My first brush with death wasn't a grandparent or a distant uncle. It was an acquaintance. An older girl who used to sit on the Senior Stage in the cafeteria of my high school, balding head hidden beneath a myriad of bandanas and always with a friend - never the same one mind you - laughing at those of us who were so young and innocent, or so it seemed. I had no idea she was sick. I thought her bald head was a statement of defiance, she seemed the sort, and in some ways she scared me - especially the day she asked if I had any money she could borrow. No idea why she was asking a young kid like me. If I remember correctly her name was Lisa and the only way I knew she had died was the memorial in the yearbook at the end of her senior year dedicated to her. I think I was 14.
My first brush with the death of someone close to me was my senior year of high school. That was the year of 5 or 6 deaths, again all my age or a year younger and all people I knew somewhat well. Most of those we lost died suddenly and violently leaving us reeling for most of the year. It wasn't until my sophomore year of college that someone a generation ahead of me passed so you would think I would be used to this by now. But I don't think you can ever be used to hearing a friend has passed, not really. Especially not someone so full of life as Miguel Castillo.
In some ways, it is a tribute to the Internet I had some small part in creating that so many of us have found each other again. You have to understand, I went to a high school with about 5,000 students. (Yes, that was 5 thousand and not a typo.) Those 494 friends of mine are mostly from my high school and that probably doesn't even scratch the surface of who I actually knew in one way or another. But who I knew and who I will always remember - those are two different numbers. Mike falls into that second category. Charismatic, fun, funny, always smiling, great voice and an enthusiastic (in a good way) gymnast were just some of the things I remember about Mike. His smile, his laughter and being part of the chorus of "Anything Goes" with him all those years ago are some cherished memories. But even still, he was a hallway friend. Someone I didn't have classes with, at least I don't think I did, but I saw daily in the hallway and always shared a smile, a hello and daily news.
I found out today that we lost Mike on Monday as news began filtering onto FB pages and statuses. At first I thought it was a joke but far too many people were posting remembrances without a denial. So, what would have once taken another two or seven years to find out has blazed across the internet in just days bringing together a group of friends in a virtual memorial when more than half of us would not have been able to gather to share this grief at all time and distance being what they are. I hate to say "Back when I was young..." but I understand the sentiment more today than I did earlier this week, this year, this decade, this century, this millenium.
Death is never easy on those who are left behind, especially those left suddenly. Today, in a way unlike any other peer death I have experienced (far too many at age 40 in my opinion), I was taken back to my high school and surrounded by friends all of whom share different memories of the same person. None of us would be who we are without people like Mike in our lives - or any of those from our school whom we have lost. But today we all remember his smile.
After all, with a smile like that who wouldn't.