Sixty isn’t old, right? I browse the obituaries daily. As part of my job managing finances for the county library system, I keep up with local current events. In a small town like mine, knowing who died might be the most important part of that effort. As I inch closer towards the end of my life, the age of those who died grows in importance to me. On occasion, I find people my age, in their late fifties and early sixties, but most deaths on the obituary page seem to average around eighty.
My father is ninety-one. If I live to be his age, I’ll be around another thirty-one years—half again as long as I’ve already lived. I’m just getting started. Or at lease I’m still squarely in the middle. Not so old yet. So why do my friends keep dying?
Chris Manion died this week. I knew it was coming. I reconnected with him in 2016 when I first joined Facebook. He already had ALS. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive nervous system disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing loss of muscle control. It’s always fatal. The average life expectancy after diagnosis is two to five years, so living seven more years, Chris easily beat the odds. About a year ago, he disappeared from Facebook altogether. I suspected that his disease progressed to a point where he became incapacitated.
Unfortunately, I’m becoming accustomed to losing friends from my past. I created a list. These aren’t random acquaintances who died. All were among my closest friends at various points in my life. I wrote a blog post about each. None of them reached retirement age. All died in their fifties except for Chris. Since I just turned sixty this year, I assume he did too. We graduated high school together. We both ran cross-country our senior year—me near the back of the pack, Chris, number four on our squad.
When I look at this list of early deaths, the first five leave me unsurprised. Four of them lived a chunk of their lives as substance abusers. Alcohol and drugs take a heavy toll on internal organs. We abusers plant timebombs that one day blow up when we least expect it. My fifth friend on the list had chronic depression for years and finally took his own life.
Chris doesn’t belong on this list. I belong on the list.
I sent a Facebook message to my friend Scott yesterday. He ran in the number two slot on the cross-country team. “Sorry to bear this bad news, but Chris Manion has died.”
Scott replied with “Such a terrible disease. These last couple of years must have been difficult.” Exactly true, but what an understatement. Most people my age, I assume, worry about getting cancer. ALS is the one that keeps me up at night.
I posted a message on the “70s and 80s Shakey’s Rockville” Facebook group. Chris and I worked at Shakey’s Pizza throughout high school and college. This morning, I realized I’m reaching out to those who knew him in hopes of reminiscing with someone. But other than some brief back and forth messages on Facebook, I’m completely out of touch with these people. There really isn’t anyone to talk with. So I decided to write this post.
By the way, everyone on Facebook responded exactly the same way when I shared the news: “God, he was a nice person.”
I’ll leave you with one image from my past. As our senior year wound down, Chris and I never got around to asking anyone to prom. On the night of the dance, in a move dripping with cliché and irony, we sat in his basement with a couple of friends playing Dungeons and Dragons instead.
Photo: Shakey’s Reunion 2002. Chris is front left. That’s me in the black sweater.