A Stranger’s Death, Made Familiar

On Monday, as I walked to campus to begin a full day of teaching, I came across–outside a high school that abuts our campus–one of those dreaded memorials to the too-young-dead: black and white and color photographs, flickering candles, bouquets of flowers, notes of affection and remembrance and disbelief, some printed, some handwritten, and lastly, most poignantly, sobbing,disconsolate girls, resting their heads on the shoulders of their equally grief-stricken friends. I stopped and read some of the notes; I looked at the photographs. There she was, a young teen-aged girl, gleefully, artlessly, posing with friends and family, sometimes in a bus, sometimes in a park, sometimes hugging girlfriends, sometimes mugging for the camera, sometimes caught off-guard, sometimes preening, sometimes shy, sometimes dressed to the gills, sometimes lazily casual. It was all there, the bare reminders of a life now over. Around me, some students stopped and stared and read; some  stayed, some moved on quickly. There were uneasy glances cast backward at this reminder of the mortality of one of their cohort.

I read her name; the first name was common enough, but she was still a stranger.  But not utterly so. She had a name, she had a face; her presence in this world was visible through the reactions of her friends, through this public memorial that had confronted me and made my weekday extraordinary. I felt a prickliness in my eyes; some irritation had manifested itself and forced, in response, from my ever sensitive optical apparatus, a secretion of moisture to provide instant relief.

This morning, as I walked to campus again, a block or so away from the high school crossing, my pace slowed. I wondered if I would see the same memorial again. I remembered the girl’s name–incompletely, the spelling half-forgotten. I searched for it on the internet. My first try was unsuccessful; on the second, I added ‘Brooklyn’ and tried again. I found her: she had been fifteen years old, killed in an accident on a New Jersey highway while traveling with her parents. The family car had been rear-ended by a tractor-trailer. Her parents and her sibling were grievously injured; she had been ‘pronounced dead on the scene.’ The picture of devastation was now complete. A family ruined, left to grieve, to mourn the premature ending of their nearest and dearest.

The news article that had come up on my search was utterly nondescript; the kind I see on a daily basis, listing the dead somewhere, killed somehow. Perhaps by murder, perhaps by war, perhaps by natural disaster. But that memorial, those pictures, those notes, those sobbing students, those candles, those flowers, they had made this death–of a complete stranger–that much more familiar.

I walked on. There it was again, the altar of remembrance, now moved to the entrance of the school, next to a legend that spoke of how she would never be forgotten. I stopped again, looked at more pictures, read some more notes. Then, I felt that same irritation in my eyes and I moved on.

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