Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
As I sat listening to our class panel at my 35th college reunion, a line from the Talking Heads song, Once In A Lifetime, kept running through my head — “Well, how did I get here?”
The theme of the panel was left turns. All the ways that life offers up opportunities, challenges, unforeseen events, illness, aging parents, divorce and death that make us rethink where we are, choose different paths or get thrown from a path we love and may not want to leave.
What struck me about the stories of my classmates, most of whom I didn’t know, was all the ways that life had interrupted their golden paths, and the courage and grace with which they had dealt with these challenges. Gone was the hubris of the early years when we wasted too much time and energy trying to impress each other with our accomplishments, our earnings, our brilliant children. One of the panelists had terminal cancer. Another was unemployed. A third had found that being forced to care for both of her aging parents in her early forties had blown up her life, setting her on a path for a new, fulfilling, completely different career and a return to school at the age of 57.
When Dan and I arrived at the class lunch, the kickoff event for us, I looked around at the 20 or so other early arrivals and said, “I don’t know any of these people. Was I even part of this class?” But soon a familiar face came into view and then another. And we both launched into the reconnecting that happens between people who have shared a common experience.
At prior reunions, my time was spent primarily with people I know well and those I look forward to seeing every five years. But this reunion was different. Conversations that might have stayed superficial in the past quickly became deep and meaningful. Comparisons turned into “me, too”, as we shared our experiences raising children, helping them get into college, working hard to keep them safe. We discovered that many of us have lost someone we loved deeply. Parents mostly but also spouses, dear friends and, in a few cases, children.
Some of the best conversations I had were with people I didn’t know well or at all. I was struck by the fortitude my classmates had shown in the face of adversity and all that they had weathered and endured. Because I hadn’t been able to bring myself to create a page for the “class book”, most people didn’t know about Jimmy’s death. But instead of changing the subject, looking miserably uncomfortable or walking away, my classmates leaned in and gave us the best gift of all — the opportunity to talk about Jimmy.
There are so many days when I feel like Hester Prynne, marked forever as a mother whose child is no longer alive. I am grateful for my Salt Water family and my dear friends who bravely live on in the face of their losses. But it hadn’t occurred to me until this weekend how healing it is to be with a broad mix of people, most of whom have grappled with something significant and are willing to be open about how hard the struggle was.
I closed out the weekend with my husband and my freshman roommate, eating pizza, catching up on life and comparing notes on the reunion. I have adored both of them since the first day of college. Jen and I bonded from the moment we met, and Dan lived three doors down from us. Neither of them could believe how sheltered I was when I arrived at college, and both had a big hand in changing that.
Jen and I had drifted away from each other over the past 20 years. Living in different cities, then different states; busy with careers, children, travel and day to day life, we just stopped reaching out to each other until Jen contacted me about a year ago, having learned about Jimmy’s death. She expressed her sorrow and her regret about not having been around to support me. We met for dinner soon after and talked until 2:00 am., the years falling away as if no time had passed since we were last together. The magic of an apology, the beauty of a lifelong connection, the sweetness of two souls, connected by laughter, a shared history and a deep, enduring love.