Saturday, September 11, 2010

bean counting the dead

Who would do this sort of thing? Keep such careful track, I mean? Make it her duty (or life's mission?) to document every single dead person from her high school over the past 150 years?

That's gotta be an act of love, right? Or is it like my bird-watcher friends who keep notes on every bird's when and where, and add it all up at the end of the year, with the aim of what? Seeing/hearing every bird in the book by life's end? Is it more about knowing the birds, or more this obsessive desire to catalog the lot. Do bird-watchers know birds at all, or do they collect them? Document them? Is a momentary glimpse or warble enough?

I know I'm being a bit of an asshole about this. And I'm not here to talk about bird-watching at all. I want to talk about obituaries, high school yearbooks and the dead. A high school memorial website.

Here's what the site looks like: At the top is the name of the high school memorial. You can click on any year, starting from Gertrude Stein's class up to the present. And the pictures or names of every single student who has died is listed. In the more recent listings, there are links to obits. The year of birth and date of death are also listed under each name, when known. For military deaths a tiny waving American flag appears. For cops, a tiny badge, etc.

But the pictures of the dead are all exactly as they appeared in their last high school yearbook. Young and fresh and full of potential for a life about to be lived, however long or short. The pictures all were taken around the same age — around 17 years old.

But the deaths?

If you worked it out, maybe the ages of death would form a perfect bell-shaped curved. I'm not sure.

In my high school class, there have been 63 recorded deaths on the memorial page for 1965. I have no idea how many kids there were in the class, but no matter. Sixty-three feels like a pretty large number.

Of those 63, eighteen are listed with no cause of death. But for the others, here's the breakdown:

Three were killed in Vietnam. Ages 19, 21 and 22. I actually was surprised by this. I thought there would have been more.

Two were murdered, one of them by a classmate. He was 18 years old—the youngest death listed for my high school graduation year. I noticed looking at more recent graduation classes that there's a lot more murder these days. Two others died of gunshot wounds. If these are not classified as murder, what are they, accidents?

There were four suicides.

Three who died in car accidents.

Two who drowned.

One who suffocated to death.

What were their stories? What were their lives like? What really happened?

Someone is keeping track of all this. Think of what she knows about the life and death of others. Surely this is a full time job? I keep wondering if she has a grant to fund her research, especially into the 19th century lives and deaths from Oakland High. I keep wondering what motivates someone to make sure no one gets left behind.

And who reads this? And what do they think or feel when they click those pages? There's both so much information documented on this memorial site and so very little. A fresh young face with hair and formal picture style of the period. A name. A date. A cause of death. No more, no less — but thousands of them.

Of the diseases (so far), there were one each of AIDS, liver disease, leukemia, aortic aneurysm, ALS, and a brain tumor.

There were two who died of diabetes.

Seven heart attacks.

And the biggies: Fourteen who died of cancers not listed above.

I knew these people. Actually, I didn't know them at all. I recognize their faces and their names. I never really knew any of them. Not these, the dead. And not any of the remaining living, however many they might be. They will remain for me pictures in a yearbook, eternally young, no matter the ages of their demise. They'll always be stories I do not know. And my story too will not be known.

My name has changed so many times since birth that it's actually unlikely my own little blurb will ever be filled in. Born one name. Adopted another name. High School fits in around there. Then Hebrew name. Then married name. Then legal name change of the whole bit, with all the previous akas. Then a post-divorce name, for good measure, going back to an old old family name. So many names that I feel fairly untraceable. Any obit of mine had better not include all those bloody names I've left behind! This was the point, after all: to be someone different. Someone else. to find a name that finally felt like me. To start all over. And over. And over. If it was good enough for Avram and Sarai, to be given new names in order to flourish, it's good enough for me.

But we were speaking of death.

My problem is, I want to know if my horrid little high school picture with my horrid little name from that era will ever end up on that memorial site. My problem is I want to know what those dates will be on my horrid little caption, and what the subject heading will read. That is, if I ever get documented at all. My problem is I'm not sure if I'm more interested in the deaths of members of my cohort or in their lives. Or if I really care at all. I've never once thought of any of these people — not once — in all these decades. I've blanked out just about everything I experienced, almost everyone I knew from before I was 18 (second or third name change, depending on how you're counting).

So, why am I moved by this memorial?

Is it that it's an impressive piece of research? I'm not quite sure. One thing's for sure, it's not because it's personal.

I think what gets me are those young faces, and not seeing them grow old or older. And thinking about how much time they each got before poof, being gone. Thinking about whether they had time to think or change or care about anything important to them. Thinking about whether they procreated, or again, poof, they disappeared. Thinking about who thinks about them now, if anyone. As the decades recede, does this memorial provide footnotes to history? Will anyone go back and dig them up again upon the page and resurrect their moment on the stage?

My old puppy, Ziggy, died a year ago yesterday. He was fourteen. Cancer. No permanent record on a collective memorial. No photo from his youth, no fancy font name plate. But Zigurat, I remember you, and fourteen years of crazy puppy stuff. You licking the sweat off the legs of belly dancers. Jumping straight up five feet in the air. Sniffing the crotches of transmen who've taken too much T. Contact acid high and howling in tune with Jim Morrison, hitting the high notes. Finding and stealing a visitor's massive stash right out of their pack. Leering and licking at will. Lusting for chocolate, Nutella and double espressos.

You weren't a real dog, were you?
You were a person no one-liner could sum up.
So, this is my memorial.
It's just a few lines, but it says more than:

1995 – 2010

No comments:

Post a Comment