As high school reunions go, our 45th was pretty darn good fun. A core group of stalwarts who stayed in my hometown have been great about planning these gatherings regularly, and hats off to all of them for excellent planning and hospitality. As a regular reveler at these affairs, I can testify that after you attend a few you begin to anticipate some basic, recurring fundamentals.
There will be those who looked exactly the same, and those who are utterly unrecognizable. (You can only hope to be categorized as the former, but who knows? The mirror is a tricky partygoer.) There are always surprises with those who journey from long distances, especially characters who you wouldn’t have recalled giving a rip about high school. Inevitably, there are poignant absences among classmates who live a stone’s throw away but don’t show, due to life’s heartbreaking difficulties. As the decades progress, conversations at these soirees migrate from career arcs and notable achievements (I try to leave my envy hat at home, but in our crowd, it’s a tough one to shed) to the tallies that matter more in late midlife: Headcounts of grandchildren, losses of parents, and retirement travel plans.
On the relationship and behavior scorecard, there’s always one who you wouldn’t have expected to get plastered so early in the evening; this time, a svelte athlete, perhaps too thin to hold the liquor, or too dedicated to sport to know how to imbibe responsibly. There’s going to be someone you wish, at an awkward moment strangely reminiscent of teen angst that should have dissipated a half-century ago, would remember you. And as surely as bourbon flows from Kentucky, there will be at least one attendee you’d desperately prefer to forget, or just as frantically hope has forgotten you. (And possibly even think: If he pats my shoulder or rubs my back one more time, I’m going to shriek something that my mother would describe as “most unattractive.”)
And if you are one of the lucky ones, as I have been these 4.5 decades, you have a steady friend with whom to attend and navigate these choppy waters as a team. My best high-school pal, Jane, and I have attended nearly all of these together, still being the best of buddies after all these years. Facing the music together adds immeasurably to the side-splitting moments and helps to assuage the others. Even better, we’ve got a circle of additional friends from the old gang who keep in touch and generally turn up, so for us it really can feel like old times.
As much fun as it was to catch up with everyone, and to gab about people we hadn’t really known well in high school but thoroughly enjoyed seeing—the reunion that mattered most to me was the smaller, quieter one that followed.
The following morning, Jane and I drove the short ride to a tiny town less than an hour east, in Central Kentucky, to visit my 88-year-old mother and take her to lunch. It was to be the first time they had seen each other in person in more than 30 years. What a long litany of changes on both sides in between meetings—marriages, divorce, children, death and widowhood, cancer, unemployment. It’s been a life saga no one could have chronicled when Jane and I were bouncy teenagers, spending as much time in each other’s homes as we did in our own, growing to love each other’s parents as extended family, the kind you could count on to lend an ear or a 10-spot for food after the game, maybe even provide your first approved cocktail in the safe environment of home. When her mother’s health began failing three years ago, I was determined to get in a good visit while time still allowed. Other losses had taught me that nothing prepares the heart for loss more profoundly than the chance to say anything that needs to be said, while we can still say it. While we didn’t discuss it in those terms, perhaps Jane felt the same, this trip. My mother in many ways is holding her own, but the last two years have brought serious bumps, and who can forecast the time and seasons to be given to an 88-year-old?
Timing, as fate would have it, was not great. Mom moved just two days before our visit to a beautiful new home with all the help she needs, but moving is a tough gig for anyone. Jane and I were prepared; we discussed it and agreed we would roll with whatever we encountered on arrival. A preview phone call from my brother, followed by a text, forewarned us that Mom was not having a good day.
When we arrived, Jane thoughtfully asked if I wanted to go in first, just in case. I found the main entrance and was preparing to search Mom out, but there she was, waiting for us at the door, dressed in bright Sunday best, jewelry on, nails painted, hair fixed.
Leaning carefully her walker as I approached, she accepted my kiss on the cheek, but without preamble for me, demanded, “Where’s Jane?
So, I went and fetched her. And then stood back, out of the way of the bear hug that went on forever, with the tears on both sets of cheeks, and watched as the past and the future melded into one warm, glowing arc.