Biff America column: A reminder that life is a limited engagement
It was a text message, sent at 2 a.m. from a drunken guy; many of the words contained no vowels. Were I not dyslexic myself, I probably could not have understood the message. It took me several attempts to interpret the word “dgcth” as “death.”
All of my local friends are aware of my sleep habits, so I deduced that the misspelled message had to be sent from some East Coast miscreant who was out late (4 a.m. Boston time).
Any time you receive a message that late in the night it’s either bad news or substance induced. Normally, I am of the mind that bad news can wait until morning. But curiosity got the better of common sense, so I read the message. I never got back to sleep.
The news concerned Abbie Ullian, my first female friend. She was one of three sisters, Jewish, raised in a mostly Roman Catholic community. Her family was a rarity in my mostly blue-collar place of birth. Her parents were somewhat bohemian; her dad was a jazz musician, and her mother looked more like a graduate student than a parent.
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All the Ullian girls had a sense of maturity and worldliness that I found appealing. They lived a few houses down the street and I would sometimes walk Abbie home from grammar school. When it was generally acknowledged in my circle of friends that girls had cooties, I would often sneak away from my friends and hang out at Abbie’s house. Her mother used to feed me milk and rugelach, and I loved to play with her dad’s metronome.
As we got older, we also shared secrets. I dated a few of her friends and she dated some of mine. She was a year younger, and I felt protective toward her. I tried to steer her away from boys (later men) who I felt were not good enough for her, and she used to refer to me as her “mensch older brother.”
We stayed in touch over the years with occasional emails and cards. Abbie died just before Thanksgiving from a very short illness. I had no idea she was sick.
I’ve reached a point in my life where my peers are beginning to perish from natural causes. Certainly I grieve them, but with that grief is also a reminder that life is a limited engagement. With every friend’s passing, I pray it was quick and painless, and I hope the same for myself.
But I also hope that along with the stress, worry and self-doubt that is part and parcel of every life there were lots of loving and magical moments that brought them comfort, both at the time and upon reflection.
What Moments Matter?
The night after I heard of my friend’s death, I had dinner with a great man — a man in his 90s. This guy had done amazing things and had accomplished much. I found myself wondering what he recalled during his times of reflection. Did he think about his accomplishments, the great things he had done, the challenges he had overcome? Or, during those quiet times, did he take comfort from events less dramatic, more everyday and mundane?
I wondered, if I’m lucky enough to live eight decades or more what will bring me solace, which of life’s moments will I hark back to? Will it be mountains climbed, desert sunsets, wild parties and suspect behavior? Or will it be those routine moments of having coffee, reading the news while sitting silently next to someone you hope to grow old with? Will it be scoring a touchdown, dispatching a neighborhood bully or walking off the playground and holding hands with someone as young and innocent as yourself?
I know, for me, what I reflect on probably won’t be anything work or job related for that was simply a means to an end. Nor do I think there will be any reminiscing of physical or professional accomplishments. All of those things have been done by many with greater success and ease. What I expect will bring me satisfaction are the memories of day-to-day human connections and private moments of gratitude.
The holiday season is upon us. Along with the stress, consumption and gluttony, the season celebrates compassion, fellowship and appreciation. If you master appreciation, then the rest comes fairly easily.
“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough,” as Meister Eckhart said.
I hope that during her final weeks Abbie was able to gain some comfort from remembrances of her happy life, her family’s love and a husband who adored her. Though her accomplishments were vast and varied, I hope she also recalled those quiet times. Those times, splendid in their ordinariness, requiring only the presence of mind to appreciate. I’m sure she had a lifetime of day-to-day magical moments. I hope she recalled a spring afternoon, 50 years past, riding downhill on the handlebars of a young boy’s bicycle, laughing, screaming, while he ignored her pleas to slow down.
I agree with John Lennon when he said, “The more I see the less I know for sure.” So that said, I can only hope.
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be seen on TV-8-Summit and read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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