observations and opinion
Please sit down, I want to talk to you about something.
Just for a moment I want you to close your eyes. No, not yet, keep reading a little longer. But eventually I want you to close your eyes and see some people you know. It can be the people down the hall. It can be your best friend. It can be your spouse, your mother, your brother or sister. Your son or daughter. It can be someone you don’t really know yet, but want to know better.
When was the last time you saw them? Five minutes ago? Good, odds are you’ll be seeing them again. Five days ago? Probably. Five months ago? You might think that your next encounter is right around the corner, but you could be wrong. This is the thing I want to talk to you about. Picture those three or five or seven people, and try to remember that last time you saw them. And when I say “saw” I don’t mean “looked at” but saw – spoke to, ate with, smiled at, frowned at, sang with, danced with. Do you see it?
When you parted, did you wave to them as they started a long drive back to where they live? Did they turn and look at you, as a door swung shut between you? Did he hold your coat for you before you stepped out into a cold afternoon? Were you at the airport? Were you at your parents’ house? Were you at the hospital? Or was it some blurry, dark night when you walked away, knowing you could never go back, should never go back, might go back? And as it turned out, didn’t go back?
As deeply as we carve the train tracks of our lives, as predictably as we circle, and circle again, the same places and conversations, there is uncertainty rippling under the skin of the world. It is as constant as a heartbeat and as predictable as silence in the woods: sometimes we just never see someone again. We tell ourselves that there will be more chances, or we don’t even think about it at all – we just believe that what is present is permanent. And it is only belief because the one true thing, aside from how you love your parents or children, is that the present is not permanent at all. Sometimes the present disappears.
There is someone on my mind, someone who I saw “one last time” when I didn’t know it. I should have – the signs were there in front of me, in the eyes and the voice and the words – but I let my belief in more chances cloud my senses and sense. We had a wonderful lunch – vegetarian food, which was not the wonderful part ( but it did have the virtue of being good for me and agreeable to my companion’s tastes.) The wonderful part was being there. We talked longer than expected and then, we had to make our way back to reality. We parted as people almost always do: casually and congenially. There was in fact, for me, a strong belief that we would see each other again soon. But that never happened. What happened was silence. And that was perfectly understandable because, people live their lives. I lived mine. I knew there would be another lunch.
But there wasn’t. Instead there was this:Hi David D just told me the sad news. I know this must hit you hard so I just wanted you to know that we are thinking of you. J
This was the news that my friend was dead. The writer, a mutual friend, believed I knew – and I should have known – but until that note arrived, I did not. In the two weeks since our last lunch, my friend had collapsed, gone into a coma and passed away. Of course he had been ill for years and was especially fragile that last time we met. It would have been obvious to anyone willing to see what was true, that he was already sailing away. The second-last time I saw him, it was to put him in an ambulance. So he was sick, very sick and I knew it. But that last afternoon, what I saw was my friend. We kibitzed about our kids and spouses and work and what the summer would bring. I still see his face, drawn and quiet; I hear his voice; I feel his handshake; I see him turning at the corner and walking, haltingly, to his car. If there had been a breeze it might have blown him over. Yet somehow I let myself, willed myself perhaps, to believe that it was fine. It was normal. Maybe hindsight has changed my memory or just explained it to me, but now I see clearly what I did not – would not – see then. That was our last lunch.
You have that list of faces and names in your head. Some are long gone. Some are better off lost. Some you regret ever knowing. Some you regret not knowing better. We cannot spend today or tomorrow, chasing another moment with who we knew and loved yesterday. We can’t live gripped with some gut-freezing fear that this might be the last time. Such fear is not life, it’s death itself – a wide awake death. We can’t choose that over real life. And real life, oftentimes, is believing what may not be true.
The moon hangs in the sky like a scythe and the sun climbs up over the city like a bear peeking into a beehive. That’s what always happens and it’s going to happen again. We just have to live our lives, believing that what is present is permanent, that what we have is safe, that what we stand on will not shift. We go to bed believing that someone we love, or loved, or might have loved, will be with us once more, someday. Because that’s what always happens. And we may be right to believe it, until we aren’t. That’s all I’m saying.
Yes, it was a good lunch. A great lunch. Better no doubt, because I didn’t know it was the last.