People who died

I did something odd last night. I was doing it before I even knew why. I’m still not sure I have a decent grasp on my motivation.

A guy who went to my high school years before me had recently been to the funeral of a classmate. He came home and created a rudimentary memorial page for all the people from dear ol’ Willard High School. Before long, dozens upon dozens of people were posting short memories of classmates who had died.

The page was a mess of bad memories and trying to follow it was difficult. Facebook makes it almost impossible to do that kind of thing right. Nonetheless, the effort and the man behind it were appreciated.

Before I really thought about it, I was wading through the mess and compiling a fairly morbid spreadsheet. First name, last name, year of graduation, manner of death, year of death. Once I got started, I couldn’t stop and once I was finished, I didn’t know what to do with the thing. I eventually formatted it such that it would fit on Facebook (still very ugly) and let people see all the information in one place.

After I was finished, I sat back and looked at what I had done. I was morbidly fascinated with how most of the deaths broke down by cause. Of those that reported manner of death, auto accidents were at the top of the list, followed by cancer and heart attacks. None of that was particular surprising. There were the shocking ones, of course. One lady fell to her death while skydiving. Another was beaten to death by her husband. One guy was murdered in Florida several years ago. There were also the deaths in which the omission on “cause of death” was glaring. I counted at least three that I knew that had died by his own hand.

The one that kept hitting me hard, though, was “aneurysm.” Around 5% of the people on the list died from aneurysms. To this day, I can’t see the word “aneurysm” without feeling that same stomach-twisting sickness that I felt the day I pulled my car to the side of the road and accepted that my dad was about to die.

I now look back on the people who shared that school with me so many years ago. I’m thinking about the day that girl died in gym class and I never really understood why. An aneurysm is one of those kinds of deaths that is akin to getting struck by lightning. There are very few ways to see one coming, it is routinely deadly, and there is very little anyone can do to prevent it from happening. It makes living the good and healthy life seem almost ridiculous. If your god can reach out of the sky and punch you in the brain at any time, why not eat fatty foods, right? When my dad was about to die, that was how I was looking at it.

As longtime readers know, an aneurysm nearly killed my dad six years ago. He survived three brain surgeries, each one of which had as good a chance of killing him as saving his life. It was, to date, the most difficult personal experience of my life. It taught me a lot about myself and changed the way I look at the future. In the end, a couple of excellent doctors and more luck than I’ll ever have again saved my dad’s life. He’s now as healthy and curmudgeonly as he has ever been. He’s also been able to see three grandsons born and stands a good chance of living long enough to see the boys graduate college.


My dad and older son a couple of years back

In the end, I don’t know why I spent so much time mining the death records of my old classmates. I don’t know if it’s morbid curiosity or a need to mourn my friends who are gone. If you are similarly curious about this, you may want to investigate a website such as to take a look at the obituaries for people that you may not have been aware had passed away.

It may well be simply a reminder that I’ve been pretty damned lucky to live this long and I should probably work a little harder to make sure I don’t shuffle off any time soon.

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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2 Responses

  1. Tom says:

    Excellent observations. I did something similar after our 30th high school reunion this past year. A reflection on the mortality of others is most often a reflection on our own mortality.

    Even Jim Carroll wasn’t immune.

  2. The Wife says:

    I think you need to at least hang around long enough so that someday that little guy is writing a post, with a picture of you, and his little guy . . . and contemplating his own mortality in the generation gap.

    I love that picture, btw.

    Nice post, love.