A life cut short stirs memories, gives warning

College girlfriend's death brings a measure of change to my routine

Special to the Observer

An e-mail chimed in at my PC. "Hope this isn't an intrusion but thought you might like to know that Jan passed away Monday."

No, not an intrusion but more like a swarm of memory vortexes as characterized by Joan Didion in her book, "The Year of Magical Thinking."

A week before Valentine's Day I received this notice of the passing of a college girlfriend. Jan and I had not communicated for decades after she left me for Joe, the guy who would eventually e-mail me the news. I had gone on with life to eventually meet and marry Susan. To a happy, married life with two wonderful kids. Jan and Joe had married and then divorced. That was about the last I knew of them.

I replied immediately: "Jeez, Joe. What happened?" I would not hear back for two agonizing days. I had no phone numbers to call.

Meanwhile, a Google search on her name brought up the obituary. No cause of death listed, so the wondering continues. Someone cut down at age 52 demands an explanation. My mind rounds up the usual suspects, accidents and cancers.

That would not prove to be the case.

The cause of death

Finally, an e-mail reply arrived with the cause of death: cirrhosis. There are only a couple of ways to get that, by drinking too much or from hepatitis C. Since she had been an operating room nurse, I could hope for the innocence of the latter. A phone call Saturday sadly revealed it was the former.I thought of a column I had written recently, intended to be my last monthly column for 2006. It was going to be a clever little piece, about a wonder drug that could help most people, at least men, if used regularly. Yet, it was not routinely advised, and in fact the American Medical Association had a position against its use.

You guessed it: alcohol.

It is true that used in moderation (one mixed drink or a couple of beers, or a glass of wine), alcohol has been shown to be beneficial in several studies. But the typical news story about yet another study of its benefits inevitably has a line such as, "If you don't drink now, don't start." I wanted to ask: Why not?

I now see why not.

Of course, there are warnings to include, especially for women. Alcohol does increase the risk of breast cancer. And yes, there is the risk of alcoholism. The risk of addiction is not easily predicted, although if your parents had drinking problems you may be at higher risk. A predisposition for addiction, whether through a gene or observed behavior, is not well understood, but there seems to be some evidence. Ironically, while Jan's parents were not alcoholic, she had watched an aunt she adored die of the affliction.

The alcohol column was written, but something did not feel quite right about it so I wrote about something else for December. Maybe I was destined to delay it until experiencing this loss.

New resolve

I try to take away some lessons from tragedy to help change my own life. Oddly, the night before I learned the cause of death I was thinking of how I might improve my own life and among the things I counted was maybe drinking a bit less. I have a drink a day but maybe too much. I didn't typically use a shot glass, so I have been drinking unmeasured drinks.

Jan's obituary photo brought back that swarm of memories of good times and also reminded me that I have had a good life. But she helped me find it. If Susan and my family comprise the main event in the concert of my life then Jan was the opening act. I was a geek in high school, not dating until college. She brought me out of the lab and into life. She knew how to have fun.

Perhaps too much fun.

Even though I would possibly have never seen her again I am saddened by the loss of someone from my past. Another one of those things to fix in my life is to get back in contact with friends like her who have been important in my life before it's too late.

But today, on Valentines Day, I am having flowers delivered to the real love of my life, my wife of 30 years, arriving as a surprise in her classroom. And tonight I will have my usual drink, but now a measured one, a life-change in memory of Jan.

Dan Caton

Former community columnist Daniel B. Caton is observatory director and astronomy professor at Appalachian State University. Write him at the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC 28608, or at catondb@appstate.edu