A former classmate of mine passed away last night. The familiar feeling of a life taken too soon rests once more on the shoulders of my little hometown, and sometimes, the weight feels like it’s too much to bear.
As with every small town, everybody knows everybody in Hamilton, Illinois. They say that if you aren’t sure what you’re up to, your neighbor probably knows, and it’s true, gossip spreads quickly when it only has a couple miles to go before reaching the city limits. But what often goes unsaid about small towns is that there is a strong bond formed when you grow up together in a place so small it’s almost a secret.
Nobody but people from Hamilton knows how fun it was to play kickball on the City Park tennis courts when the weather started to get warm. Or how satisfying it was when your mom finally let you get a Little Hugs Fruit Barrel from Duck’s. We’re the only ones who know that our cemetery has the best walking paths in the whole town, and we’re sure to wave at every person that we walk past while there, because even if we can’t remember their name, we know they share in this little secret of a town right along with us.
And perhaps this is why tragedy hurts us so much. Because with every precious life lost, a sharer in the secret is lost with it. There are already so few people who know what we know that every single person lost feels like a critical blow to the continuation of the entire town. Because though the rest of the world keeps turning, little Hamilton will never be the same if it’s missing even just one citizen. That hole can never be filled by another.
But that hole can become another part of our secret. And thanks to the strength of the bonds between us, no member of our town will be forgotten. Nobody will have a memorial service that goes unattended, or a tombstone that isn’t cared for. No families will wonder if their son or daughter was ever loved by others. They will know by the casseroles and the flowers and the tears of those that bring them that this is a burden we’re going to bear together, and that is the true beauty of growing up in a small town.