The note from the reunion committee came with a list of nine names. John R. Irvine was the one I recognized. We’d gone to a tiny restaurant off campus one night during our sophomore year in college. I always remembered this young man from Marshalltown, Iowa, who had earned his pilot’s license at age 16.
“In Memoriam,” I read, again. He was dead.
The roughly 2,000 of us in the Northwestern University class of 1996 were not guaranteed long life along with our undergraduate degrees. But when we left college, we had a youthful optimism that we’d meet up again. Life expectancy for “Watergate babies” was about 72.6 years at the time of our births. And unlike our parents and grandparents, no war defined our entry into young adulthood. Job offers still came with the protective perk of health insurance, and the AIDS epidemic, far from over, had begun its decline.
But the list of deceased classmates forced me to acknowledge the power of what Shakespeare called Devouring Time. It’s a poetic phrase to describe a statistical truth every generation faces: The longer we live, the more we die.
Carlos Terrazas, senior director of reunions at Northwestern, sees evidence of this fact of aging in the daily reports he receives about deceased alumni.
Terrazas told me my cohort was heading into the decades in which things “turn a corner.” The In Memoriam note for the class of 1986, for example, listed 35 names. This upward trend corresponds with data in the government’s National Vital Statistics Reports, which show steep increases in death rates through the 40s and 50s.
Douglas A. Eckley, director of the actuarial science program at George Mason University, told me that my class was too small to say whether its tally of nine deaths was unusually high. But by his calculations, we might have expected 0.6 deaths per year, or a total of 12, in the 20 years since graduation.
“Statistics are there,” he said, “and you can’t avoid them.”
How did my nine former classmates become statistics, I wondered. And why did I feel a strong desire to learn more about the lives they lived and how they died?
“Everyone wants to be remembered,” Michael Prywes, a classmate on the reunion committee told me. But my impulse could not be separated from my own awareness of mortality and the new relationship with aging evidenced in the list of my dead peers. Time could devour, but words, as Shakespeare concluded, lived on. They were all we had.
Tracing the lives of the nine who died was not as straightforward as it might seem. Not every record is easy to find, and a few families did not wish to speak. And the digital fingerprint that seems an inevitable and indelible component of life today was a remote possibility back in the day of Y2K anticipation.
It was just before that turn of the millennium, Y2K, that the first of my classmates died, at age 25. Two others died in their 20s, both in auto accidents, just shy of 30.
Adam Alabarca was one. He had come to campus after distinguishing himself as salutatorian of Badger High School in Lake Geneva, Wis.
“We met while playing soccer when I was 5 years old,” Mike Goetsch, his best friend, told me when I spoke with him on the phone. Goetsch oversees a scholarship created in Alabarca’s honor. High school friends come together each summer for a fundraiser. In 10 years, they’ve given young graduates $40,000.
“We felt like his memory should live on,” Goetsch said from his office in Chicago. And in Oregon, where Alabarca made a mark as a young environmental leader, there’s a bench overlooking Latourell Falls with his name and a quotation:
“I am just this crazy, radical kid who thinks there is a better way for society to be. . . . I know that if we can overcome the fear of change and uncertainty, embrace optimism and idealism, that we can realize our hopes for a better place for all.”
Adam Lassiter barely made it to 30. In that time, he earned a master’s degree in biomedical engineering, moved to Thousand Oaks, Calif., and became part of a start-up that would grow to become one of the largest biotech companies in the world, Amgen.
“He loved it there,” his brother Joe told me. The kid from St. Louis embraced the West Coast lifestyle, taking up snowboarding, hiking, beach volleyball and weight training. At one point, Joe said, his brother thought he had pulled a muscle with all the training. He went to a doctor, who sent him to a physical therapist, who sent him back to the doctor. Tests revealed a growth. Adam had Ewing sarcoma.
At Amgen, Adam engineered the manufacturing process for two of the company’s drugs for cancer patients, Epogen and Neupogen. He would need both.
“He was helping other people’s lives and also his own,” his youngest brother, Peter, said. The cancer spread quickly and Adam lost the use of his left arm. On their last Christmas together, the brothers watched a marathon of “Lord of the Rings” movies, a memory Peter and Joe still cherish.
And, they added, noting their big brother’s pride when his team made it to the Rose Bowl his senior year, “we both still have Northwestern T-shirts.”
For young people in their 30s, suicide is the second-leading cause of death. And that is how my classmate Robyn Reinstein (later, Robyn Cohen) died at age 32.
Josh Cohen met Robyn at a party one December. He remembered his late wife as a joyful and compassionate woman who loved silly movies such as “Waiting for Guffman.”
But after the birth of their second child, he said, she became “very, very stressed” and sought help for postpartum depression. Within three months, she took her own life.
“We have pictures of Robyn around the house,” Cohen said. “We talk about her as the children have questions.” He remarried and had a third child. “Our children have three sets of grandparents. All three of them have three sets.”
John Irvine was next. I hoped he hadn’t died doing the hobby he loved. He was 35, had gotten married in the family house on Main Street in Marshalltown, Iowa, worked in the law practice started by his grandfather and loved birds, astronomy and flying kites with his three kids.
“Clear cell sarcoma,” his mother, Madelyn Irvine, told me on the phone. It was a rare but aggressive form of cancer. Just months after diagnosis, it took the life of the son she called her “golden boy.”
John accomplished a lot in his young life, his mother said. She is grateful he had time enough to have children and to travel the world, making it to Brazil, Alaska and his ancestral home of Scotland.
I could not find much about the last three classmates. They lived past 35. One left a digital trail of heartbreaking tweets about a bipolar diagnosis and hearing voices in his head.
When I widened my lens beyond the nine on the list, I saw universities and colleges all over the country with their own notes on the Class of 1996. This is the cohort that is moving into middle age. These are the statistics that each have a story behind them.
Sally Anne McBride, a free spirit who loved the open road and her dog Hayduke, left Vassar for the hills of Colorado and died in an auto accident at the tender age of 23.
Sonya Milord Dumbar, from Howard University, escaped the Manhattan offices of Lehman Brothers on Sept. 11, 2001. She walked through debris and over the Brooklyn Bridge, and drove 1,300 miles back home to Miami, where she met her future husband on the dance floor and started a new career writing children’s books before her body succumbed to leukemia at age 37.
According to the charts, unintentional injury, cancer and heart disease will rotate through as the leading causes of death for my classmates in the years to come. The In Memoriam lists will grow ever longer, and it will fall to us to tell the life stories, and to remember.
Terrazas, the reunions director, was two years behind me at Northwestern. My topic had also been on his mind, he told me.
“In January, one of my classmates and a good friend . . . was murdered when vacationing in Belize.” Anne E. Swaney had been co-chair of the class’s fifth, 10th and 15th reunions. She was strangled while doing yoga by a river.
Terrazas and other members of the Class of 1998 organized an annual fundraising campaign and set up a journalism scholarship in her honor.
“It’s basically on us to keep it alive,” he said.