Last fall, just before deadline, I bought a ticket to the forty-year reunion of my high school class in Sacramento. I wanted to see about ninety percent of the people on the party list but had hesitated, fearing that a few of the rest might say something insulting and there’d be unpleasantness so a few days beforehand I decided not to go but thought about many classmates that night and eagerly awaited email reports the next day from those I trusted. The assessment was clear: I had missed one of the finest gatherings imaginable, a time of instantly-resumed comradeship, a sharing of the best experiences, and an opportunity to see scores of familiar (albeit altered) faces and hear about their personal and professional successes and note that they’d matured into polite adults. I learned as well that a number of those who attended, far more outgoing souls than I, had also suffered from social anxiety beforehand but were rewarded for overcoming it.
About two-thirds of the class did not attend. Some lived too far away, some, like me, doubtless felt the emotional risks were too high, and about three dozen, according to the class website, had died. None of those I knew best are listed as deceased but it’s still sad and eerie to scan down the alphabetized roll online and see that people I’d occasionally chatted with or at least seen many times on campus had perished in car wrecks or from cancer, heart attacks, and strokes. For several people, no cause of death was listed. In every case but one, I had not heard the news at the time, and only learned years later on the class website.
Early this month, about three months after the reunion, the webmaster sent out a link to the newspaper obituary of Valerie, a woman I wish I had been mature enough to know well. In addition to being bright, well-mannered, and dignified, she was quite pretty with silken black hair, olive skin, a bright smile, and an athletic physique, all of which I enjoyed watching as she danced with the other song leaders at football games. I don’t remember her from basketball games since I played in those and rarely noticed anything outside the lines.
Late in my senior year, as some friends and I began drinking too much and studying too little, we developed the odd habit of crank calling girls we liked as well as one male teacher we felt was a dork. During one two-week period we rang Val several times. Each fool would disguise his voice, say something ridiculous, and occasionally profane, and pass the phone to the next hyena. The final time we did this, I was last in line and had been laughing so much I forgot to alter my voice, and after some asinine statement I so well remember asking, “And do you know who this is?”
“Yes, it’s Tom Clark, and I want you idiots to stop calling me,” Val said.
A month or so later, in an expression of immaturity, and no doubt some mental instability, we showed up, uninvited, at her family’s residence. The meeting with Val and her parents proceeded amicably but as we departed and walked down the driveway, one guy reached into her father’s car – they didn’t always have locking gear shifts in those days – and shifted the car into neutral, and we watched and then ran as the car rolled off the slightly-banked driveway and into the street. I think that was the last time I saw Val, and it’s certain her memories of me were much less delightful than mine are of her.
More than thirty years later, while visiting Sacramento, I picked up the Sacramento Bee and read the horrifying story that Val’s older sister, living in the family home with her husband in order to care for her aging father, had been stabbed to death in bed by the senile old man, who, in jail, expressed both shock and remorse. The universe should use its power to prevent all tragedies or, failing that, should preclude a second tragedy befalling a family. Too often the higher powers just don’t get it done. In August of last year, Valerie was diagnosed with stage-four melanoma and died four days before Christmas.
The obituary told about her distinguished career as deputy director of efficiency and renewables for the California Energy Commission, and noted that she “helped draft policies and implement regulations that resulted in (many household appliances) that use less power than earlier models. She championed modern construction standards for energy-efficient homes and businesses. She oversaw programs to develop renewable energy sources, including geothermal, wind and solar power. (She) testified often before California lawmakers on energy conservation policies. She was widely regarded among federal and state regulators nationwide as an expert on efficiency standards.”
A fellow with the code name “munchkin” posted these comments at the bottom of the obituary: “Having worked with Valerie for the last twenty years, I can say she was the kind of boss everyone should be lucky enough to have at least once in their career. When praise and kudos were coming for an accomplishment, she was happy to stand in the background and let her staff accept the kudos for work well-done. Yet, whenever flack was directed our way, she would be out front, helping divert it away from us – even if that meant she took a few of the hits herself. The world is truly a better place because she was part of it, and all of us who had the honor to work with her are better for the experience.”
Having lost such a wife, her longtime husband, a Sacramento chef and restaurateur, must be shattered.