What fifty-five years can do to/for a person

A reunion can feel a lot like drowning. Supposedly, a drowning victim’s life flashes before them on the third, fatal time down. My life, or at least the past fifty-five years of it, was flashing before my eyes as I prepared to reunite with someone I’d not seen for that many years.

A junior/senior high school classmate emailed out of the blue a few months back. I’ve not attended high school reunions of late. I stayed in touch with only a handful of classmates, and she wasn’t among them. We hadn’t been close friends, but shared a few classes and played in the band. I didn’t consider myself on her level of the social strata that were implicitly delineated in that large, urban school. I saw her as popular, well-grounded, confident, coming from an affluent family, perfectly dressed and coiffed. Me? Less so. She was the classmate I most wanted to be like and be liked by. I’m sure she’d be surprised—or maybe even amused— to know that, then and now.

I responded to her email, and we ultimately made a date to have lunch on my next trip to Tacoma. That’s when I began mulling the past fifty-five years and wondering how I’d ever describe them to her. How to avoid a boring monologue of “and then I . . . and then I . . . and then I”? Besides, what I most wanted was to hear about her life. It would be, I guessed, a story of success after success. And it was.

Her story started exactly as I expected. As she described it, after college and sorority life she had her china and silver as planned, her three children as planned, her husband with secure, professional career—as planned. Then it all blew up. I won’t provide details because it’s her story, not mine. She didn’t tell it in the sequence I laid out, but started with the hard stuff, as if to lay her cards on the table. As if to say, “There’ll be no secrets; nothing will be held back.”

It turns out she and I have walked a parallel path these fifty-five years, living lives that pulled us every which way other than the direction we’d planned. That included our lunch: the restaurant where we’d agreed to meet was closed. We found another, really nicer, restaurant on Tacoma’s waterfront—a metaphor for what happens when plans don’t work out. We lingered for hours over lunch, telling not so much the details of our lives’ events. It was more about lessons learned, wisdom acquired. It was a sharing free of hubris, filled with the joy of discovery. We both had learned that when life interrupts your plans, take it as a gift and run with it. That’s success.

Given our mutual age of seventy-three, we can’t afford to wait another fifty-five years for our next reunion. I hope we won’t. She is a woman I want to be like, and be liked by.

Just Ducky

fullsizeoutput_1d1aThe river in front of my house is now a duck pond. Various sections of the river are frozen bank- to-bank, but here free water flows and water fowl float. It’s a busy sight/site with ducks and geese paddling upstream, cruising back down, taking off into the air with the frequency of planes at O’Hare, and landing again in small squadrons. The mallards come in for their landing with wings bowed, braking their speed just as they hit the water. Canada geese are less elegant, splashing onto the river’s runway in noisy, squawking turmoil.

My favorites at this time of year are the bufflehead (who I may be confusing with golden eye, or maybe we have both). Their radiant white caps make me think of novice nuns. They dip smoothly below the water’s surface, later to bob up again—never in the same place. My eyes scan the river, trying to predetermine where they’ll suddenly surface. I almost never win this game of bufflehead bluff.

At times some ducks leave the water to cluster on the edge of snow-covered ice—not exactly dry land. I have to wonder if they’re warmer, leaving the icy water and hunkering down in the wind-chilled air. I’ll bet they’re warmer in the water. What we don’t see is those webbed feet paddling hard like a cross-country skier following an uphill trail, warmed by the effort.

Occasionally—and suddenly—the pond empties of water fowl. Only small chunks of ice float desolately along the current, destined to join the glacial islands downriver. That’s when I know to look up and search for a bald eagle. Or perhaps some other raptor, an osprey for instance, is temporarily scattering the flocks. In only a few minutes, the ducks will return to resume their routine, up and down, forth and back. They organize themselves like an Esther Williams water ballet, sometimes in straight lines (although those are most often the geese, who have a penchant for the military), other times in complex choreography that unfolds like time lapse photos of flowers blooming.

There is other winter wildlife along the river bank—the hardy birds, of course, and an occasional river otter. The plucky quail scoot in nervous groups, puffed up to twice their miniscule weight to insulate themselves against the cold. I could see more if I would take time away from my ceaseless chores and distractions. Is that a resolve for the new year? Seems like a good one.