To Everything There is a Season
When I was in college, back in the late 1960s, there was a popular song, Those Were the Days, My Friend. The lyrics were set to a jaunty tune, albeit with a wistful undertone. To my ears, it sounded vaguely like something Edith Piaf should have sung in a bistro.
I was young when it came out, in the first excitement of being away at school, finding new friends, learning new things, experiencing the freedom of making my own decisions. It was a heady time.
We were in the midst of the Vietnam-era tumult, were busy hating politicians and the military-industrial complex, were motivated to save the world and were oh, so sure we had the answers. But how strangely prophetic was that lively song, with its incongruently melancholy lyrics:
Once upon a time there was a tavern
Where we used to raise a glass or two
Remember how we laughed away the hours
Thinking of all the great things we would do?
…Those were the days, my friend
We thought they'd never end
We'd sing and dance forever and a day
We'd live the life we choose
We'd fight and never lose …
Those were the days, my friend,
Oh yes, those were the days”
Much has happened in the decades since my friends and I gathered after classes at a local restaurant to drink wine or beer and solve the problems of the universe. Careers were started and, in some cases, abandoned; we married, we divorced; we raised our kids and educated them as best we could. Sometimes we won, sometimes we lost and sometimes those friendships lasted through the decades.
Last week I had occasion to see my oldest surviving friend from my college years. It was exactly 55 years and 10 days since I first met him during one of those after-school “salons.” (I can remember because Martin Luther King was killed that day). I was immediately struck by his urbanity, his quiet humor and his intelligence. I have always said that, if I had not already been in love with my future husband, I would have set my cap for him.
Instead we became the best of friends. We traveled in a crowd and Leo, who was a decade older and had already attended two other colleges and served in the Army, was a natural magnet. His was the apartment where the best parties were held and where the best conversations occurred. He was at my wedding; I was at his. Virtually every month we would travel to Boston or they would visit us. We had children in the same year and divorced within 12 months of each other.
During the long years of our mutual divorces, we continued to spend weekends together once a month, discussing far into the night politics (his first master’s degree was in political science), our affairs, our children’s progress and the books we were reading. By this point we were much too important to each other to risk shifting the dynamics our relationship.
Then things began to change. I remarried my husband; he found a new partner who became the love of his life. We saw each other less frequently as he plunged into helping to raise his new wife’s sons and I became involved in rearing my husband’s second son and then his grandchildren. Sometimes a year would go by and I would only see Leo at Christmas. It was a loss, but I always knew he was there.
But now he is not. The man I met last week looked like Leo. He still slouched, he still had that dry little laugh, his hair was as thick and unruly as when he was 30—but his eyes were flat. He struggled to find words and couldn’t remember the last time we talked. He knew what he wanted to say but also knew that the sentences would disintegrate even as he tried to utter them. I know he knew my husband and me and knew that we had been important in his life but I doubt he could have summoned our names.
I could see flashes of his old intelligence. Discussing a recent family crisis with his wife, you could see him come alive as the topic stimulated in a vestigial memory of his training as a psychologist (his second master’s). The instinct flashed, his body straightened and it was gone as quickly as it came.
Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease. I can still see my friend, I still can talk to him, we can still go out for dinner as a group and I bless his wife for taking such good care of him. But I always walk away feeling empty.
Again, the song proved prophetic:
Through the door, there came familiar laughter
I saw your face and heard you call my name
Oh, my friend, we're older but no wiser
But in our hearts, the dreams are still the same
Indeed, those were the days, my friend, and we truly thought they would never end. Sadly, the problems of the universe will not be solved by us.