The Tragedy Behind my Class Reunion

Class reunion, memoria

Mary Dell writes: There are reunion people and non-reunion people and I am one of the former. The invitation arrives and, almost immediately, I add my name to the list of attendees. I returned for my 30th class reunion last weekend, like I have done every five years, not only to see my former classmates, but also to revisit the painful and tragic memory of one friend, in particular. She is the reason I think I will never miss a gathering. For her, in memoriam, I can only offer tears.

We were members of a post-graduate program that was large, 750-people large, and far away from our hometowns. It took us southerners just about one week to find each other. We created a social island, several dozen strong, where it felt like home – Atlanta or Austin – instead of the banks of the Charles River.

Shortly, though, we emerged from our safe cocoon, making friends with people from, quite literally, all over the world.  We worked hard, the two years ended, and we graduated. My friend moved back to the South and I, to Manhattan. She married a fellow classmate and they had two children. We became “Christmas Card” friends.  When traveling to New York, she would sometimes call and meet me for lunch.

Gradually, those trips became less frequent.

I learned that she and her husband separated. The cards stopped coming.

The next time I heard news about her it was devastating.  She and her young children had died. At her hand.

I work hard not to think of her at the end. Instead, I see her as we were in school – smiling, laughing, charming us with funny stories.  Artistic and creative, she often carried her camera, ready to record what she wanted to remember.  She was fashionable, but her style was natural, not contrived or showy. She was generous and gracious and her friendship, genuine.

I did not know the woman whose violent actions shattered so many lives.

When someone you believe you know, and think well of, is at the center of the most horrible act you can imagine, the pieces don’t come together. There is no making sense of an incomprehensible action.

Fifteen years after her death, I am still shocked, confused and deeply saddened.  We all struggle with the fact that we didn’t know or couldn’t help. I don’t have the language to say anything meaningful to her former husband.  His loss is the greatest of all.

Class of '59, Harvard Business SchoolAt the Memorial Service for our 22 deceased classmates, there were tears shed for each person, all too young, some passing away just a few years after we graduated. A program left on each chair included tributes from classmates, honoring each one.  The person who wrote about our friend found words of candor and deep compassion.  I don’t know how he did it but I am grateful to him.

In the program there are headshots, the passport size photos we were required to send with our deposits shortly after we were accepted into the school. Most of us were around 25, and these pictures were taken a few months before we began our first class. Our futures had not even started.

HBS reunion

We assembled in the pristine campus chapel.  It is simple and intimate with seating for just 100. Seemingly lit with only the natural morning light, prisms in the skylights created a spectrum of color splashed on the pale wall, above the pianist’s head.

Five years ago the school chaplain, a Baptist minister, led the service. This time, a Rabbi gave us her thoughts on how Being is a Blessing.  The piano selections, including Prelude: Grief and Sorrow, were masterful and the music helped me focus, allowing me to follow each step in the program, trying to contain my sadness.

going to reunionA reading, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, followed.

The Rabbi concluded with a poem We Were Good to Life, offering hope at the end:

Let it not be said
That life was good to us,
But, rather we were good to life.

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. says

    What can you add? How do you comment? Except to say, she surely must have been in the greatest of pain to go where she went. At least someone can think good thoughts of her. It’s remarkable that you guys all still get together!

    • says

      I agree, there is little to say since we can’t know what terrible thoughts she had. I feel fortunate to have been part of a school where the organization structure of the classes lent itself to us becoming – and staying – friends. It means that when we get together, there are many happy moments, not just this memorial alone.

  2. says

    It must be impossible to reconcile who your friend was with what she did. Thank you for writing about her, for reminding us that behind those incomprehensible acts of violence, there’s a real person who was more than that final desperate moment.

    • says

      It is impossible to reconcile the two women. Knowing her and working as a volunteer at a psychiatric hospital has given me such an insight into the individuals behind mental illness.

  3. says

    Your friend was no longer the woman you knew when she committed these horrible and tragic acts. Her mind had turned and her soul had gone dark with despair, rage, and I’m sure mental illness. I am so sorry that you have to be reminded of this sadness each time you reunite with your grad school friends.

    • says

      Fortunately, the reunion is a 3-4 day series of seminars, presentations, parties and the memorial service is just one hour in the very busy agenda. Not that many people (of our really large group that comes back – half of the 750 class) attend but I won’t miss it for obvious reasons. It puts much of the other gatherings into a certain perspective for me.

  4. Grace Hodgin says

    It is very difficult to know and love those we went to school with and then try to come to an understanding when their lives and personalities change so drastically. I love that you had a tribute to each one who had passed and think every class reunion should do that.

    • says

      As we get older, unfortunately, remembering those who have died will become an increasingly larger part of our lives. I am grateful to the classmate who had the idea to organize this and who worked so hard to make it happen. Thanks, JC!

  5. W.Williams says

    This piece was beautiful, Mary Dell. What a horrific story, but you and your classmates have found such moving ways to memorialize the person you remember.

    • says

      Thanks, Wendy. Each story was very sad. Of the 22 who died, I only knew this one person but we were friends. They all left behind loved ones who, I hope, appreciate the effort that is made to make sure they are not forgotten.

  6. says

    How can anyone begin to understand the level of despair and pain that could have prompted such an action? No matter what happened to your friend, or what she did, it is so important that she be remembered as the whole person she was. Thank you for your candor in sharing this story with us!

    • says

      I agree that she does not deserve to be forgotten. Our classmate who wrote about her made the point that it is so much easier to remember the good times about others who died due to an illness but that mental illness is still not discussed very openly. Just tragic in every way.

  7. Jennifer Comet Wagner says

    I can’t even imagine what she must have been going through to do what she did. So tragic.

  8. says

    what a moving post. I love the line from the poem you shared – to turn a good life on its ear – pondering how it is that we are good to life. beautiful. I agree with Sharon – your friend was no longer the friend you knew. Isn’t it true that sometimes we never know what goes on in the minds and hearts and sorrows and dark places inside others?

    • says

      It is very true what you say about our hearts and minds being well hidden, sometimes with tragic results. I was not familiar with any parts of the service except for the Scripture and the song chosen at the end, Morning is Broken. Didn’t know it was a hymn until I googled it after the service.

  9. says

    Beautifully written. Let’s hope that stories like yours continue to help us understand the preciousness of every moment we get on this little planet of ours.

  10. says

    I can think of few things more tragic than an event like this. How thoroughly sad; how beautifully rendered.

  11. says

    How sad to realize that there are people we love and care about who have demons that we no nothing of. So many questions, but there are sometimes no answers to those questions. All we can do is pay tribute, and you’ve done so beautifully.

    • says

      Thank you, Mindy, I wanted to do just that, pay tribute to someone who is otherwise thought of in the most terrible way. The demons were real for her, so sad.

  12. says

    To say this is tragic is a clear understatement. To say it is horrifying – even reading of it – may be closer to my own reality, as I think of those I maintained friendships with for years, but have allowed those friendships to lapse since divorce and other events took place.

    I am one who once loved reunions, but have not attended now for many years. A matter of circumstances rather than desire. Reading this, I wonder if retaining our younger and more innocent selves in mind doesn’t, in some way, give us another sort of gift.

    • says

      Reunions or any type give us a chance to reconnect with our younger selves which may offer surprising and happy outcomes. Fun for me since I don;t live near where I attended high school or college.

      We have all attended individual memorial services but having a chance to honor those who have died who were part of a school class puts the reality of life and death into perspective. This, of course, is a particularly sad situation.

  13. says

    Oh my, what horror. I am glad that the memorial served its very important function – to remember and to lend perspective. I know that chapel, those strong grad school friendships and those fabulous reunions as my husband is a grad. We got together with our b-school friends this summer – a total highlight of our summer: http://www.lovethemmadly.com/2012/08/21/shockingly-spoiled-a-scavenger-hunt/
    I’m picking up the phone to call them all today – thanks for the reminder.

    • says

      Jodie, thank you so much for commenting and letting us know that you are part of this reunion tradition, although in another class. Hard to explain how close the friendships are that are forged in those two years. Seems like you and your husband have your own group that means as much to you as mine does to me.

  14. says

    it must have been a hard post to write, mary. but you did it beautifully.

  15. says

    i am sorry for your loss.

    i just went to my reunion this weekend…and there were many who had passed away. we also had a classmate who murdered his wife. he is serving his time in prison. during high school, he wasnt a fringe or misfit person at all. it was a shock to hear of this news. that said, we celebrated the joy that filled the room and shared good memories.

    dont dim the light on 749 others to spotlight the heinous act of one.

    peace.