It’s been about six months since I went to a visitation for one of my high school classmates. I’ve had lots of time to think over the experience, to try to understand it, and I think I’m starting to get a tenuous grasp on what happened and why it was so important to me.
I never felt like I belonged in high school. I wasn’t funny, pretty, or good at any sport. I was painfully awkward, the wrong kind of smart, and I looked and sounded kind of like a guy. High school for me was this ongoing fight to keep everyone else from realizing that I knew I had come to the wrong party.
So when I graduated, I didn’t look back. I did the college-on-the-coast thing and barely ever talked to anyone I used to know, even my best friends. I built my life—got married, bought a house, had two-point-five kids. I was far enough removed from everything high school that when Nick died, I heard about it from my sister, who spent more time around people from my class than I did. I didn’t cry. I couldn’t really even comprehend losing someone from the part of my life I cut off.
Driving to Shelbina for the visitation, I was nervous. I called my sister to see what she was wearing. I went back home and changed, then wondered whether I should go back and change again. When I finally got to the funeral home, I parked as far away as possible. I felt like I shouldn’t be there, that I didn’t deserve to be sad about Nick’s death. I had this irrational fear that my classmates would take one look at me and think, “What a poser. She hasn’t even talked to Nick since we graduated. Like she even cares.”
I tried to hide in plain sight the way I always had in high school. Be quiet, act natural. Pretend like you don’t know that you shouldn’t be here.
Then a strange thing happened while I was in the viewing line. Nick’s mom hugged me. She remembered my name. She knew I had two little boys. She said I had grown up into a beautiful woman. That shattered me. In the middle of all her loss and pain, she let me know I wasn’t unwanted.
An even stranger thing happened when I got to the crowd of my classmates beside the casket. They talked to me. It was as if we’d just seen each other a few days ago. We cried together, but then we laughed. Because this was Nick. He was the great equalizer of our class. There were weird kids and cool kids, jocks and band nerds—all of the usual high school designations—but Nick got along with pretty much everyone. While he was alive, he made us all laugh, sometimes until we cried or shot milk out of our nose. After he died, he made us laugh while we cried. As Cody put it, “I cried when I first found out, but all the way here, I kept remembering the good times we had and I couldn’t stop laughing.”
We stood up by the casket and remembered Nick-escapades. I thought about the freezing cold night at a football game when he pointed to where his marching band hat should’ve been and said, “Hat. Ha, ha. Get it? Because there’s not one.” Of Nick putting his plume in Vinnie’s sousaphone. The day he kept making up new sayings like, “We’re so good, if we were ice cream, no one would be able to stop eating us” and “We’re so tight, if we were clothes, no one could wear us.” The time in Fiber Optic Spanish when our teacher swore there weren’t any redheads with brown eyes and Nick got up in front of the camera and had us zoom in until she could see his eyes. The continuous stream of “dam” jokes he made as we crossed the dam on the way to Branson for our senior trip.
As we reminisced, I realized why this experience was so Nick. High school was unbearable, and probably everyone in my class felt at one time or another as if they shouldn’t be there, but Nick could make us laugh so hard that we forgot about our crushing inadequacies for long enough to feel like they didn’t matter.
On the way home, I turned the radio on and a song by REO Speedwagon was playing. Nick was the one who told me who the band was and what an REO speedwagon was. I turned it up and rolled down my windows and sang along and thanked Nick for everything he’d been to me and to my classmates. It hurts to say goodbye, but, well, you know.