This week I celebrated the 37th anniversary of my terminal cancer diagnosis in the usual way – by embarking on an improbable secret project. For the next year or so I won’t have time to update this journal, so I leave you with some thoughts about the past and the future:
Last summer I was walking through downtown Seattle staring at all the shiny new skyscrapers and thinking about the city in the 80’s, when it was dirty and semi-derelict and a lot more fun, with all-ages venues and record stores and KJET.
Eventually I ended up on the new viewing platform at Pike Place Market, built adjacent to the remains of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. I stood there for awhile, snapping photos of the dismantled highway.
I’ve driven most of SR 99 from Canada through California, and prefer it to the modern anonymous streamlined I5; I’m a backroads kind of person. But this part, the elevated platform of the Pacific Highway, always frightened me. When driving I would do anything to avoid it, including taking long circuitous routes through the city. Whenever I was a passenger I kept my eyes firmly closed. Hurtling through a narrow concrete channel in the sky, with a three foot high barrier on each side, I was convinced I would die.
However, I will miss the Viaduct – or at least the view of the Viaduct as seen from the decks of the ferries traversing the bay. The city I remember from childhood has been thoroughly dismantled. The Space Needle is the only recognizable part of the skyline left.
Eventually I realized the stranger next to me was talking to other strangers, jovially telling tall tales about the city. I wanted to intervene, to correct his assertions not just about the Pacific Highway, but also about the name of the waterways, the history of settlement, and most importantly, the body of land shrouded in mist across the water. But I resisted. I am genuinely a local, and that means (amongst many other learned behaviors) I never talk to strangers.
What did I feel, staring at the peninsula and islands in the distance? Certainly a profound sense of loss over my mother, aunt, cousin, and all the others who have died. Without question a muddled longing to remain here, on the water, between the mountains. I only know north and south when I can see the peaks of the Olympics. No other landscape makes sense to me: I live elsewhere, but this will always be home.
Staring at the shattered edge of the old highway, it struck me that it has been thirty years since I finished high school. Logically that meant that there must have been a reunion. I still have friends in town but nobody mentioned it, and since I never look at social media I would not have seen a group invitation or any of the preparations.
Immediately after this crossed my mind I felt a sense of relief – the decision was out of my hands! How funny, and how modern: technology thwarting social cohesion. I turned around and started walking back up toward Capitol Hill, idly noting streets and buildings that were meaningful destinations in my teen years.
As I walked toward the Paramount I reviewed the reasons people say they go to reunions, made a list of movies on the subject, and cross-referenced the data with my own undefined feelings. Was I curious about how life turned out for everyone? Kind of. Do I hold a grudge against anyone? Not really. Do I want to make my historic enemies feel small? No. Do I need validation of my life choices? Never.
Adolescence could have been a nightmare: I was sick, intermittently homeless, my family was chaotic. But the cancer had slowed down. My hair was growing back, I could walk and talk and see and breathe. For awhile each moment felt like a miraculous gift, far too precious to waste on sad thoughts. Who cares about cliches, I was thrilled to be alive: first car, first kiss, freedom!
My yearbooks are in a storage unit in London. I looked at them a few years ago, reading comments from teachers who (before I dropped out in the eighth grade) used words like “perseverance” and “fortitude” to describe me. Some of my peers left comments like “don’t die” and “stay alive” – with exclamation points and doodles.
I had no desire be inspirational, because that is an insipid and insidious goal. And it was obvious I would never be normal. But I wanted to have fun, and do hard work, and accumulate experience. There is a distinct shift when I went back for high school: close friends ignored the drama and penned long, cryptic messages about our adventures. Many never knew I was sick – by the start of sophomore year it was possible to hide the scars.
I woke up every morning with a missionary zeal to entertain and educate myself, and those around me, whether they liked it or not. I took every class and subject I could cram in my schedule, and volunteered the rest of my time – tutoring younger kids, working at a veteran’s home, shepherding the foreign exchange students. I published zines, went to leadership camp, competed in regional Vocational Industrial Clubs of America contests. I instigated frivolous jaunts like dog weddings, rotating group dates, button wearing contests. I dressed my pals in sheets and staged Julius Caesar in the barbecue shelter at Manchester State Park.
The car accident destroyed my good mood, but not my inherent character. In the midst of the trauma I didn’t know what to do except stay busy. I ran a renegade health education clinic out of my locker, and started a statewide nonprofit.
My teenage self was organized: I had a clipboard and a plan. I was, according to the reviews in the annuals, “quirky” and “relentless.” Several people offered me money to go away. If anyone called me a bitch I flipped to a tally page in my notebook (33 instances over three years) and interrogated which of my specific personality traits generated the slur, with pie charts to illustrate possible options. In other words: I was buoyant, divisive, and deeply annoying.
When I look back the facts that stand out above all others are the manifestations of economic indicators. I grew up in low income housing projects, with all the attendant dangers. Adding the material risks of rural life does not improve the statistical outcomes. How did that turn out for everyone? About as well as you might expect.
It is significant that there was no particular income disparity in the student population. We lived in a working class place, with lower middle class trimmings bought on layaway. The only rich kids in the area lived on an island in the north end of the county. They had their own facilities, and we did not mix. I genuinely had no idea I was poor until college, where I felt stranded and uncouth without quite knowing why.
The kids who grew up in nice families have lives that correspond to those traits, regardless of any other factor. Those who suffered abuse have struggled. The daredevils and pranksters and miscellaneous rascals who bedeviled the lives of the unwary have conformed to type. Friends, enemies, exes: have there been any surprises? No.
Our high school was large, impersonal, but adequate. The building was new, the sports teams were well funded, the vocational courses abundant. Academic programs were small and hard to access, but it isn’t clear if that was administrative bias or a population preference. Was it an imperfect system, prone to failure? Yes. But that is pretty much how life works.
Continuing the walk up the hill, past the storefront that used to be the Bauhaus cafe, I was surprised to find that I had even a flicker of interest in the reunion. One key problem is the simple fact that these events cater only to a specific graduating class. The school I attended was bigger than the population of the town, because kids were bussed in from the entire southern half of the peninsula. And I didn’t live in town – I lived on the furthest unincorporated edge of the county. Yes, I had a few friends from the Class of ’89, but most of my close companions were from different grades, other parts of the peninsula, elsewhere in the state, or military families, just passing through.
If only 20% of the average class goes to any reunion (which seems like a reasonable guess), how many of those would I remember? And on a practical level: if I only know someone because we were alphabetically assigned adjacent seats thirty or forty years ago, what would we discuss? I’m not good at small talk, it makes me queasy to answer questions.
Where do I live? Here and there. What is my job? Oh, well, you know. This and that. How’s my mother? Dead. Next topic. Do I have kids? Yep. What are they up to these days? Um. Yeah. Fancy stuff. Mumble, mumble, how about we change the subject.
But there are a few people I lost track of and still wonder about, like the funny tall gregarious girl who became my best friend on the first day of kindergarten. Growing up we danced to ABBA on my Disco Sound Machine, ran through the woods screaming Joan Jett anthems, shared secrets, snuck out to concerts and movies she wasn’t allowed to see.
That friendship lasted through all manner of adversity and change. She was with me, holding my hand, as my daughter was born. But despite all that – or maybe because of it – she vanished from my life. I wonder how she is, where she is, but I respect her decision to disappear. It was her choice to make, and I don’t need to know the reason. We were children. People grow up.
If I wanted a metaphor to explain how I feel about high school, the Alaskan Way Viaduct would be ideal. The elevated roadway was intended to be a permanent structure, but an earthquake changed everything. It took years and a massive investment of money to figure out the best way to replace the infrastructure. The elevated concrete platform was demolished, ending an era, changing the city. But the destruction of the highway created a clear view across the bay.
The intervening decades have illustrated that my teenage life was defined by a pragmatic urge toward safety. I was motivated by the need to obtain an education, feed my child, avoid anyone who threatened to harm us. I was trying to predict and prevent dangers that were manifestly real because I was a poor sick kid in a small town. I was trying to survive, and I knew that I had to save myself.
Everything in my past – good, bad, or indifferent – contributed to the life I have today. I’m not ashamed of where I come from, and I’m not proud of where I landed. I’m alive, and that is sufficient.
I don’t blame the Alaskan Way Viaduct for the terror I felt while driving: it was just a road. Similarly, the high school I attended deserves neither castigation nor credit for the excesses of my teen years. Both the road and the school were shaky, perilous, but ultimately adequate structures to get from one place to the next.
My life has taken me down different roads, to faraway destinations I could not have imagined as a child. The choices I have now would not make sense to that impoverished little girl. The opportunities I am contemplating would baffle the ambitious teen mom who packed up her baby and ventured out into the world to acquire an education.
The career I’ve built would astound the young woman driving over two hundred miles every day with a rambunctious toddler in the backseat because the only way to survive involved making a constant circuit between the army base, the college campus, and the cancer clinic.
No version of me expected to be alive at age 49. It is strange and amazing that I managed to write and publish books, start nonprofits, run companies, move to other countries, meet and befriend thousands of people, watch my children grow to adulthood. The critical point is that I was always willing to begin the journey: get in the car, get on the plane, start something, do anything, say yes.
I didn’t believe I had a future, so I went out and made my own. The most important lesson though? The real and shocking truth? Even in the worst of it, I have always thought my life was a grand and hilarious adventure. From the shores of Puget Sound to the banks of the Thames and beyond, this life has been endlessly entertaining. Everything else is incidental.
I hope that everyone I knew growing up arrived where they were headed, and that they have been satisfied with the journey. But for me, the old road is closed.