Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?
Depends on who, I expect. Still, our long habit of living suggests we don’t forget. The people who constitute pieces of our internal landscape may slowly drift away, but the memory of them remains secure, somewhere within.
For close to forty years my wife and I have celebrated New Year’s Eve with two dear friends, Ben and Sarah. About six years ago we were joined by Jean. For the last three years we’ve not celebrated together, nor does it seem we ever shall again. Jean suffers with Alzheimer’s. Ben and Sarah have health issues and will not be able to travel.
For millions of Americans this year, the pandemic will change their social landscape.
As I think about past years, an image comes to mind, an unlikely one at that; it’s a recollection of my first flight.
It was 1965. I was traveling to New Orleans from Bradley Field in Connecticut. As the plane roared down the runway, lifted off and banked, I looked out the window. The earth suddenly dropped from under me. I could see the wider parameters of the place I left behind only minutes ago. I remember looking from the window and seeing first the entire terminal which before I knew only as a spacious building with hordes of people milling about. As the plane ascended, I could see how landing strips converged at the terminal and how Long Island Sound, which I knew as an hour’s drive away from that area, did not seem really that far at all. As I traveled still further from where I started, I recognized the larger landscape to which I belonged, but had known only a piece of it. As the distance between ‘then’ and ‘now’ widens, a bigger picture emerges.
Jean, Sarah and Ben had been important to me, significant in the big picture. Sarah shared my professional life when I led a mental health agency in Baltimore and both she and Ben were my supports when I went through a divorce and later remarried.
Jean and Sarah had been on my staff. Jean had been our agency administrator and kept my feet to the fire in overseeing practical matters and managing the daily nuts and bolts of the agency. I was a good team builder, but as a practical manager, a disaster. Although I teased Jean about being an obsessive compulsive, I’d often think to myself: ‘Thank God she is, or the agency would be a mess.’
Sarah was one of the most competent therapists on my staff. She had been especially helpful to me in becoming more thoughtful in managing the interpersonal matters of staff. She helped me to slow down and be more sensitive to their needs. Her husband, Ben, insatiably curious, was a kind of renaissance man, interested in everything. He was handy. Ben helped keep my old VW Bug running. I taught him how to play squash. After three games, he was taking me to the cleaners.
I retired from the agency and moved to the Eastern Shore. Jean and her husband moved south and shortly thereafter he died. In a few years, she began joining us on New Year’s. Sarah remained with the agency for some years and then retired. New Year’s Eve became time for the five of us to reconnect. We usually gathered at our house to see the New Year in together.
Over the years, the diminishments of aging slowly imposed themselves on us. We began a kind of surrendering or letting go of each other although we wouldn’t have called it that. Jean’s memory loss, Ben’s cancer and Sarah’s sight diminishment forced new circumstances upon us. Even as Sarah was losing her sight, the light of her joie de vivre burned as brightly as ever. As we slowly accommodated to these realities, we stayed connected primarily through phone calls. One especially harsh ending: Jean did not know us anymore. We now existed somewhere, lost in the depths of her mind.
To say that no one is an island unto themselves may be a cliché, but it does describe the human condition. My aging has helped me see through the illusion I long held to that I am independent, totally self-reliant. I’m clearer now that I’m just one part, like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle part of a larger picture I can’t see yet. I’m aware that I’m continually being fit into networks of other lives that shape and form my own while giving meaning to my life. Individuals show up in my life, subtly changing it, long before I realize what’s happening. It was like that with Sarah, Ben and Jean.
This New Year’s will be the fourth year we will not have been together.
Particular clusters in our relationships ebb and flow during our lifetime, that is, we grow close to others; we’ll be in frequent contact, do things together and then slowly disengage for a variety of reasons. Their presence was definitive at a particular chapter of our lives. Then we fell away; it was not that we cared less or there was discord: we simply drifted apart.
The holiday greeting cards we send I suspect are often the remaining threads connecting us to our many “auld” acquaintances.
There are endings and there are endings. Some endings we choose; there are those that are imposed on us, while others we gently fall into. It happens unbeknownst to us that a closure is being finalized. During a reflective moment, I believe we recognize that these endings signal that a chapter in our lives is drawing to an end.
That first flight took me to New Orleans. It also introduced me to the city’s celebrated cuisine. I ate my way through New Orleans. At Galatoire’s, I had my first Oysters Rockefeller. They were exquisite. Every New Year’s Day since, aided by a dog-eared copy of The Joy of Cooking, I prepare them. We had them every New Year’s Day. Ben and I would drink beer and open the oysters and talk in the kitchen. Jean, Jo and Sarah worked a jigsaw puzzle by the fire in the living room. It was a ritual. I’d hear triumphant hoops occasionally, as they fit another piece of the puzzle in its place.
Over the years, the three never completed the puzzles during their stay. Too many pieces, too little time. Working puzzles is more about being together, anyway. Jo would eventually finish it and send the completed picture to Sarah and Jean.
Life is a puzzle. So many pieces, so little time to see where they all belong. Occasionally we’ll see some of its pieces connect. It’s deeply satisfying finding where they belong.