Good thing. Turns out it was in fact Carol, an old friend whom I had not seen for many years, the last person I expected to hear from that day. My joy at the sound of her voice quickly turned to dismay as I learned the purpose of her call: “Jeanne is dead. Her funeral is next weekend. Can you come?”
My to-do list was a mile long, and everyone else could take a number; but this one was a no-brainer: “Are you kidding? Wild horses couldn’t keep me away.” (Jeanne was a mutual friend, and neither of us had seen her for quite some time.) Little did I know that this simple social event would launch me into the existential crisis of a lifetime.
Jeanne and John married late in life, in their fifties, and they made the most of their every minute together. They lived in Ojai, a small town in Ventura County, not far from Los Angeles. They joined a local church, made friends, saw the world, served their community, and put down roots. Here they enjoyed a simple life, far from the noise of the big city. Who knew that their journey would end so soon?
It was a long drive, about two hours on lonely country highways. In this quiet solitude I had plenty of time to think, to summon fond memories of Jeanne. I tallied the many loved ones I’ve lost over the past several years; it seems they’re getting younger each time, closer and closer to my own age. All at once I became acutely aware of my own mortality, the frailty of my flesh. Gone were the carefree days when I could hurl down steep winding mountain roads on my Schwinn Varsity ten-speed, wind in my hair, feeling bulletproof and invincible. It’s going to be me in that box one of these days. But those morbid thoughts would have to wait; I was on a mission.
Following a couple of songs and the standard liturgy, the minister invited us to share our remembrances. One by one, about a dozen mourners rose to bear witness to a life well lived. John reminisced about their trips to distant lands. Uncle Bob told of her distinguished career as the fashion editor of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. The rest of us recalled how we treasured her friendship, her counsel, her humor, her down-home cooking. We laughed, we cried, we prayed. Funny stories, touching moments.
The torrent of tributes continued unabated at the reception, where our old gang enjoyed an unexpected (and welcome) reunion. Carol was there. And John. Irina. Dee. Judy. James. Kate. Patricia. Cara. We were downright unanimous in our respect and admiration for our sainted sister. We loved her, we missed her, our daily lives would be forever diminished by her absence.
For the better part of two decades, most of us couldn’t manage to pick up the phone to say so. Either to Jeanne, or to each other. We thought we had more time, if we thought about it at all. For all of our good intentions, lost in the busy-ness of life, something else always seemed more urgent. We got married, had children, went back to school, climbed the corporate ladder, fought terrorists, changed the oil, mowed the lawn. Who would have thought that our beloved would be taken from us so early, struck down by breast cancer at 66? Not a spring chicken, exactly, but far from old. With her relentlessly cheerful attitude and that spring in her step, she exhibited a joie de vivre far beyond many people half her age.
Why did we drift apart, sometime back in the late 1980s? After all, most of us still lived in the local area, and we were all listed in the phone book. Did we have an argument, or did someone spread a nasty rumor to the others? No one could say. But it doesn’t matter now.
Now that I think about it, this pattern sounds very familiar: When I was a child, my parents always saw to it that my sister and I got around to see our family. Mom made the call, Dad told us to get in the car, and that was that. They decided exactly when we’d go, what we’d do, and how long we’d stay. That arrangement worked out just fine, and I never had to think about it.
That is, for exactly eighteen years.
Me and Wayne, circa 1974
And no one follows through.
A few months later, it’s Aunt Betty. And then Cousin George. We meet, we mourn, we do the same dance, tell the same jokes, repeat the same lies, and promise to do better next time. And nothing ever changes.
Enough. I’m tired of playing that game. At the age of 48 I’ve probably lived more than half of my life; I have too much unfinished business and not nearly enough time. At this point I would give anything to spend just one more day at the beach with my dad; but his wounds were self-inflicted, and I couldn’t save him.
Or one more sunny afternoon at Dodger Stadium with Uncle Mario, the patron saint of his neighborhood.
Or to share one more steaming pot of Texas gumbo with Nana, with that secret ingredient that made all the difference.
|Dad, around 1993|
Or even as little as one more conversation with big sister Jeanne, where I could pour out my sorrows and she knew just what to do.
We left so many things unsaid, so many issues unresolved. I never had a chance to say goodbye, or to apologize for my heartless words, or thank them for their many kindnesses. Shall I never be granted but one of these wishes? Just one? There oughta be a law.
So, my dear friends and family, this is how it’s gonna be: I’m done with being polite, afraid of intruding into your peaceful existence. At some point in the next few months you’ll be hearing from me, and I won’t take no for an answer. If you don’t return my phone call or my e-mail, I will try again and again until you do. Or I just might show up at your doorstep when you least expect it; who knows? I don’t care if we had an argument at our last meeting, or if one of us said something stupid in the heat of the moment. I’ve squandered far too many years waiting for just the right time to say “I love you,” or “I’m sorry.” Deal with it.
Of course, you’re always welcome to beat me to the punch. You already know where to find me, just as you did for Grampa and Betty. Come to dinner at my place, or invite me over to yours. Let’s go fishing, see a movie, or just get acquainted for once over a cold beer. Let’s meet at the park for a round of one-on-one basketball; I’m no good at it, so I’ll let you win if it means you’ll show up. Or we can drop in on Grandma; she could be next.
Sure, I can come to your funeral and say a few nice words to keep up appearances. I can dance that jig and make promises I’ll never keep, just like always. And no one will know the difference; Hey, I’m getting pretty good at it after 30 years of practice. But if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather tell you now: Thank you. I love you. I miss you. I'm sorry. I'm proud of you. Fuhgeddaboutit, I forgave you long ago.
Will you do the same for me?
I went skyyy----diving
I went rocky mountain climbing,
I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Manchu.
And I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter,
And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying.
An’ he said: Some day, I hope you get the chance,
To live like you were dyin’.
I was finally the husband,
That most the time I wasn’t.
An’ I became a friend a friend would like to have.
And all of a sudden, goin’ fishin’,
Wasn’t such an imposition,
And I went three times that year I lost my dad.
Well, I finally read the Good Book,
And I took a good long hard look,
At what I’d do if I could do it all again.
Postscript at press time: As I post this article, I just received word that my dear Uncle Gustavo is fighting for his life, and he probably won’t last the night. He must be in his mid-80s. Let’s see if we will do anything different this time around.