(Photos: Courtesy of Lauren Young; Photo Collage: Helen Jane Hearn/TueNight.com)
There are reunions you look forward to in life. For these gatherings, you plan to lose a few pounds ahead of time, book hotel rooms and rekindle memories by looking though old photo albums and yearbooks.
And then there are the impromptu reunions. They are the unplanned, emotional and raw.
I keep an altar of sorts on my nightstand. It’s a place to reunite the spirits I love. The ones who were taken from us too soon.
I met my friend Chris Vicente in a Nazism and Fascism class in college during our junior year at Penn State. He had just returned from a semester in Rome, and I was immediately drawn to his Euro style: the horn-rimmed glasses, the bouffy, big 80s hair and a fabulous fashion sense. We didn’t know each other, but figured we should. And that’s how the friendship started. Turns out we shared a birthday (July 8), a passion for life, dancing and a love of men, although I didn’t officially discover that Chris liked boys until much later on.
After college, Chris ended up in New York City, which is a logical destination for a sophisticated (soon-to-be-out) man dying to bust out of Central Pennsylvania. Chris’s career skyrocketed — he parlayed his love of music and pop culture to a senior job at VH1, where he produced the first VH1 Fashion and Music Awards. He ran with a fast crowd, did too many drugs and didn’t wear enough (any?) condoms. It was dangerous business for someone who suffered from bipolar disorder.
I was the one who helped check Chris into rehab for the first time. His devoted and very bewildered parents brought me a box of chocolates to thank for my babysitting services. It wasn’t the last time Chris went away, and it took many painful years for him to get himself back on track and off recreational drugs. And, yet, it was the AIDS meds that pushed Chris over the edge, dulling his ability to enjoy life. He sought alternative treatments, going off all medication under the care of a “holistic” doctor. Without those important antiviral drugs, Chris contracted a terrible brain infection. His body had nothing left as ammunition.
He died sober in California.
I never said goodbye to Chris. I think the last time I spoke to him was a few months before he died, and if memory serves, it was a breathless, quick conversation about his dog Charlie and the California weather. I could be remembering it all wrong, though.
When Chris was on his deathbed in Los Angeles, his mother told me not to come to say goodbye because she didn’t want me to remember him as a sick person. It was a decision I will regret it for the rest of my life.
Maybe I’ve watched too many sappy movies, but there is something innate in me (and I think in many of us) about the need to say farewell, hold hands, give a final kiss.
Chris’s funeral was held 20 years after we graduated from college. “Leave it to Chris to plan the reunion for us,” we joked.
A tiny photo of the two of us, circa senior year of college, lives on my nightstand in a frame I picked up in Venice. I have a ridiculous amount of hair, and everyone who sees it thinks Chris looks like Al Franken.
I am not particularly religious, nor do I believe in angels, but I like to think that Chris is watching over me at night.
Barry Fox fell into my life as the significant other of another college pal. Barry went to rival school Temple, but he became an honorary Penn Stater. We lived in different states when we met, so I didn’t know Barry well, but he was one of those people who made a major impact.
Life was always better in his presence— lots of laughter, smart conversation and a breezy vibe.
There was a mini-reunion of college friends in Washington about six years ago. Barry and I spend the whole weekend giggling and cracking jokes. During our jaunt around the city, I found a tiny plastic Tinker Bell toy, and I made Barry pose with her wherever we went.
Less than a year later, a 40-something Barry collapsed and died during a long bike ride in Central Pennsylvania. I got the shocking news as I was filling up my car with gas at a New Jersey rest stop.
Tinker Bell also lives on my nightstand. She spreads Barry’s fairy dust as I sleep.
I found Maria Rabb at a party while living in Budapest in the early 1990s, when hordes of young Americans poured into that magical city. Maria was an environmental activist, and I needed a translator to help write an article about plans for an international park along the Danube delta.
We became roommates and traveled around Eastern Europe together, visiting cities throughout Hungary, Poland, Austria and what was formerly known as Czechoslovakia.
Maria, her husband Tivadar and two of her kids attended my first wedding at a Pennsylvania summer camp. As a wedding present, Maria gave us a gorgeous woven Hungarian basket, which I dutifully carried to the farmer’s market when I lived near New York City’s Union Square. Maria also gave us a bottle of Hungarian wine which is still chilling on the door of my refrigerator.
The last time I saw Maria we met for vegan food in New York City. She was well into her cancer treatment and committed to eating healthy. She eked some five years out of her terminal diagnosis of inflammatory breast cancer.
Maria and her family lived in Ithaca, New York. Three weeks before she died May, I spoke to her husband, who indicated that things were pretty bad. And once again, I’m angry at myself for not making the trip to say goodbye. Why didn’t I just take a few days off from work, get in my car and haul myself upstate?
I find solace in Maria’s goodbye message, which was emailed around to family and friends upon her death.
I didn’t nearly get my “snow fix” this year, but I feel fortunate that I have been able to enjoy the warmer temperatures and spring light. Spring reminds me that life is juicy and resilient, but also fragile. It has been wonderful for me to have my family around so much these past few weeks, although it has been difficult and sometimes tearful.
Don’t wait until the conditions are perfect, but rather try to make space in your life for things and experiences that really matter to you. Appreciate your health and all the other blessings that we often take for granted.
Wishing everyone a long (but not overlong) stay.
With love and gratitude,
P.S. In our family when a loved one has passed away, or we are remembering their birth or death date, we often light a candle and put it in the window. You may prefer to eat some ice cream, listen to some music, or do nothing at all.
Since Maria has died, I have reconnected with colleagues from my job in Hungary, Maria’s ex-boyfriend (and our other roommate) Zoli along with her mother. I am now Facebook friends with her daughter.
I have used her death as an opportunity to enjoy as much ice cream as humanly possible. And, although Maria was not Jewish, I lit a yahrzeit candle on the day of her funeral, which was small and private. This summer there will be large gathering in Maria’s honor. I plan attend.
I have not decided which memento or photo of Maria I will place on my nightstand yet. But I will leave something there.
I have vowed to make space in my life for more goodbyes. I know that they will be numerous. And they will not be perfect, but they matter.