Nancy Townsley

My High School Friend Is Gone, but Won’t Be Forgotten

Nancy Townsley eulogizes her high school friend who recently passed, celebrating her and her life, and reflecting on time spent back then and since graduating in May 1975.

 

She had taken her own life, I was told, and though it’s a tiresome cliché, at first I simply couldn’t believe it. How was it possible for my high school friend to have gone from the top of the world to the darkest, loneliest deep? Then, I remembered. Because we are all human, we are all vulnerable.

Kathy was strikingly beautiful, possessing every kind of accidental loveliness every girl at our school aspired to, with soft brown hair parted down the middle in perfect symmetry, flashing almond eyes, and a Colgate-white smile that reached across her heart-shaped face like a secret handshake or a loving embrace.

Her just-wide-enough hips made her the perfect model for the denim cutoffs that were popular in the mid-1970s, the ones only a very few of us dared to wear, showing off sinewy legs that went for miles, past sculpted calves, and ending in elegant, tanned ankles peeking above low-top, red-striped Adidas sneakers. She was curvy in all the right spots, too, filling out her cheerleader sweater in a way that made the rest of us feel self-conscious when our rally squad trotted out to perform the Lakeridge Fight Song at halftime during Friday night football games.

Her physical beauty came quite naturally, not at all the powder-blue-eyeshadow, makeup-trick stuff of the how-to pages in Seventeen and Glamour magazines, adding to her allure whenever I passed her in the Commons or spied her hand-in-hand with her beau, the quarterback, canoodling between soaring rows of metal-gray lockers before lunch.

What I wouldn’t have given at that juncture in my youth, to have had even half the charm and popularity Kathy enjoyed. Yet, though I envied her, I also liked her. Everyone did, as she was disarmingly special, and she was always kind and generous to me. I admired everything about her. The way she carried herself, the way her boyfriend carried her books, the way we all carried on when we were with her, when the room was always more full of Kathy than it was of us, or anything else.

Our school’s best choir sang Seals and Crofts’ “We May Never Pass This Way (Again)” as we filed out of the gym after commencement in May 1975. I was in the “L” row and Kathy was in the “S” row. As I exited the ceremony, I glanced left and saw her, beaming that Kathy smile.

 

I wanna laugh while the laughin’ is easy
I wanna cry if it makes it worthwhile

 

“She was charismatic, but not in a loud way,” a classmate observed after Kathy passed away in mid-June, on an unseasonably cool, wet day just before the summer solstice at the beginning of her 65th year. Speculation—the whys and the hows—ran rampant until her obituary came out in The Oregonian, the regional daily, its final line erasing any doubt about the circumstances of her death: “Contributions may be made in her name to Alcoholics Anonymous and to support the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.”

Kathy was deep and focused and fun and no-nonsense, a beguiling yang to the yin of her great good looks. On the track after school, while practicing our routines, the six of us rally girls would laugh ourselves silly, sometimes literally collapsing to the ground in fevered hilarity, Kathy joining in until she decided enough was enough. We’d get that smile and that look, the one that said Let’s get down to business—and we fell in line, because our friend was also our mentor, and we trusted her. She was one of the reasons our kicks were high, our arm motions crisp, our grasp of the intricacies of the gridiron sound enough to keep us from cheering “Push ’em back” when we were on offense and fourth-and-goal called for “Here we go, Pacers, here we go!” instead.

 

Life, so they say, is but a game
And they let it slip away

 

Two years of high school were what I shared with Kathy, my family having moved to Oregon from California before junior year. Together—not side-by-side but in close proximity and by osmosis—we weathered the untimely loss of three classmates between summer 1974 and spring 1975. We watched the crowning of the Homecoming Court and the May Day queen, Kathy unsurprisingly among the chosen. Accidents and disease took our friends Paul, Wayne, and Josh—tragically, inexplicably—and then Debbie, too, the following autumn, just as many of us were leaving for college, our hearts breaking when they were supposed to be singing.

 

Peace, like the silent dove
Should be flyin’, but it’s only just begun

 

Beset by questions and confusion, the why-us and the poor-them and the what-now, alliances across the Class of ’75 stayed Samsonite-suitcase strong and resin-rope tight over four-and-a-half decades, even as we navigated every curve ball we hadn’t known life would surely bring, divorces and errant children and addictions and failures and politics and a deadly pandemic that none of us could have predicted in our most awful, unsettling nightmares.

We left, but we also stayed, as friends and fellow travelers along the path, each of us trying to find our way home. As cheerleaders for each other, both strident and silent.

 

Cast away our fears
And all the years will come and go
Take us up, always up

 

Graduation day is where my relationship with Kathy left off, and except for the ragged gleanings and pseudo pen-pal reunions afforded to us by social media, it hovered there in a holding pattern, its glimmer hinting at rebirth, recent shared confidences suggesting possible revival. She wrote to me that she’d been diagnosed with Graves’ disease. She was worried about the condition of our country. She told me she was struggling. She was not immune to life’s vagaries. Somewhere along the line, her particular pain became too much.

I wish I had reached out to her more often.

 

Dreams, so they say, are for the fools
And they let ’em drift away

 

Over the years, as a class, we rose above, we fell hard, we climbed, we clawed, we persevered, we endured. Sometimes we dared to speak our love. Other times we did not. Yet whenever we wondered whether our connection had actually, truly existed, someone in our eclectic, long-past-adolescence band of doers and seekers and dodgers and dreamers would step up to let the whole group know, beyond any doubt, that those moments we shared were not a mirage, that our time together was unalterably and viscerally real, and that the bond remained unbroken.

Now, as fall begins to fade and winter approaches, we’re united once again in sorrow, and in anticipation. We’re older now, more wizened, and less resilient. If I could talk to Kathy, this is what I would say: “We felt your love. Your life mattered. Returned to the earth and the sky, to mystery and stardust, may you find your rest.”

 

We may never pass this way again
We may never pass this way again
We may never pass this way again

 

 

Nancy Townsley

Nancy Townsley is a longtime community newspaper journalist living in a floating home on the Multnomah Channel near Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, NAILED Magazine, The Riveter Magazine, Elephant Journal, The Manifest-Station, and Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life (2012, Forest Avenue Press). She is working on a novel about a journalist-turned-activist in a time of devalued news.

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