Only Connect – Howling and Mortality

A long read but somethings I needed to get out.  I read “Howard’s End” my senior year of high school.  “Only connect” was embedded.  Truth be told, it makes more and more sense, the older I get.

Lately, there seems to be a lot of death.  A friend has suggested that it’s our age.  I don’t think that I am that old.  In fact, an “ex-sister-in-law” said at the funeral of one of my exes, that anyone nowadays who dies under the age of 80 is young.

Having this condition makes one focus more on mortality. It becomes even closer.  One of the first things I was told was, ‘you don’t die from it.” Ha, but the complications can kill you. Oh, well.  You become aware of the fleeting nature of time and its quality. And is it the principle of reflection and all around you people start to die?

I guess I could be considered rather stoic.  I barely cried when my parents died.  I gave both their eulogies with dry eyes and an unwavering voice.  I wept when my friends Chris and Scott died.  They were much too young.  They were supposed to outlive me.

I have had three “significant others” die.  My parents didn’t believe in euphemisms.  Dead was dead.  The first was just before we were thirty.  It was AIDS.  I was stunned and furious.  The second was a year or so later, cancer.  Again, stunned.  The last was three years ago, heart attack.  Again, stunned.  I mourned each one of them in my way.  Since they were “ex”, regrets, “Bell Bottom Blues”.

The last few weeks have been filled with death.  The elder brothers of two women I grew up with died.  They were older than me so I didn’t know them but felt the pain of lives ended early. Then a few Sundays ago, I read on the ever important Facebook  that Matt F had died. He is frozen in my mind like this picture. Susan Sontup and Matt Ferber 70's Reunion 2001 Pictures are deceptive.  We were never friends.  He was younger than me.  This was taken at a Classes of the 70’s reunion at the end of the evening.  He was not my date but we had gotten to talking in that buzzy , blurry alcohol way.  He insisted on the picture.  We all ended up at an after party at some bar.  He grew on me.  I decided he was my story.  He wasn’t.  However, he was so vital and so much fun.  I was just stunned to find out he was gone, way, way too young. I reeled  I understand the turnout for the wake was huge. The time between the picture and death was negligible.  At a dinner the night before the reunion, Joey K looked around and said, “We are in the last third of our life now.  We need to make it worthwhile.”  Huh?  Speak for yourself.  I was so not there.  Now I get it.  I am staring down the barrel of my mortality.

Next death.  This one occurred earlier and reaches farther back.  I didn’t find out till months after, just in the last month.  I knew Judy as a child.  We were in day camp together.  She was a very pretty, sweet child with pale blond hair and huge, dark blue eyes. As we aged, I was in the advanced class and she wasn’t.  Somehow, we stayed friends.  I can remember cutting high school with her and taking the bus to the mall.  It was there she told me about the truant officer.  I had always cut school.  It bored me and I was bullied but I had always just gone home.  Those days set the pattern for the rest of my life.  If I didn’t like something, someone I walked it out and away.  It frustrates me that I can no longer do that.  Judy had a job after school in a grocery store.  She tried to get me in.  No one ever wanted to hire me.  I was a hard sell, even then.  I am very much my own person in terms of style and opinion.  Senior prom approached.  In the way that teenagers just know things, I realized my first week of high school that senior prom was not going to happen for me.  Judy met Joe at the grocery store.  He was older than us and already out of school. They suggested I go to prom with them.  It’s not like today where you can go stag or with a group of friends.  My parents and uncle volunteered to fly my cousin up to accompany me.  I voted no.  Shortly thereafter, scandal swept the school as Judy married Joe before graduation. Again, in those days you could not be married and be in school.  It was only two weeks prior to graduation so the assumption was that she was pregnant.  In later years, when it came up, I would always remark, “That’s why the baby was born more than two years later.”  Judy and Joe came by my parents in early summer.  My mother remarked, “How nice of Judy to bring her handicapped brother.”  They were simple souls.  Joe died this January after 46 years of marriage.  I cannot even begin to imagine that void.

Only connect.  Judy and Joe could not have another child.  They tried to adopt but were told they could not.  The story goes that they were denied because of their limited capacity.  My best friend’s mother knew Judy as she grew up behind my friend’s home.  She was angry as she said that Judy and Joe had so much love to give and why deny a child love?  S and I were firm friends from 9th grade.  It started as one of those intense teenage girl friendships. The Thursday after Matt died, I received a text from S that her sister, J was dying and not expected to live. I sat at the dining room table and sobbed and  howled.  S had older sisters.  J was 9 years older than us  and was in the Airforce. She was stationed in Orlando where Disney World had just opened up.  J took a part time job there which entitled  her to reduced admission.  She invited S and then me to join her for spring break!  In Florida! With Disney World! In retrospect, this was insanity.  It became one of the seminal trips of my life.  There were many life  lessons learned. We were very excited and as our mothers had to remind us, Florida was still part of the United States so we did not have to pack every single thing we owned.   Somehow, our flight changed from direct to a changeover in Atlanta.  The travel agent thought it was a good idea.  Really?  Neophyte  girl travelers switching planes.  We did fly first class. I had not flown since I was a baby.  S had never flown.  We were told to make sure our luggage transferred.  Indeed, we saw the blue (hers) and the red(mine) being wheeled across the airport.  We were two shy, sheltered girls.  We found the airline for the connection at the far end of the terminal.  It was a trailer which set off a fit of giggles. More giggles when a boy our age asked, “Dad, should we call the flight now?”  It was a puddle jumper.  S had an ear infection but had been  cleared to fly jets, not puddle jumpers.  First life lesson learned – if something can be timed, it can be endured.  I have used this one so many times.  Surprisingly enough, not for MRIs which I tend to sleep through but I do advise it.  On the flip side, this disease/condition cannot be measured so…

Despite seeing our two bags toddle off, they did not arrive with us.  This created a problem as J and I were larger than S.  Remember teenage girls?  This appeared to be catastrophic.  Second lesson learned – always have one change of clothes and a nighty in your carry on luggage,  Again, a lesson that has served me well over time.  Eventually, I was able to do business trips that way.  I did an overnight to Chicago once with  just a briefcase.

Our vacation was Easter week and the next day was Good Friday.  J had one more day of work. Because S had nothing to wear we did not walk outside.  The air was warm and scented with oranges.  We wanted to tan and walk. Teenage girls have to have “the” outfit.  We stayed in awaiting the luggage.  We did have a look round to see if there was any way we could cannibalize J’s clothing.  No luck.  But what we did find was her boyfriend’s underwear.  It is important to note that this was 1972 and living with was not a norm, especially for an intensely Catholic family. Lesson learned :  Everyone has private lives that no matter how close you think are, are theirs.

Unfortunately, that was not the end of our lessons for the day.  I was already beginning to believe this one though being a teenage girl clouded it a bit.  Lesson learned:  Everything happens for a reason.  In later years, my mother said that this was one of two phrases that would be engraved on my tombstone.  On that Good Friday, an horrific plane crash occurred, yards from J’s house.  (Good Friday B52 Crash ).  We would have been outside had our clothing arrived.  J saw the plane appear to crash on her house, with her baby sister and friend inside.  Many, many tears.  Until well into my twenties, I shook any time a plane flew low.  Because of that, I cannot even begin to imagine the trauma suffered by the 9/11 downtown survivors. However, as I write this today, the Blue Angels are in town for an airshow and every time they fly over the house I tense, nearly 50 years later.  Cars kept us awake all night long, driving and gawking by the crash site.  Lesson :  People feed on others sorrow.In retrospect, J was incredible.  Despite the death of her friends, she gave us the best time.  Last lesson for that trip:  A good haircut changes everything.  J took us for our first adult haircuts – ducklings to swans.  I used to reflect on how brave she was but as she was passing from this earth, I had to acknowledge the profound effect she has had and will continue to have on my life.

As I have been reflecting and writing this, someone else from my childhood has died.  It appears I am living in an epidemic of death.  A was younger than I. We belonged to the same arty, hippie circles.  There is a picture in the yearbook of Students for Peace.  We are both in it.  People look at the picture and frequently mistake her for me.  It’s a bit eerie, especially now. Once again, I howled and sobbed.

Only connect.  Again, the ever present Facebook.  Synchronicity.  Someone posted about the ’50’s classes in my high school.  A fellow replied that his father taught English then and later.  Right, the teacher who taught “Howard’s End”.  Only connect.

Uncommon Women and Others and Being Amazing

The first time I saw Uncommon Women and Others, I was completely electrified.  I saw it on PBS, shortly after I graduated college and just a few years after it had been written.  I watched it upstairs at my parents in what we called the office on their black and white TV.  We were always behind the times that way. It shocks me now to see old programs in color when  I have vivid recollections of them in black and white.  Uncommon Women resonated with me for several reasons.  Even though it was set at a Seven Sisters school and I went to a sub Ivy, I recognized that type of young woman.  There were lots at Goucher and some even at Hopkins where I attended.  In the play, the women are looking back at their lives from the vantage point of 30.  They had promised when they were 30, they were going to be amazing.  I was still in my 20’s and living with my parents.  I needed to believe that thirty could and would be amazing.

Watch this play and you will see early performances by Meryl Streep, Jill Eikenberry and Swoosie Kurtz.  Amazing.  It also confirmed my longing for strong, female friendships.  I had gone to what was essentially an all boys school.  I had rebelled against my mother who saw me at Vassar or Radcliffe.  I did want Bennington but she vetoed that because – shock- a women’s college with a woman president!  In many ways, she was a product of her era.

I did develop those strong female friendships along the way.  I am still in contact with my college roommate over 40 years later.  I have reconnected with some of the girls of my youth.  I have other women I have picked up along the way that have given me an incredible safety net, strength, support and love.  But sitting watching that black and white TV, I knew none of that.

I remember thinking as I watched that I wish there was a way to keep this, like a book, so I could take it out and look at it whenever I wanted.  A few years passed.  It came back on PBS.  By then, I was over 30 with a color television of my own and a VCR to record it.  The world was moving.  I wasn’t amazing but I was doing alright.  I was making crap money; had a glamorous job; and was not working up to my potential.  I was, however, known as a person with friends.  I had a therapist at that time who told me I defined myself as a friend.  I did not think it was a bad thing.

 

I, like the women in the play, began to believe at 40, I would be amazing.  Forty came and went and I was so not amazing.  I no longer had the glamorous job and was back with my parents.  Volunteering saved me.  I was lucky to have a volunteer position that involved raising money to support and advance women’s rights.  New York, my state, was never ever going to be able to compete against California.  There is just too much money there.  However, Uncommon Women and Others continued to resonate with me.  I used it in my stump speech all the time.  I believed that as a state, we could raise our fundraising and be amazing.  We, as women, could and would be amazing. Was this uncommon?

 

Time advanced.  I was ecstatic to discover Uncommon Women and Others on DVD.  I bought a handful and gave them to my important women friends one Christmas.  Technology was amazing.

 

Wendy Wasserstein wrote other, wonderful powerful plays about women.  I have been blessed to be able to see them.  These plays grew along with me. Women of a certain age will relate to The Heidi Chronicles. She became an iconic voice for women. Wendy Wasserstein was truly amazing and she died.

I passed 50 and was still waiting to be amazing, then 60.  I still aspire to be amazing.  As the years have passed, my concept of amazing has changed.  In my 20’s, I wanted the job, the car, the man, the friends.  It didn’t change much for my 30’s.  I did have all of that but somehow it wasn’t amazing enough.  My 40’s found me rebuilding – a broken marriage,  broken relationships, a different career, better friends and moments to be amazing.  I am very proud of the work I did for that organization and hoped I have helped other women find their “amazing”. 50’s – almost there.  I had created a sort of life that became blown up by disease.  I fought and continue to fight.  60? Still standing and literally that is remarkable and amazing.  I was filled with more fortitude than I thought possible.

 

Amazing changes through time and space.  Can I say now when I reach 70, I am going to be amazing?  Seventy sounds like a foreign country, unexplored and unimagined but closer.  I thought when I graduated college that I would go for my PhD in my 60’s.  Well, that ship sailed.  I still have the curiosity and the interest.  However, time and money have become finite.  I consider myself amazing sometimes because I have been able to find and hold uncommon women and “others” in my life.  I never could have imagined that or its importance when I first experienced the play. Sometimes, when I consider what life has thrown at me, I may be amazing.  I still keep on trying.  I try to walk.  I miss the feeling of speed and air when I am walking.  Sometimes, I miss working yet still I tick on. What makes us uncommon women and what makes us amazing?  I consider my uncommon women friends amazing.  Each in her own way is unique yet the same.  They are intelligent, curious, courageous, inspiring.  They lead.  They share.  They never stop changing.  They are principled.  They have style and substance whether they acknowledge it or not. I have fulfilled one of my wishes from when I first saw “Uncommon Women and Others”, I have those close female friends for decades, uncommon women each and everyone of them, and that is AMAZING!