The Death Class: A True Story About Life

BOOK: The Death Class: A True Story About Life

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 The Good-bye Letter

Death’s Secrets


The Professor


Life Stories of Norma Lynn


Rewind Button


Little Boy


Strange Behavior


To the Rescue


The Trigger





 Life Lessons








To Serve




Parting Ways



: Final Exam


Road Trip


The Rhizome


Life Cycles




A Note About This Book


Reading Group Guide

Appendix: Erikson’s Stage Theory

About Erika Hayasaki

Sources and Notes

Selected Bibliography and Suggested Readings


In memory of Carl Harris

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”

The Good-bye Letter

Just after 7
on a Wednesday in April 1995, a man left a place called Ponca City, climbed into a rented Ryder truck, and began to drive. He had a buzz cut and a face shaped like a butternut squash with a narrow beak of a nose. The words on his T-shirt read,
, alongside an image of Abraham Lincoln’s face. The man did not stop driving for an hour and forty-five minutes, when he parked the truck next to a day care center crawling with babies, locked its doors, and walked away. Inside, a bomb fuse fizzed. At 9:02
, the truck erupted.

I was sixteen years old, a high school student in Lynnwood, Washington, two thousand miles away, watching the carnage in Oklahoma City unfold over a television in a friend’s home that day. A group of us had left campus early, and I remember sitting on a carpet as newscasters replayed the images of a fireman cradling a bloody baby and wires and pipes dangling from the wreckage of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building like veins. Nineteen children died in the attack, 168 people in all. But none of those lives concerned me. Not in that moment. Not on that day.

Shortly before Timothy McVeigh left for Oklahoma City, another man had been making his way toward the Whispering Pines apartment complex just a few minutes from where I lived. His name was James Yukon McCray. He had a broken heart and a gun. It was just after 4
in the Pacific Northwest when he arrived outside the complex dressed in dark clothes and a red-and-black stocking cap. There was a girl inside apartment 265, my schoolmate and friend Sangeeta Lal.

At sixteen, Sangeeta still had the face of a child, round and cheeky,
with long, wavy black hair that she smoothed down with coconut oil. Later that morning she was supposed to be at school, where she usually showed up in lipstick the same shade as her nails and jeans four sizes too big for her five-foot frame, cuffed at the bottoms and held up with a long belt. It was a chilly morning, and she might have arrived to first period in her army green windbreaker over an Atlanta Falcons sweatshirt, and a pair of white sneakers.

Her family had relocated from the island of Fiji to our suburban town twenty-two minutes north of Seattle. The day before, in the parking lot after school, Sangeeta showed me the new white sedan she’d received for her birthday and told me we would go for a spin in it soon. She kissed its window and left cranberry-colored stains on the glass, then gave me a hug good-bye. Her single mother had purchased the car with money saved from her job at the Nintendo of America headquarters in Redmond, Washington, where she worked the early shift. On that morning, she had already left for work when the first phone call came in to 911.

At 4:18
, a female voice connected on the line with an emergency operator, saying that she could hear someone knocking on her window. The caller’s name was Sangeeta. She said the person was trying to break in. A neighbor woke up and heard something too, like glass breaking and boards creaking or steel nails being ripped from their foundation. The neighbor looked out her window and saw nothing.

But back at apartment 265, the intruder was already climbing inside. The line went dead. The operator called back, and an answering machine picked up. Police units headed to Whispering Pines to check on a burglary in progress.

sometimes beat her up, and we had tried to convince her to break it off. Once she hid from James inside the apartment where I lived with my mother and brother. James was five years older than Sangeeta and did not go to school with us, but he often picked her up from campus. He had a cruel streak, like the time he convinced one of Sangeeta’s friends to let him perm her hair and slipped Nair hair removal cream into the so-called perm solution.

She had been trying to break it off with him for a while. The assistant principal knew that Sangeeta had filed a domestic violence report against him with the school police officer earlier that year. Several weeks earlier, she had broken up with him for good, but that had done nothing to convince him to leave her alone. Sangeeta talked to another police officer on campus about him the same day she showed me her car, and she stopped by to see her sixteen-year-old neighbor in apartment 267 around 4
to explain that James had threatened to hurt her and her mom. Sangeeta took down her neighbor’s phone number in case she might need him.

on that dark morning with James on her trail. Dogs barked as neighbors slept. Some residents heard shrieks and footsteps outside their windows, but did not get out of bed. Sangeeta made it to apartment 283, on the ground level. According to police reports, a thirty-nine-year-old man named Sherman was sleeping on the floor of the apartment near the sliding glass door when he heard someone banging on it. He got up and looked into the terrified eyes of a young girl. “Help me, help me!” she screamed. “Let me in!”

But before he could react, he watched a man about six inches taller than she was come from behind and drag her away from the porch and onto the lawn. Sherman saw him pull back the slide on his 9-millimeter automatic and aim it at her.

“Please don’t!” Sangeeta screamed.

James looked through the glass doors at Sherman, who bolted out of the way, crouching behind a television. He heard one shot.

A neighbor in 284, next door, looked out of his window and saw a girl on the grass. It looked as if she was sitting down, as a man hovered over her. She’d been shot in the chest.

“Bitch!” he shouted. “Get up!”

“Please don’t!” Sangeeta repeated. “Please don’t!”

He fired a second shot.

Sangeeta collapsed, her face in the grass. James looked up and saw the neighbor in 284 peering through his window. Their eyes met, and James
took off. He ran through an alley, straight back to Sangeeta’s apartment, where he killed himself with a single bullet.

In three hours, the world would begin tuning in to Oklahoma. But at school, her friends would be steered to the career center, where grief counselors stood on guard. As a group, we were told of her death before the rest of the students. It didn’t actually sink in until the campuswide announcement a few minutes later, as if the principal saying it over a loud speaker made it official. His voice came over the intercom: Sangeeta Lal, a Lynnwood High School sophomore, had been killed early that morning. In an instant, the room became a blur of wailing, disoriented teenagers.

We wandered around the school in a teary daze and continued our mourning off campus, as friends piled into my beat-up blue Honda Accord. We drove around until we ended up in a friend’s living room, where we waited for news to come over the television. That was how it happened, right? People got shot and it ended up on television. Or in the newspaper. But we could find nothing on the newscast about Sangeeta that day. All the channels went back to firefighters and frantic parents in Oklahoma. When the newspaper mentioned the murder-suicide the next day, it printed her age wrong—she was in her late teens, or maybe twenty. It didn’t mention her name at all. In the week that followed, her death was written up in the format the news business calls a “brief.” There was not enough information, or it was simply not important enough, to merit an entire story.

Police found a gun, along with Sangeeta’s school ID and driver’s learner’s permit in her bedroom, near James’s body. At 12:55
, a police officer and a chaplain had shown up at her mother’s job at Nintendo to inform her that her daughter had been shot to death. They asked her to come to the medical examiner’s office to view the body.

I saw her mother a couple of times in the following days. Inside the apartment where James had committed suicide, she lay on a couch moaning and looked into the face of my friend Rosemary, who resembled her daughter a little, and called her “My Sangeeta.” I heard her bone-searing screams during the wake, as Sangeeta lay in a coffin, her body draped in a shimmering gown, a bindi dot on her forehead, the corners
of her mouth turned upward. I heard her mother’s delirium again at the funeral, especially before they took her Sangeeta to be cremated. She followed her daughter’s casket out, as if she wanted to climb inside with her. I never forgot the image or the sound.

I was an editor at my high school newspaper,
The Royal Gazette,
at the time and wrote a front-page story about Sangeeta, trying to include all the details that local newspapers had not, and I wrote about her again weeks later for a regionwide teen newspaper operated under
The Seattle Times.

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