On a perfect July Friday afternoon, sunny, 80 degrees, just hours before the reunion officially begins, a small group of classmates gather.
The nine of us on this houseboat have settled into a loose circle. The day and the water surround us in gentle waves as we travel without any purpose beyond being together. We're past the excitement and surprise of seeing one another again after so many years. We've shared food and the basics of what our lives are like now, who we've become in the last decade.
All afternoon, four other presences have traveled with us, and the conversation now shifts to include them.
Marilyn, whose sharp wit and exotic looks have softened only a little over the years, lost her brother two weeks before our graduation.
Beth, whose beauty and musical talent came into full bloom after we graduated, lost a son just over a year ago.
Cory, whose warm smile has only grown brighter over the years and who brought us together today, bought and remodeled this boat with her father in the last years of his life.
Larry, who dated every woman on this boat in high school, missed the last reunion because he was at home in Florida with his wife, Antonea, who was dying of cancer. I've felt her energy with us all day, and surprise myself with the depth of my desire for her physical presence.
In junior high Beth and Antonea and I were in constant competition for first chair of the flute section in band. Antonea went on to become the majorette of the high school marching band. Beth is a Sweet Adeline and directs musical groups. I hum along with Christmas carols. In high school our circles often overlapped and I considered both of them close friends. For a good portion of my early adult life, I would have given anything to trade places with either of those women.
Someone asks Cory if her dad ever visits her on the boat. Her affirmative answer leads Beth to tell the story of her son coming to her shortly after his death. Marilyn acknowledges that her brother is still a regular and real presence in her life. Larry's recounting of Antonea's visit to the home they shared in Florida has us laughing. She moved things from one place to the other, in such a conspicuous manner that there was no way he could miss that it was her.
Later that afternoon Tom and Marcia and I are relaxing in their living room, reliving the intimacy of the houseboat gathering. Marcia is in the middle of a new Antonea story when the fireplace poker flies from its stand, clatters on the hearth barely missing Tom's glass of soda, and comes to rest on the carpet at his feet. We look at each other, laugh with the delight of children who've discovered a new treasure, and offer our verbal greetings skyward to our dead friend.
At the Saturday night reunion dinner, all the names of our classmates who have died, maybe a dozen in all, are read aloud. There are the two boys who were struck by lightning the spring before graduation. There are the two Steves who died of drug overdoses: one a hood in high school who never found his way, the other a popular jock who became a doctor and then lost his way. There is Antonea. There are several other names for whom I feel little connection, but for whose passing I feel a real and aching sadness.
I look around the room, filled with people who know me in a way no one else can, and realize our dead classmates will always be alive whenever we gather. Our remembering, our stories, our shared feelings of loss have the tremendous power to resurrect them. For this weekend at least, all 188 of us exist together - the dead, the absent, the lost, and those present - bonded by the adolescent passions that continue to create life.
photo from Flickr