Although I am not always quick to admit this, I graduated from high school 20 years ago. About a year prior to the momentous anniversary, rumors of a reunion began to swirl, and I started to consider what the scenario may look like. Although I was totally satisfied leaving the 18-year-old version of myself in the hallways of my high school, my classmates had other ideas. Perhaps it was time to consider lugging that girl, and my adult-self, to the reunion of the Class of ‘99.
Thinking about the reunion was both exciting and torturous. As an adult, I saw the high school version of myself as fragile and, at times, unbridled. True to form of a middle-child seeking situations to confirm what she feared was true: I loved boys with unavailable hearts; measured myself through a series of comparisons; and often needed both approval and reassurance from my trusted companions.
The topic of trusted companions is where I consider myself one of the luckiest girls on the planet. I had an incredible group of loving, supportive and adventurous friends. Although many left permanent prints on my heart, there are two that line the edges of almost every memory I have of high school.
Anne and Jill were special. I know I’m not alone in thinking that. They were smart, pretty, hard-working, kind, athletic- all the things that you find yourself striving to be in your teenage years- and even in adulthood. We did everything together- football games, school dances, concerts and first loves. We held each other when our hearts felt hollow and laughed our way in and out of a million ridiculous plots to get boys attention, or show them we didn’t need them. We lived the most amazing high school experience…together.
Now, initially I thought our reunion would take place at a cute bar with 90s music and awkward interactions- and it did- but the real reunion came with a different celebration.
My sister decided to come with me- while unorthodox, it was a celebration I was so grateful she couldn’t miss. Anne and I met in the lobby and waited together in total disbelief. First came a crew of girls I hadn’t seen since graduation. I have to tell you- they were as nice as I had remembered and even prettier than my memory allowed. We hugged, wiped tears and did all of the catching-up that you could do in whispers and shock.
Next, came the faces of boys I had adored- boys that had been such incredibly solid people to me in my teens, and now provided incredible comfort in my 30s. We hugged and smiled, and I couldn’t believe how being in their presence was just like it used to be- calming, protective, sincere. And then came faces that I forgot I loved- those of my friends’ parents. They were stoic, proud, and shared our heartache and disbelief. I hadn’t seen them since I had become a parent, and my love and appreciation for them was tenfold what it used to be. Here they were- supporting all of us, as they always had.
It was finally time to see Jill. We looked at picture boards as we got closer to her, and laughed through our sobs. There were 90s bangs, and Pom uniforms and snuggling sleepovers. There were pictures of her family, friends and people that she loved dearly- all of them complete with Jill’s trademark warmth and infectious smile. Jill loved deeply. Jill was loved deeply. And this reunion, was a testament to that.
We embraced her brother, mother and husband- pillars of strength in this tender moment- and then we saw her. I wanted so badly to hug her. If you were ever on the receiving end of one of her hugs you, would understand why. She was a two arm- I really love you- hugger. She held on for as long as you needed her to before letting go. She often grabbed on for one more short squeeze- just to let you know you were loved. I imagine she would have told me she missed me- and I would have said the same to her. I think we would have giggled and talked about the magic that it was to see so many old friends. She would have felt like home.
She would have done a half run with her long legs to hug new people as they came in and made the conversation more about them than herself. We would have done an old Pom routine, while Anne egged us on, and all laughed at the evidence of what time and age had done to our skills. Jill would have lit up the room with her smile. She always did.
But none of those things happened. Instead of the reunion embrace, we embraced each other and talked of our love for Jill. We sat in pews instead of barstools and sang hymns of remembrance, instead of Dave Mathews Band. We wondered how and why and what could have been done to change the course of the life of our friend.
And this is where I get a little stuck. The details of Jill’s life as they relate to her demons are hers to tell- not mine. And I want to be careful not to characterize her as completely perfect or completely broken- because we are all a bit of both.
I do want to express my gratitude for the reunion Jill gave us. There was no anxiety about this event, as it related to reconnecting with people from an insecure time in our life, because all we cared about was showing up, and showing our love for her. People that weren’t present at our actual class reunion months later, were present at her funeral- because the love she so selflessly gave to others, was worth remembering and just being present for. Our loss signified the idea that maybe things weren’t what they seemed to be when we were self-absorbed teens- and maybe even the kids we thought were “perfect” were just kids trying to figure it all out- like the rest of us.
Jill’s funeral was the reunion we never wanted and had no idea we needed. She gave us strength, and bravery, and courage to face people we hadn’t faced in years- because our love for her made us willing, and able to do it. The love we all had for each other- 20 years later- was completely reflective of the love we always felt radiating from her, in our direction.
For me, the reunion of the Class of ‘99 was full of emotion. The 18-year-old girl that I dragged out of the hallways of my high school grew-up, that day. She saw the fragility of a lifelong friend that gave away the kindest and most gracious parts of herself to everyone she met, and seemed to leave very little of that for herself. She saw the power of vulnerability- and what can happen if you allow shame to determine your worthiness, or lack thereof. She saw the love that exists in being united with a group of people and supporting each other through life’s challenging experiences- both at 18 and 38.
At our official class reunion, we toasted our dearest Jill and the other classmates that were no longer on this earth. Although it started as a somber moment, I think we all realized that the best part about coming back together was that we could comfort each other in a way no one else could. We shared stories of Jill, her full-of-love personality- memories that created a bond that could never be broken.
She had belonged to all of us. Perhaps that’s why she left us so quickly… And perhaps, with her passing, the kids that are stuck in the hallways of our mind will finally rest. The adults we had grown into understood that the most important thing was to recognize what it meant to be human… and that it is just as important to save grace and peace and acceptance for yourself, as it is for others.
Here’s to you Class of ‘99. I am better for knowing all of you at 18, and even more grateful 20 years later. And here’s to you, Jill… even in your death, you gave us the courage to love and be loved.
Mother, Wife, Teacher and Believer.