I was 22 days older than her. This time last week I attended the first funeral of one of my classmates; her name was Jane and she’d had cancer for the last decade She was not a plain Jane by any means, in fact she was the prettiest girl in the school, and I had envied her because she was tall and always looked immaculate during those awkward teenage years. Death is an inevitable fact of life, but no one should have to endure pain, and I take some small amount of solace in that she is now pain-free.
I hadn’t seen her since we were 16 years old when we left school to start the next stage of our lives. I had gone onto college and University and those who didn’t quite get the grades stayed in the area and got the best job they could. That’s what Jane did, but when you spend 5 years of your life seeing someone each day, while you are growing up you get to see the real person. There were 33 of us in my class; we were the top class, and we all knew each other as you would expect after 5 years from the age of 11 to 16. We all sent one another Christmas cards (even the lads) and exchanged gifts with our pocket money, and then suddenly a couple of decades later we are reunited for all the wrong reasons. Not everyone could make it because they were no longer in the area or couldn’t take the day off work, but that didn’t mean they weren’t thinking of Jane.
Like one of those made for television movies, I’d returned home to look after a sick parent and eventually bumped into some old school friends who had remained in the area. We made plans to meet up over time, and I did with a couple and then I suggested meeting up with Jane who was still well at the time. After lots of messaging back and forth, people were busy with school holidays and then it was Christmas and before you knew it a year had passed by. Then I got a WhatsApp message telling me the news and that the funeral was on Monday, the next day. My friend said she hoped to see me there. I didn’t have to think about it; of course I would be there, and asked if we could go together mainly because I didn’t know how to get the crematorium.
This was the first of our school friends who had died that we knew well. At college, one of my classmates didn’t come back after the Easter break in my law class. It took a few days before I asked if he was alright and that’s when I was told he’d died from meningitis during the two week break. His name was Andrew, but I didn’t know him well and no one ever sat at his desk for the remainder of the year. In my first few weeks of University I chatted to a girl called Emma who was studying English and said goodbye to her on the Friday as I went home to get more clothes. I returned on the Monday to find she had died from meningitis, and I was probably one of the last people to speak to her before she fell ill. Life is transient, and each interaction we make is unique and can never be taken for granted. Death makes us remember that materialism really doesn’t matter, because experiences and memories can remain with us forever.
Kay, my friend came and picked me up on the day of the funeral and we chatted about who else would be there, and what we should do afterwards. There was a wake in a nearby pub and so we parked there and got a lift to the crematorium with some other friends, none of whom I had seen for a couple of decades. Some I had reconnected with on Facebook, and others I barely recognized. At one point I had to ask someone if I knew them, and I did as soon as the name was mentioned. You see teenage boys who were late developers look so different as men!
There was a long queue when we arrived and I followed what others were doing. People had arrived early and we knew that we’d be standing but it made her death all the more tragic. I spotted a few faces I recognized, and more that I didn’t. These are the people who had been part of her adult life, and the person she became that I never got to know.
What can I say about her? She never had a bad word to say about anyone and she always had a warm and kind smile. As teenagers she was one of the first to wear high heels to school, just an inch and a half, but that made us feel grown up. We learnt together how to walk in them and discussed the best shops to get heels, and then there were the over the knee socks because three-quarter just looked too young. I learnt from her and others how to hold up over the knee socks (elastics sewn together), and also the basics of makeup from lipsticks to eyeliner. In hindsight we couldn’t wait to grow up, and at least I can treasure those innocent days. A few of us would walk home for lunch, and Jane would peel off to her road while we carried on. We only had an hour, yet we managed to pack so much in back then.
Even though I hadn’t seen Jane for years I knew I would cry, not for her, but for not getting around to seeing her earlier. Kay said she’d not been getting any better so she wasn’t strong enough to meet up with us. That was little consolation as we stood to the side. I looked around and saw Amanda who I knew would be crying so I avoided looking at her, then another person stood with our group as I came eye to eye with another old friend, Anna and we hugged without any hesitation once we recognized each other. We both cried because we hadn’t seen each other for years and had lost contact. She cried most of the time, but she had known Jane since primary school and so had Kay; it was going to be much harder for them.
I listened to the service as we heard about her life, as she laid in a coffin just metres away from me. It was hard and I looked to the ceiling to avert any tears, but Anna next to me struggled and I held her hand. We’d all been in the same class for 5 years, and as teenagers Anna and I used to volunteer at the local theatre together and have fun running around behind the scenes. We followed everyone out and I whispered to Kay, “What do we do now?” but she didn’t know either and we ended up outside unsure what to do while people hugged one another. “Nudge me and tell me who people are if they say hello to me,” I whispered to Kay. I saw the other Jane, one of Jane’s best friends who saw me and who grabbed and hugged me. We cried and made a promise to meet up and to find the time. While Jane’s death was tragic, it brought us together and made us realize that we must make time for one another.
Some were going to the pub and others couldn’t because they lived out of the area and had to get back, so I said goodbye to Anna several times and promised to meet up again. We suggested a class/school tribute to Jane, because while many others knew her in her adult life, she was part of our growing up; those teen years where you swap tips on getting rid of spots, how to dye your hair, and when you learn slang and swear words, and also about sex and dating. At the pub we reminisced about passing magazines around in class, which teachers we liked, and tales of getting locked out of the classroom. That was a lifetime ago, but it was an era that defined who we became and how we turned out.
At the wake there were others I recognized, but a smile and a nod sufficed as they had been the school bullies. I chatted to Julie who was in our group that arrived together. To be honest I didn’t remember her name despite Kay’s description of her, and only after an hour or so did I remember who she was. I didn’t know her well, but I knew of her and I saw faces that had been in my primary school. Most of the people there had never left the area, but I had been away for a long time and was only back to care for a sick parent. Leaving the area was something I had yearned for since childhood and now amongst old school friends I realized it was the best choice I made, never to look back.
Nevertheless, these people were part of my life and shaped who I became today, whether through friendships, or my learning to stand up for myself against them. Each interaction helps us to learn strengths and discover our weakness. I saw Helen who hugged me and told everyone I was the best netball shooter in the county and that when we went to the same High School we had the best team. That was true, because we won just about every single tournament possible. We’d played netball together for years, and I didn’t know her that well to be honest, but when I think about it we spent a lot of time practising and playing sports together over a decade, so maybe I did know her better than I thought.
As Kay and I left the pub, I sighed and said, “That was weird, but I’m glad I’m with you,”, because it had been an emotional time for us all. People that I had grown up with and not seen for decades had made me remember that sometimes the little things we worry about really aren’t that important. Even though Kay and I hadn’t seen each other for decades, because we had been part of a gang, we knew each other well and could talk without the need for small talk or minding your p’s and q’s.
I decided the whole day was for Jane and to think of the good times we had learning to grow up. That night I added a few extra friends on Facebook in a bid to keep in touch and somehow we will do our own celebration for Jane, our old classmate, the first to go and it’s not easy to get your head around.
One minute we can’t wait to leave school, and then we get caught up in adult life and responsibilities. Before we know it that phase is over, and we are reminded that life is short and while life will always have difficulties and tragedies to cope with, we learn from them. Death teaches us to appreciate the true friendships you have and not to take them for granted. Bonds cannot be broken despite time apart.
Our old school friends will always be a part of us for they helped shape who you are today, even if you never see them again. As for my friend Jane, I know she will be happy she brought everyone together, and I am safe in the knowledge she is no longer in pain or suffering. Even though I never wanted to return to my home town, I am glad I was here to see Jane for the last time. I smile as I remember us walking home for lunch and swapping pin badges of pop groups on our school bags in our salad days. Life was less complicated than it seems today, but in reality it’s only as complicated as we make it. Night Jane, and watch over us!