58. Go On Till You Come To The End
The Year Of Paying Attention
I confuse statistics with real life. I figure it’s a safe bet I’ll die in my mid-eighties, around the same age as my parents did. I imagine I’m all set for the rest of this trip. This is purely wishful thinking. And I’m pondering marriage, or as it’s referred to, remarriage. I’ve avoided thinking about this for the past few years, choosing instead to indulge in the opposite of wishful thinking, fearful obsessing. I do all sorts of thinking, like my planning and imagining around a month in New Orleans. Delusional thinking. One reward of paying attention is recognizing my chronically wrong thinking with less of a delay. So I suppose I understand myself better, but only in retrospect. I think when I’m in doubt or confused, I’m less likely to make mistakes. It’s when I’m sure of what I’m doing that I fall off the cliff.
I received a sweet email from my high school girlfriend, recounting her trials helping a husband who’s struggling with Parkinson’s, and a son coping with epilepsy. I imagine her still as the kind, quiet girl she was forty years ago. She asked after my best boyhood friend Ben, part of our prep school circle of friends from the 70’s, and asked me to send him her regards. I wrote back to explain that our long friendship had changed, and as I wrote I felt differently, less resentful, less blameful, less interested in who’s responsible for the friendship’s decline.
I sent her my reply, and read a message from my friend JC in the nursing home where he lives, that included good news: his application for Medicaid, previously rejected, has been accepted, so he feels more secure. He sent a picture of himself taken a year ago, sporting a scarf he got last Christmas. He’s been through a catastrophic year, and his note sounds happy. He was looking for contact info for our mutual friend Carolyn, who listened to Mr. Apology’s messages that summer, so JC could send her a birthday message. When I was little, the idea of your birthday falling on Christmas Eve seemed a cruel trick of fate — reducing the two annual occasions for presents down to a measly one? But now it’s a little gift, as Christmas looms, to remember that it’s almost Carolyn’s birthday, one of the few I never forget.
Will I ask Sarah to marry me? At least I’m not a twenty-something trying to make my own or somebody else’s dream come true, thank god.
“Hi, Dad! Are you home? Did you see all my texts?” It was Ellen on the phone, and, no, I hadn’t. Sarah and I had driven from Maryland a few hours earlier, figuring on a quiet Christmas night before Sarah left for the other side of the world. Ellen said she was calling from a cab on her way to our building for the annual Christmas party at my former best friend Ben’s, a gathering I attended for twenty-five consecutive Christmas nights, until my divorce. My daughter said Marie, Ben’s wife, “wanted me to see if you would come over for the Viennese Table–” — the ritualistic over-the-top array of desserts, around which everyone commits the mortal sin of gluttony; that we are not all obese diabetics is a Christmas miracle — “so, can you?”
I was taken aback — wasn’t such an invitation no longer possible? It felt too far to go emotionally with no preparation. I told Ellen that she and Jonah should instead come for a cup of tea before they went to the party. I hung up in a bit of a daze, and told Sarah I’d suddenly been re-invited to Marie’s soirée. “Maybe I should call to say we’ll both be over,” I suggested archly, presuming the invite was for me only. Then I looked at Ellen’s texts, which explained her mother was worn out after serving her own dinner and wasn’t coming this year. Sarah was welcome. I felt my face redden. Marie had invited us both. I was ashamed by my judgy resentment. I put on the kettle, and tea was ready with Ellen and Jonah arrived.
We caught up for half an hour. For the first time Jonah saw the apartment where Ellen grew up. It was only the second time Ellen had been back since the divorce, maybe the third. When they departed to eat a few pounds of cake, pie, ice cream and the rest, I sat back, a little dazed. I didn’t expect to see Ellen on Christmas, or Jonah, and had shrugged off my sadness. Now on Christmas night I’d seen them both. Unthinkable, Sarah and I had been invited to the Marie and Ben’s.
My phone buzzed, a text from Lizzie, to me and her mother and her sister, with a picture of shopping bags from an excursion she took with her boyfriend in snowy New Hampshire. She wrote, “Wouldn’t be a trip to New England without a trip to a shoe outlet and Marshall’s!” Until she died thirteen years ago, my mother never missed an opportunity to go bargain-hunting with the daughters. “A tradition handed down from generation to generation,” I texted back. “Yes!” added her mother. “Love it!” chimed in her sister.
Yes. Love it.
Pencils down. It’s ending, this year of trying to pay attention, and write some of it down as best I can, observe my mind and admit to my feelings. I saw one of my oldest friends, an accomplished filmmaker, in a 12-step meeting this morning, and we had oatmeal afterward, and made plans to continue our 40-year conversation. Another friend was there, an artist whose work I’ve seen in museums and galleries, who confided he’d been slugging it out with depression for six months. He’s done this before, he said. He wasn’t enjoying it, but he knew what to do, and what not to do, and he was just showing up for the struggle.
After the meeting and the breakfast I got my eyeglasses adjusted and made my way home, made a pot of tea, and opening a book, saw a reference to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, advice to The White Rabbit:
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”