I’m starting to realize I actually am not opposed to this “getting older” thing. This past weekend was my 25th high school reunion, and it was simply marvelous.
I remember being 18 years old and looking at people in their 40s and feeling so sad for them. Their lives were over. They had to work, most of them had children who were wearing them out, they had no idea how to dress properly and they were getting kind of grey and wrinkly. Not me! I was the opposite of all of that, and I could see them looking at me with some envy. I believed I was in the best place in the world, and they were on the down slope to nowhere.
The thing is, when you are young, you can only look at things you’ve never been and guess what they are. You take your experience, which is profoundly limited, and you make your best guess. You don’t know what it’s like to get older. But when you are older, ahh…….now I can see. You can look back at your early years with knowledge. That look of envy? Not exactly. It’s the look of the bittersweet happiness you feel when you think of who you were back then, and the irreplaceable warmth of gratitude for who you are now because of it.
In essence, it’s all good.
This reunion was unlike any previous event for the Class of 1986. It was the great equalizer. For the first time, some of our real heroes are dead. We’ve lost classmates, too. Some of us are taking our children to tour college campuses, while others are experiencing the late-blooming joy of new love and a baby. We’re all over the map in some senses, and yet very connected in others.
A couple of nights before the reunion, I kept hearing dialogue from The Big Chill. William Hurt’s character Nick is stoned and fighting with his old friends. The primary source of the fight is repressed emotions about a mutual friend’s suicide. At one point Nick snaps to Tom Berenger’s character Sam, “You’re wrong. You don’t know me. A long time ago we knew each other for a very short period. It was easy back then. You don’t know anything about me. It’s only out here in the real world where things get tough.”
Sam is angry but he tells his friend, “You’re wrong. I know I loved you and everyone here, and I’m not going to p*** that away because you’re higher than a kite. I’ll go on believing that until I die.”
This scene has been lodged in my memory since I first saw the film. It’s the ageless question of how “real” the friendships of very young classmates can actually be, especially when they remain under the glass of a nostalgic past. I knew how I felt about my old friends, but I was anxious about what our time together would really show.
It didn’t take long to find out.
I noticed a new vibe at this reunion, one that said all bags had been checked before boarding the weekend. One lovely consequence of getting older is that we are just too weary to lug around all of the issues we dragged along to the previous reunions. Half of us have experienced at least one divorce. Some of us have lost siblings or children to illness or accident. Many of us have deceased parents. We’ve had career crashes, sickness, parenting fails, pounds on and pounds off, and severed relationships with people we once loved. We all know it now. No one has missed these experiences entirely, and if they claim they have, well, they are not telling the truth.
This time, we all came to the reunion to tell the truth.
I’m gay. I’m a single parent. I’m really sick. I’m unemployed. I’ve killed people. I’ve delivered babies. I’m afraid everyone will realize I was never a very good friend. I married someone I didn’t love. I’ve never been happier or more sure of myself. I’m worried about my parents. I’ve turned to God. I’ve left the church. I’m an alcoholic. I fight terrorists. I fight with my kids. I finally know what I’m doing. I have no idea what I’m doing.
My friend posted this on his Facebook page today: “With the passage of twenty-five years, most of the people with whom I went to high school had turned into vague mythical shadows in the depths of my mind. What a pleasant surprise to find that the people with whom I was friends are still wonderful, and the people I didn’t know well are kind and thoughtful adults. The class of ’86 rules!!!”
Rules indeed. Now, pass the aspirin and my cane. I need to rest up for the 30th……you people wore me out. And I still really love you.