You’re sitting in Econ 101. Your No. 2 pencil is more baton than writing utensil, your composition notebook blank. The most exciting thing about this lecture is the professor’s chalk tapping on the board. Your mind wanders.
It’s Illinois during the Spring of 1957. Maybe you’re thinking about the Soviets, but probably not. More likely, you’re thinking about the weekend. You’ll see a game, go to bar, enjoy a Coca Cola. You wonder about that person who might have caught your eye and wonder what they’re doing. The class ends, you collect your things and leave like any other day.
While lost in the clouds, you missed a life altering moment. In the back left corner of the classroom, a moment of courage overwhelmed some guy; he took a deep breath and asked a girl if she wanted to go out. And in an equally grand gesture, she said yes.
He’s older than her by a few years and carries a cowboy’s heart. She’s a sorority sister to the core and laughs like there’s something to hide. They’ll go to dinner for the first date, a movie for the next. They first kiss with John Wayne’s massive forehead silhouetting the moment. By then, they’re ‘going steady’ and as official as they can be. For whatever reason, life separates them. So, they put passion to paper and send letters. Each one is half love, half flirty shit talk. Going to the mailbox feels like Christmas morning.
Everything goes fast once reunited. Engaged, then married. All of a sudden, Appalachian Mountains surround them instead of Illinois corn fields. And they have a kid! And another, and another, and then no more. He teaches at a University now: O-Chem. Semesters spent squashing the dreams of want-to-be doctors. She holds up the family, fighting to keep everyone from fighting. Each night is capped with dinner together. The cookie jar is always stocked so long as somebody doesn’t smoke. Vacations are for hiking and visiting family. They wake up each morning together, looking over their own little piece of the world.
Now one is off to college, now the other, and the last brings up the rear. The house is quiet; with quiet, time! Time to have friends over for dinner, visit family, see the country. He retires. They celebrate their anniversary with a camel ride by the Pyramids, get lost in Europe, and build new stereotypes for other Americans abroad. The same house in Tennessee now acts as a pit stop between adventures.
Then, the kid they made had some kids too. They rush down to see the first one, not as quickly to see the second, third, fourth and fifth. They dance, though not as well as they use to. They go to church often. He smokes his pipe secretly in the truck. She pretends she can’t smell it.
It’s their 60th wedding anniversary. They sit side by side in the middle of the table. Mobility has become an issue in the last few years. Each worries about the other, but now isn’t the time for that, nor is it for looking back as it is for everyone else. This is for seeing all the important faces under one roof. He dabs the shmutz around her mouth with his napkin as she tells stories about ‘back before everyone had phones’. Everyone already knows them.
As much as the doctor tries to hid it, his body language is off-putting. There’s a difference between knowing something logically and knowing something in your soul. It doesn’t look good. In a moment, the upper bound of forever shifts from being logical to being real for the first time in 61 years. They sit together with different fears.
She finished chemo. A celebration of cancer free feels good, but that battle took its tole. A hairless frailty has emerged, but along with it, a new fire for life. They recently learned that not only do DVDs not need to be sent back to Netflix, but they’ve been on the TV the entire time. It is illegal for only one of them to answer the phone if a grandchild is on the other line. The kids visit more often and hired a nurse to help out. For some reason, “better care” comes with an expectation to leave the house you’ve lived in your entire life.
He comes home from a doctor’s appointment and finds her on the ground. She’s unconscious. They call an ambulance and get her to the hospital – suspected stroke. At the hospital, they tell him that nothing can be done about the stroke until they get the heart rate up. They’re going to have to install a pace maker, do XYZ test, do this and that. It doesn’t matter, yes. The last one felt serious, like they dodged a bullet. This one… this one is bad.
What your pencil twirling distracted you from in Econ class that day in 1957 was the start of a connection. For them, it was one date. But with hindsight, it’s an unbelievable maze of cause and effect. It’s a connection that started in a moment where two strangers dared to demand more from life. It’s a connection that spans and spawned, through good and bad, thick and thin.
Pay attention. Keep your eyes open. Take the leap. Because someday, hopefully not soon, someone is going to be in a hospital bed. And the question then isn’t what to do about it; that’s for other people. The only question you will need to answer is simple: is this intense pain of disconnection worth the connection ever existing? If you do it right, the answer will be, “Unequivocally, yes.”
Thanks for taking a sip,
If you pray, do me a favor and send some my family’s way. It isn’t the end of their story, but this definitely seems like a close call.