The Last Time I Saw Him

photo by Darshini Coore

I finished my conversation with the lab tech at the biomedical testing site close to my office and turned to leave. As my eyes reached the door, a tall vaguely familiar man was in the process of entering. He had the sallow look of someone who was very sick. His temples were hollowed out, his clothes hung loosely on a frame that had been strong and muscular once, but was now mostly bones. His eyes met mine, and the weary look in them struck me about a second before the flash of recognition that this was my high school classmate, Carlyle. He was someone with whom I had enjoyed many a deep conversation in the past, but we had lost touch for about the past 4-5 years. I hoped my shock at how ill he looked did not show in my face as we greeted each other warmly. It was a brief hello because the environment was not conducive to a proper conversation. Given how he looked, I felt awkward to ask how he was doing. He was obviously at the lab to do a test, and I having resolved my query with the lab tech had to get back to my office. So I took my leave of him, feeling sad that I had not even known he was ill, and resolving to call him later and see what I could do to help.

About a week later, we had our first case of COVID-19 in Jamaica, quickly followed by several more, and an entire community was “ locked down” in quarantine by the end of that week. Gripped by fear, and scrambling to source and secure personal protective gear, and find ways to minimise contact with patients, I forgot to track down my friend’s number and give him a call. Some weeks later, my husband heard from another classmate that Carlyle was dying, and not even strong enough to take phone calls. That was when I recalled the forgotten, and now never to be executed, resolution I had made to call him the day that I had seen him at the lab. It made me sad, and I regretted not having made inquiries about getting in touch with him earlier. That was the last time I saw him.

A day or two later Carlyle died, and the minimal social media platforms that I engage with exploded with poignant pictures of Carlyle as I remembered him, tall, strong and vital, and folks sharing their memories. Our high school classmates (the Campion College class of 1987) were among the most vocal in the sharing. Although I had enjoyed many deep conversations with him, I had not appreciated the extent of this tall pleasant soft spoken guy’s influence and impact of his classmates. As a group we had lost many classmates, even before we graduated, but Carlyle’s death seemed to have galvanised something in us that triggered a greater appreciation of our shared high school experience and the support we could give each other.

Shortly after his death I received an invitation from another classmate to join the Campion College Class of 1987 Whatsapp chat group….abbreviated to Co87. Although I am a proud graduate of Campion College, I generally tended to be a loner, even when I was in high school, with only a handful of close friends. So it was with some trepidation that I accepted the invitation, and really only because it felt like a way to atone a little for having lost touch with Carlyle, and not making that follow up phone call when I saw him that last time.

At first I was a mostly silent member of the CO87 group. I was very much overwhelmed by the volume of messages, and what seemed to me at the time the barrage of juvenile inane banter between a few vocal members. After about 2 weeks I was ready to leave the group because I really could not deal with the volume of messages about things I felt I really could not relate to. I think somewhere deep in my soul, Carlyle’s spirit must have whispered to me just wait a little…and I held off on exiting the group. Sure enough as time passed I found little nuggets of comments that I could in fact engage with. When I engaged, my comments drew responses, and little by little I began to actually get to know the folks that I had shared seven years of high school with, and funnily also to discover some things about myself as well. I began to engage more, usually with long posts because writing is like second nature to me, compared to actually speaking out loud. I started finding my voice and place in this group. I discovered to my amazement that many people that I never imagined I would have anything in common with, were in fact people with whom I shared common values and perspectives on life. Even when my views were different from the majority, I still felt accepted, and often after I typed passionate words defending a minority position in the group chat, I would get private messages from the less vocal members thanking me for speaking up.

So it has now been a little more than a year that I have been a member of this eclectic and irrepressible group. The spirit of Carlyle drew us together and over the past year of the pandemic, for me personally the Co87 group has been an invaluable part of my support network…for laughs, arguments, meeting of minds, and a place where all voices are allowed to speak if they are brave enough to do so. In a year of social/physical distancing, and disconnection , the Co87 group has been for me a place where I can feel a part of something bigger than myself. I never would have guessed it in a million years but reflecting now, I have to admit that being a member of this group has definitely helped me to maintain my sanity during this pandemic. For that I am eternally grateful to Carlyle, and to the group administrators who made the effort to search for and reach out to as many members of the class as possible. We are not perfect, and members have left, and perhaps will continue to leave. Being a member takes a little getting used to, and definitely requires an at least thrice daily clearing of chat and deleting media so that one’s phone can continue to function for other things like work. However, even with all of that, I think the fact that over 140 classmates have remained as group members is testament to the value of this virtual family that was strengthened in the wake of the loss of a dearly loved classmate.

The topics for discussion in this group range far and wide, from mundane to profound, hilarious to heartbreaking and everything in between. As a wielder of the written word, my comments and posts tend to be long winded. The one I am about to share (with minor edits for grammar) was written on June 30, 2020 in response to the discussion about the ways in which people get high. Suffice it to say mine took the prize for having the most words.

What is your preferred way to get high?

“ Cambridge dictionary defines high as “a period of extreme excitement or happiness, when you feel full of energy”

So for me being high is about an energy state where I feel connected to the mains supply rather than a portable battery pack. I have never achieved that state with the usual chemical compounds normally associated with highs. Alcohol makes me sleepy, smoke makes me nauseated and short of breath. My only experience with narcotics was the injection I got after delivery of my first child by C-section, and it was a horrible combination of nausea and feeling disconnected from my body…not an experience I would voluntarily repeat. Even coffee makes me high energy in a bad way…so what do I get high on:

As a child, we had a family friend who would lend me a box of books every summer to read…seeing that box of books, and eagerly opening it and losing myself in the contents is perhaps my earliest memory of feeling high.

In my early twenties, I began a long distance relationship with a young man, and we used to communicate through the internet which we connected to by a modem that you plug into the phone line…the characteristic squeak of the modem completing the connection was a moment of high for me then.

As a working adult, I did my internship in Mandeville, and if I came home for the weekend, I would travel back early Monday morning to beat the traffic. If I timed it just right, I would be cresting the hill that marked the beginning of that bit of highway that leads to the Mandeville roundabout, just as the sun was coming over the hill. The view of the green hillside bathed in golden sunshine and sparkling dew spread out in front of me was another moment of high…I guess literally and figuratively. Later, flying (not literally) down Spur Tree Hill with St Elizabeth spread out in front of me was another high…I was not driving at those times. Sitting on the beach, and listening to the waves and watching the sunset around Alligator Pond was another high…one that my friends and I from the hospital sought on a regular basis.

These days, finding the right words to capture my thoughts and feelings, blue skies and the smell of fresh cut grass, an early morning pot of tea and catching up with my best friend in Louisiana (@⁨Luanne) or my sister, getting an expectedly enthusiastic response to my writing from people who read it, being present with a patient and their family as the patient transitions into another realm, the laughter of my daughters…these are some of the ways I get my highs. The biggest high of all though is to be safely held in the arms of the not-so-young-any-more man with whom I began that long distance relationship almost 25 years ago…and to whom I have been married for 23 years today. “

Earlier this year we celebrated the one year anniversary of Carlyle’s death and folks in the group chat were asked to post or share their memories in honour of that anniversary. I was unable to post something that I felt was worthy of the occasion at the time because there was too much going on in my life. So the above post and share today is my tribute to Carlyle and one of his many legacies, the Co87 group chat. I am sharing it with a wider community than just the group because if there is anything this past pandemic year has taught me, it is that solace in times to need and stress comes from the most unexpected places. With all the sadness, separation and loss this pandemic has wrought in our lives, we really need to remember that each of us can still get high (as defined by the Cambridge dictionary) on laughter, friendship, the beauty of nature and connection with other human beings in whatever way we have available to us. I hope my tribute also brings a smile to the lips of those outside our group who may have lost someone, and lights a spark of an idea for others on the ways in which we can keep the memories and the essence of our lost loved ones alive as we move into the second year of the pandemic.

4 thoughts on “The Last Time I Saw Him

  1. Lannois Carroll-Woolery

    The Last Time I Saw Him… was at the CO87 reunion in August 2017. We had reconnected over Facebook some years prior, but had not met in person for perhaps 30 years. At that time I had been away from Jamaica and our high school crowd so long that there were literally dozens of persons to say “Wait.. Is that really you?!” to, to tease, listen to, and to laugh with.

    I have a Facebook picture from that reunion, with Carlyle broadly smiling. Also in the picture is my wife, who accompanied me to Jamaica for that fabulous weekend, and finally got to see many of the faces that matched the names she had heard about, including Mr. Gray. Our high school class was a wondrous combination of high achievers (in all fields), pranksters, preternaturally responsible teenagers, party animals and bookworms. From age 11 to 17, we studied, played and “reasoned” together, guiding each other through the highs and lows of adolescence.

    From Carlyle, I learned to love comic books, respect the martial arts, and value friendships that deliver nothing more than a smile, and a listening ear. We never studied together, or played on the same soccer team, or had sleepovers at each others houses. We bonded over Spider Man, The Avengers, and a myriad other make-believe heroes. He was a “kind soul”, before I knew the meaning of the word. When he told me that he was divorced, I remember feeling shock: if he couldn’t make a marriage work, who could?

    I am now sitting in my son’s former bedroom, redecorated in 2018 after he moved out, then converted into a home office because of the pandemic. On the walls are four framed posters: Black Panther, Spider Man, an airplane cockpit, and Iron Man, all circa 1980s. Without intending to, I created a memorial shrine, of sorts, to my teenage fantasies, and the friends who shared them.

    I wish that I could go back and tell Carlyle how much his friendship meant to me, the importance of simple acceptance in a high school that was situated in the shadow of Beverly Hills, Kingston, Jamaica. I wish we could debate the MCU’s story choices, and perhaps compare marriage notes.

    Instead, I post to the CO87 chat, always mindful that there may be someone who needs a friend… and who will, perhaps, remember me with fondness, 30 years hence.

    Like

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