Wednesday, March 21, 2007

My Ivan Ilyich Moment

I just turned 37 recently and it made me take stock of my life like most birthdays do, especially those that move me closer to 40.

I recently found a picture of me in the 7th Grade. I'm standing against the wall of the Vanguard Wing at Hamilton Middle School. The windows I'm standing in front of are to the classroom that was my science class with Mr. Novak in 7th grade and my Spanish class with Ms. Patel in 8th grade. I can't believe I remember that.

I also remember the girls standing next to me. One is Erin Doughty who became one of my good friends in 7th and 8th grade. I admired Erin so much! I wanted to look like her except she was rail thin and I wasn't. She had dark brown curly hair like mine except she was able to control hers into something somewhat resembling the wings that were so popular at that time. We're both wearing chunky plastic earrings and bracelets. I can see the Stray Cats and Adam Ant buttons on her black sleeveless t-shirt. She's also wearing black jeans and Nikes of course. The last time I spoke to Erin we were in college each doing internships. I think she was at A&M and I was at U of H. I often wonder what happened to Erin.

The other girl is Xochitl Perez. The first and only Xochitl I've ever met. Xochitl passed away recently. I wasn't close to her any more but it still struck a chord in me. Xochitl and I were good friends in 7th grade but in 8th grade we had a falling out from which we never recovered. We went to different high schools but her sister was good friends with one of my best friend's sister, so I knew about her through the grapevine. In college I attended a dinner at a Mexican restaurant for one of the organizations my friends were in, and she went with her sister. I had heard that she went to school in Boston.

The first words out of her mouth when she saw me were, "Boy you gained weight!" At that moment I didn't think she had changed much since middle school. I didn't see her again for years until her sister got married. I was already married and had a my daughter. She was very nice and gracious this time and she had really grown into a beautiful woman. I heard that she was either working on her PhD or had recently received it and that she was teaching. She wasn't married and she didn't have children.

Sadly her sister died, from a very mysterious illness, only two years later. I saw Xochitl at the funeral and she was so sad. She asked me to please call her or to e-mail her but I'm sad to say I never did. Six months later she died in a car accident while on vacation in Mexico.

The reason her death made such an impression on me, apart from the fact that she died only six months from her sister, was that they were both my age. When I went to Vanessa's funeral I felt something I didn't expect to feel.

I grew up going to funerals from as early as I can remember. My parents raised us not to fear death and to accept it as a part of this life. We also believe in earthly resurrection (not heavenly) so we don't really really fear death. Funerals were almost social gatherings where we saw friends we hadn't seen in a long time.

So maybe it's because I grew up going to funerals all my life that I didn't expect to feel what I did when I went to Vanessa's. I felt my mortality. Here was a girl (I still call myself a girl) almost my age and she became ill and she died. It was so sad. My age! It just made death of women my age possible. I know that death is possible. I know. But here was a young woman and someone I knew, talked to, and laughed with dead. Just like that...

Then six months later it was Xochitl who's died. I missed that funeral. I think I found out too late, after the fact. Soon after I found the picture. It's an old Polaroid. I'm wearing jeans, a blue and white striped shirt, chunky blue and white jewelry and Nikes, of course. She's smiling at the camera. She didn't dress very fashionable. She's dressed kind of like an older lady now that I think about it. I marvel at how slim I look and how fat I felt. Erin is still significantly smaller, but Xochitl and I are the same size. I laugh. I thought I was so fat. Oh to be the same size again now.

We look so young and innocent in that picture. I wish for that innocence again. We didn't know what life had in store for us. Our lives were empty canvases sitting before us and we were getting ready to throw all our paint on them.

After Xochitl died I Googled her. I read all the nice things people had to say about her. I read about her death in a school district or teacher's union newsletter. People were sad at her loss. I felt sad too. Sad that we didn't stay in touch. Sad that she was such a young woman, obviously not ready to go, and that she was gone. I was sad for myself too in a weird way. Sad that it could have been me and sad that it had to be her.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I went to high school with Xochitl Perez and I was touched by your comments about her untimely death. We will be thinking of her at our 20th reunion next weekend. I was supposed to teach her to swim one summer, but never got around to it. I hope she learned from someone else eventually. When we lose touch we sometimes underestimate the odds that we will never speak again