The day before I attended my class reunion, I visited Uncle Norley.
He greeted me at the door: “Your 50th reunion, huh? Next week I’m going to my 67th. I’m not looking forward to it, though. I don’t really like the other guy who’ll be there.”
I laughed with my uncle who seems easy with his aging; but the next night I reflected more soberly about mine as the master of ceremonies read the names of forty-three deceased classmates.
As I looked at their young faces, smiling from yearbook pictures, the reality of my mortality touched me with cold fingers.
I didn’t know about some of the deaths: Betty, who shared my indignation when our dates to a dance ignored us and choked one another with crepe-paper streamers; Jay, who wrote “A+ Jammet Brain” on the vocabulary quizzes we exchanged for correction; and Dennis, who liked me as much as I liked him, but we couldn’t date because he was too short.
A week later, home from the reunion, I answered the telephone.
”Hello, Janet, this is Ann Etta Cope.”
From the first day of junior high through graduation from high school, Ann Etta and I took the same classes and chatted amiably when seated together.
We had different approaches to similar interests: Ann Etta played 1st violin in the orchestra; I dropped band because I couldn’t control my clarinet. She studied Russian as an elective; I learned pig Latin on the side.
An artistic person, she earned spending money by hand-tinting black-and-white photos for the local photographer. I weighed grain trucks at the Utah Poultry And Framers Cooperative. All who knew her deemed Ann Etta a reliably good person. My decorum suffered from inconsistency.
As seniors, we co-edited the yearbook, working on it daily during 6th period in a dusty prop room as the cheerleaders practiced and squabbled on the stage. Along the way, we became close friends: I amused Ann Etta; she steadied me.
She hadn’t attended the reunion, so I was happy to hear her voice—though I wished she would speak up.
“I heard you were at the reunion last week, Janet, and I’m sorry I didn’t get to see you. I’m homebound now. I was diagnosed with ALS a year ago, and it’s progressing rapidly.”
Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Struggling to control my distress, to speak normally, to think of a meaningful response, I bleated unintelligibly. As always, Ann Etta saved me.
“I was laughing this morning about the angry parent who didn’t like a yearbook photo of her son, and how you suggested we wrestle to decide who should return the call.”
So we slid into the ease of shared memories until I regained my composure enough to express my concern and tell her how much she meant to me.
She talked about losing control of her limbs and not seeing well enough to read. She said her hearing remained strong, so she could listen to audio books and the classical music she loved and had played throughout her life.
“Every day I talk on the phone with those important to me. But that is getting more difficult as well. I have trouble breathing, which sometimes makes it impossible to talk, so if I hang up abruptly, forgive me.
“I’m fortunate to have nearby family and friends who are supportive and helpful. I’ve had a very full life. And I’m glad you were part of it, Janet.”
We scheduled another call. Then, a few minutes later, I heard a choked-off intake of breath, and the line went dead.
Once again the icy fingers of mortality reached out; and this time they lingered.
I think of my friend often and feel grateful for her example of grace and strength. She still steadies me.
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