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Rip Van Winkle: The Downside

Rip Van Winkle- public domain

Winter, 2012

I woke up one morning recently and discovered I was 48.

This shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Somehow, it did.

Hanna and I had been friends since 1974. We met when we were assigned to the same Gymnasium class during my four years in Germany. We became the very closest of friends in the summer of 1979, when she somehow convinced her parents to let her visit me in the US. Time and distance could not diminish the intensity or rewards of our friendship.

My dear friend and her husband Niko came for a five-week stay last June. Just as that first lazy summer had marked the beginning of something magical, the last summer had signaled its end. The visit went irretrievably wrong despite good intentions on all sides.

I had made a few attempts to process this with Hanna through letters, and I had gotten no response. It is true that I had expressed hurt and anger but I had also expressed remorse over mistakes I had made, along with the hope that we would, with time and perspective, work things out. In the meantime, I continued to observe birthdays and Christmas. I wanted Hanna and Niko to know that, while I couldn’t fix or even explain the summer, I loved them.

I knew Hanna was struggling. In June, we had sat at my kitchen table, desperate and holding back tears, trying to figure out why things were turning out so badly. From almost the first moment, tension had begun to build; and Niko’s paranoia had hinted, here and there, at a slow smolder. It is hard to say if one precipitated the other. Maybe no causality existed. Maybe we don’t need to know.

Normally we would have been able to discuss any and all matters but Hanna wouldn’t let my mind attach to hers the way it always had. Was I was denying her as well? This was the first time Niko had viewed me with suspicion, and Hanna seemed unsure of me. She had always bragged about his instincts.

My conversations with Hanna were becoming fewer and shorter. For the first time ever, they were becoming stilted. Niko sat in the basement apartment counting the number of minutes Hanna spent with me above, anxiously awaiting her return. If she and I spoke for too long, he began to fear she would choose me over him.

I held fast to my belief in our friendship. We were bedrock. But after several months, I felt malaise. No word from Hanna, even at Christmas. I pushed my fears away.

In January, two days after my 48th birthday, my heart leapt at the sight of the thick envelope. I knew that sorting things out between us would be an arduous task, and I surmised that Hanna’s letter contained her initial take on our summer disaster. Her silence on my birthday had been especially acute. She had never before neglected to call or write. But the hefty packet proved I had not been forgotten, and all would be well.

My knees buckled as read her letter. It was a list of grievances and hurts announcing the end of our friendship.

Happy Birthday to me.

I see a different person in the mirror these days. My skin is turning a soft, papery white; and my lips are thinning and losing their color. The flesh around the sides of my mouth is sliding downwards, forming a rubbery Fu Manchu and forcing my default face into a frown. This must be my reward for decades of smiling. Grays sprout like miniature fountains from my parted hair–noncomformists with the audacity to stand at attention no matter my efforts at calming them.

Everything has begun to sag and become pendulous: I have the beginnings of what one friend terms “mommy arms.” Even my knees—my knees, for heaven’s sake!—are starting to resemble bunched-up nylons, scooched down and slid off after a long night of dancing. I can no longer ignore the fact that the ache in my right knee keeps me up at night. And why does my left hip keep trying to slip out of its socket? This is not supposed to happen to me.

Hanna’s letter ended more than just a friendship. Our shared history kept the lines between youth and middle age comfortably blurred and conferred eternal youth. I didn’t really age; I was just Jane. I was suspended forever with her in the continuum of our relationship. If not for that letter, I might still jump out a second story window with her in the middle of the night to explore a forbidden barn. Or find myself shooting spitballs at Manni’s head to keep myself awake during Latin class. Or gossip with her about what has become of the rest of the prep school crowd. If not for that letter, I’d still be able to run a kick-ass mile. And travel the world. And become any number of things when I grow up….

I woke up one morning recently and discovered I was 48.

I am not invincible. I am growing old. I am on the downward slope of becoming, and my days are numbered. And in the meantime, my bones ache.

This is the fifth installment in The Story of Hanna. Click here for the fourth installment. Click here for the sixth.

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Christopher, Part II

Cross CountryMay 2, 2015

Dear Christopher,

You would have been 62 tomorrow.

I just spent some time looking at old photos and re-reading your obituaries. My reserve has punctured, and these words have begun to swim. Don’t worry—I will be fine. I AM fine. I don’t want to pathologize the tears I shed when I allow myself to go to that sacred place of memory and appreciation.

I don’t think about you every day or even every week or month. I haven’t for decades. I graduated, and we pursued our separate lives. Part of the distance between us was born of my shame at not having lived up to my potential despite your having offered me every opportunity and all of your skill and—I felt it—love. Part of the distance was a necessary and normal development. There were crops of new athletes to coach, and the weight of maintaining old relationships would have dragged you under. This is the human life cycle, compressed. I may live to be 100 but my athletic death had been foretold a blink after my birth. My leaves had yellowed and dropped by the time I had become a wife and mother. I had made my choice.

I was afraid that my failures had caused you to stop regarding me, stop loving me. Unable to manage that pain, I tried to forgot about you and lock that chamber of my heart to you and anybody else from that time. But kairos had other ideas: I ran into Kendra.

Remember when Kendra and I gathered some of the other “girls” and showed up at your house unannounced about 10 years ago? That day is precious to me. I cried like a baby in secret for days after, and a long-time wound began to heal. How I cringe when I recall the letters I sent in those early years of separation: needy, angry, immature tomes in which I thrashed about, trying to understand myself and striking out at you instead. I am glad that time is behind us.

I was your first female recruit. Do you recall telling me, long, long ago, that you hoped, one day, to have a daughter like me? How could I believe that? I, who had quit when my body was strong and ripe. I, who had reached outside myself to explain the origins of my hurt and fixed you in my crosshairs.

I was afraid to see you. I was afraid to be seen by you. I had aged, and my body had softened and begun to bend. Time is less kind to women. You were in your coaching prime and turning out champions. I felt ill but I knew I was going to make the trip.

And you welcomed me. You welcomed me and my awkward ways as though no time had passed. You had loved me all along! And I, you. We spoke this without words. You never were one to display affection outright. I am not sure I could have tolerated it.

We had never stopped knowing one another after all.

I read the muscles of your face and the crinkle of your blue, blue eyes. I read the warmth of your joy, and it was more than I had dared to hope. Comfortably wrapped in the happy chatter around me, I said almost nothing as we sat around your table that afternoon. But my cup overflowed. From across the table, I saw and felt all you spoke to me in the secret language of friends. Words would have gotten in the way.

What if we had not had that day–that day of communion and completion?

How can you be gone?

Rest in peace, dear Christopher.

C.H.T., III
5/3/53 –- 7/1/11.

I wish your dash had been longer.

For Christopher, Part I, click here. For Christopher, The Rest click here.

Rule #13: Dig It In & Pile It On

Photo courtesy of Roger Smith

Photo courtesy of Roger Smith

One of my daughters and I coined a term for a family rule which I learned from my father and attempted to pass down to my progeny. In recent years, transmission of this rule has been slowed and nearly halted, with the unfortunate consequence that I have been unable to properly imbue my daughters with a deep-seated belief in their own defectiveness.

You win some, you lose some.

The rule we now refer to as Dig It In dictated that if someone had made an error or in some way fallen short, you were obligated to inform her of this failure. With Olympic strength and endurance. The offender needed to fully comprehend 1. the inconvenience, 2. the irreparable damage (or at minimum, the potential for irreparable damage), 3. the mortification, 4. the danger, 5. the hurt, 6. the disappointment, and 7. the loss of face caused through her action or inaction.

Am I forgetting anything?

As you might guess, Dig It In led to a few sub rules, such as Not Me and Pile It On.

Think of Not Me as a game of dodge ball. See, my family did know how to have fun! “Who broke the lamp?!” “Not me!” Get the idea?

Once the perp had been fingered, it was time for Pile It On, which takes its name from football, another super fun game. While the accuser dug it in, any innocent bystanders, relieved to have been spared and wanting to make sure the tide didn’t suddenly turn against them, made sure the person who had been taken down stayed down.

If the person who had made the mistake came away thinking it was possible to be sorry enough–or ever fully remediate the error–the rule had obviously not been properly executed. A proper digging-in infuses the recipient with the knowledge that her very person is shameful.

This post is part of Family Rules. For the prior post in the series, click here. For the next post, click here.

Photo credit here

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