Harry and Tonto,” Harry (Art Carney, who won an Oscar for his performance), is traveling cross-country. He impulsively stops in on an old love (Geraldine Fitzgerald) now in a nursing home, but she is demented and does not recognize him. They always loved to dance, and Harry invites her for one last dance right there in the day room of the home. She is transposed by it but does not realize why. Harry kisses her on the cheek, and leaves with a final goodbye, his characteristic phrase, “So long, Kiddo.” She turns away, uncaring, uncomprehending, already gone. That poignant scene would bring tears to a statue.
I was saddened by the death of both Blanche and Beth, although I don’t remember speaking to either one in the over 60 years since graduation, and little before that. But, in our high school days, both lived within a block of me and surely we shared many memories of the same people, streets, and events, right to the end.
That’s why any infirmity in my wife is so scary. She remembers my parents, my sister, even my grandparents—their homes, voices, personalities. She remembers our courtship, our wedding, the growth of our children and grandchildren, our early homes and jobs, our vacations and trips. If she goes, I will be the only one carrying those important memories, and that seems too much of a burden. How will I cope? How will I survive?
But the death of even someone such as a slightly-known classmate closes a chapter in our life definitely, firmly, and permanently. There is no chance at all our paths will ever cross again, no matter how unlikely it ever was. Wherever I go, neither Blanche nor Beth will approach me saying, “You look familiar. Didn’t you go to Lansdowne High School? Aren’t you Roger?” That possibility is gone.
The death of anyone from our past diminishes us. “Don’t ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.” I kid you not.