This past weekend, The Curmudgeon’s high school class held an unofficial reunion. He says “unofficial” because thanks to Facebook and one tenacious organizer, his classmates circumvented the school’s formal alumni association and put together, more or less on the fly, an informal reunion at, miracle of miracles, a place people might actually want to go to socialize and get reacquainted.
The Curmudgeon, of course, did not attend. There were 900 people in his graduating class, and when he looked at the list of those attending, he found that he had never heard of one-third of them at all and knew another one-third by name only and had never shared so much as a “hello” with them. Also, to be fair, The Curmudgeon has never attended one of his reunions because he is, after all, a curmudgeon, and curmudgeons simply do not do social things like attend class reunions.
But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t think about them. A few years ago he wrote a short story that needed to be set at a class reunion, and when he did the math to figure out how old his characters needed to be, it turned out they needed to be his own age (and we shall not get into the Freudian implications of this “coincidence,” thank you). For this reason, he decided to set his short story at his own thirty-fifth reunion, which he also did not attend. While the setting is real, everything else about the story is fictitious – unless, of course, the people in the story are among the 500 or so people in his graduating class whom The Curmudgeon either never met or didn’t know at all.
So in honor of Philadelphia’s Abraham Lincoln High School class of ’75, this one’s for you.
“Hello and Goodbye”
The letter arrived as it always did, right after Labor Day, bearing the insignia of the Abraham Lincoln High School Alumni Association and addressed to someone who had not lived in the house in more than a generation. For the first time since such letters started arriving, Phyllis Levy did not insert it into another, larger envelope and forward it, along with other correspondence and items, to wherever her daughter happened to be living at the time. Instead, she opened the envelope, read that Allison had been invited to her thirty-fifth high school class reunion, circled “yes” on the reply card, enclosed a check covering the cost of attending the event, and put the envelope in the mail. A few days later, when she confessed what she had done, Allison – much to her mother’s surprise – did not express even a mild objection.
It’s not like I have anything better to do.
Only those who knew Allison best understood that when she had pleaded to previous commitments that prevented her from attending past reunions, she had been telling the absolute truth. Those who didn’t really know her doubted it: how she could conceivably have commitments months ahead of time that could not possibly be moved to accommodate this single event that was always held the day after Thanksgiving – the biggest holiday weekend of the year? Allison knew she had long exhausted her credibility with these skeptics and resigned herself to some people believing that her absence signaled her disdain for the people, the past, or both. Those who knew her knew better, and that was all that mattered to her.
When the invitation arrived Allison was still in Florida, serving out the three months’ notice she had given of her intention to resign from her position as executive director of the Orlando International Airport. Allison returned to Philadelphia, unannounced except to her family, the Monday afternoon before Thanksgiving and had been so busy settling into her new apartment and seeing her sisters that she did not contact even a single friend or classmate. In truth, she’d had enough time to do so, but she still had not figured out how to have these conversations and hoped that if she put them off a little longer, she might be struck by divine inspiration about how to address the seemingly unaddressable.
How can you possibly talk about such things without tears?
In the meantime, she told herself that she would simply explain her presence as a long-planned surprise. This visit – at least the reunion part of it – was so unplanned, in fact, that even as Allison walked through the door of the Cottage Green banquet hall, she still had little idea of how she would handle the evening, or herself. She did, though, hold out what she thought was a reasonable hope that amid the natural tumult of an event like this, her surprise might barely be noticed at all.
“Welcome, Class of ’75,” declared the large black and gold banner strung across the restaurant’s entrance.
Hello, class of ’75. I’ve come to say goodbye.
Allison approached the reception table, where she recognized the two women checking in their arriving classmates. Both were casual acquaintances, not friends, but they all greeted one another warmly.
“You look great,” one of the women said to Allison.
You should have seen the ‘before’ pictures.
Allison put on her name tag and looked around in search of friendly faces as she stepped up to the bar and requested an iced tea. She knew she would find good company quickly: over the years she had kept in touch with nearly two dozen of her classmates, some quite regularly, at first by mail and phone and then, in recent years, by email as well. She knew who was doing what with their lives, what her friends and their families looked like, and more. She may have been a stranger to reunions, but she was not a stranger to many of her old friends.
“Ten-hut!” a familiar voice called out from behind her. Allison turned to find Jen Lindley giving her a salute that would have made a veteran proud.
“Permission to hug, colonel?” Jen asked.
“Permission granted,” Allison replied, and the women embraced. “It’s so good to see you, Jen.”
The salute was a sign of respect for Allison. Growing up, Allison knew she wanted three things in life: she wanted to go to college, to fly, and to see the world. She eventually figured out that the best way to do all three was to go into the service, so she attended college on an ROTC scholarship and then spent twenty years in the Air Force. Almost everyone had been appalled by the path she had chosen: such a life was virtually unheard of for a woman in 1975 because of both her gender and the general antipathy toward the military in the years immediately following the Vietnam debacle. But Allison knew what she wanted, and an uncle who had spent his entire career in the Navy ran interference for her with their family and with her high school guidance counselors, who had objected to helping a girl pursue what they believed to be such an ill-conceived plan. Allison spent two years at the University of South Florida and then two at Northwestern, transferring only because she thought it was time to see another part of the country. By the time she left the Air Force twenty years later she had done exactly as she had always hoped: she had flown and seen the world and done much, much more with her life.
“We weren’t expecting you,” Jen said. “You always call and plan for months before you come home.”
“Well, I thought I’d live dangerously for once and surprise everyone, and I guess I succeeded.”
“You certainly did. A bunch of us were sitting over there and Matt Blaisdell said ‘Could that be Allison Levy’ and a few of us laughed at him, but they sent me over to investigate, just in case. No wonder we weren’t sure. Look at you – so slender. Must be all that clean military living.”
“Exactly,” Allison replied, forcing a smile.
Yes, clean living and poisonous drugs that they pour directly into your veins that make you puke until you’re sure you’ve got nothing left to puke and then you puke some more.
Jen grabbed Allison’s hand.
“Come with me, everyone wants to see you.”
Jen led Allison to a table where they found many of Allison’s old friends. There was jumping and screaming and hugging, there were pictures of children – and in a few cases, grandchildren – passed around the table, there were good-natured remarks about hair lost and pounds gained, but most of all there was a great deal of warmth and love. Allison had arrived only moments after the others, and even before she finished hugging and saying hello to everyone, more people arrived and the greeting and hugging started anew.
“I think Allison just ran out of excuses,” declared Jack Miller. “Let’s review, shall we? 1980, if I recall, was officers training in Virginia, just a four-hour drive away but no day passes permitted. 1985 was…” Jack hesitated.
“The Philippines,” Allison interjected. “1990 was Turkey, 1995 Colombia, 2000 Dallas, and 2005 San Francisco. And believe me, it’s easier to get leave from an assignment in Turkey than it is to get away from an American airport Thanksgiving weekend.”
“Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard this all before,” someone said.
“Well, we’re glad you’re here,” another person called out, and just as quickly as Allison had become the center of attention, that attention shifted to an even newer arrival. After a few minutes, members of the group began wandering off in search of fresh faces. Allison did the same, circulating around the room and mixing comfortably as she encountered people she had remained in touch with over the years as well as others whom she was seeing for the first time in decades. Nobody cared that she had missed her class’s six previous reunions; all that mattered this evening was that she was there for the seventh.
“Allison Levy, it’s been years,” said a deep voice. It was Mark Goldman, Allison’s first love. She turned, saw him, smiled, and threw her arms around him. Only when they parted did she notice the tall woman standing beside him.
“Oh, I hope you don’t mind,” Allison said.
The woman smiled kindly.
“No, I’ve had twenty-six years to get used to it. My husband seems to have been quite a popular boy.” She extended her hand. “I’m Elaine.”
“I’ve heard that name before – all good things. I love your hair. Really short hair is so hard to pull off, but it really works for you. I tried but it just wasn’t me.”
You should have seen me six weeks ago. Not a single hair on my head. Stick a lollipop in my mouth and you’d have sworn I was Kojak’s sister.
“Have you been by the school?” Mark asked.
“No, but I read about it on the alumni association web site.”
“Yeah. It’s gone. They invited us to walk through the building one more time last spring, so a bunch of us went together and hung out by the ramp in the 140 hall, just like old times.”
“I’m sorry I missed it. Paula Kessler called and told me about it and I tried to get here, but I just couldn’t make it happen.”
“That’s too bad,” Mark said. “When you drive by, all that’s left is a fenced-in field of dirt. It’s like a piece of us is gone.”
Yeah, and another piece of you won’t be around much longer, either.
Allison and the Goldmans chatted for a few more minutes, parting when Allison returned to the bar for another iced tea. There, she ran into Judy Danzler, whose mother still lived on the same street as Allison’s.
“I hear you’re back in town for a while,” Judy said. “Your mother told mine.”
“Yes,” Allison replied. “I’ve been down in Orlando for the past three years, and I thought it might be nice to take off a few months before taking my next job.”
“It’s nice that you can do that.”
“That’s one of the great things about running airports: there are more airports than there are people who are qualified to run them, so there’s always someone knocking at your door.”
By now they were part of a group, and Judy took Allison by the elbow and pulled her aside.
“I heard you’re back to take care of your mother,” she said softly.
No, I’m back so my mother can take care of me.
Allison nodded but said nothing. She saw her mother’s protective fingerprints all over this surprising suggestion.
“So while you’re in town,” Judy continued, “Why don’t you take over our airport? Lord knows they can use all the help they can get.”
Allison laughed appreciatively.
Allison’s dream of being a pilot in the Air Force had been short-circuited by a combination of the then-prevailing rule that women could not fly in combat and by her own education. During flight training, a commanding officer noticed that she had a degree in civil engineering and directed her into a military career in air field development, construction, and operations. During her twenty-year career in the Air Force Allison had managed air fields in seven countries on four continents. During Operation Desert Storm she had overseen the construction of an air field in Turkey in less than thirty days. The day after the September 11, 2001 attacks, she voluntarily returned to active duty for two years and led the construction of two landing fields in Afghanistan and two then-secret fields in Pakistan. As a civilian she had run airports in Dallas, San Francisco, and Orlando, focusing each time on managing major construction and other capital improvements.
“Worst job in the profession,” Allison explained. “If it was the only job available, I’d go back into the Air Force or even go to work for an airline or a package delivery company before I’d take it.”
“Philadelphia politics. Totally unmanageable.”
“Well, who knows, maybe things’ll change for the better in the future.”
Not for me. I’m running out of future, and what little I have left isn’t going to be a whole lot of fun.
Allison continued mingling, and a few minutes later she found herself back with the original group she had encountered upon her arrival. Some new faces had joined them and the area again was alive with hugs and laughter. Among the newcomers was Allison’s oldest and dearest friend, Amy Strasser, who was struck momentarily speechless by the sight of her friend and amazed by how successfully she had kept her visit a secret. Allison and Amy chatted for a few minutes and agreed to catch up later and Allison took a seat at the table around which they were all gathered and joined the conversation. A few minutes later Amy sat across from her, and Allison got the uncomfortable feeling that her old friend was scrutinizing her closely. After a few minutes Amy gestured for Allison to join her off to the side. Allison did, and Amy took her by the arm and led her off a few more feet, away from everyone else. As she did, she opened her purse.
“Here,” Amy said, handing Allison her business card. “Come see me at my office on Monday morning at eight o’clock. I’m at Holy Redeemer. You remember where that is, don’t you?”
Allison looked at her, not comprehending.
“I think I do, yeah, but what’s up?”
“Come on, Allie, it’s me. We’re practically sisters. You can’t fool me. I’m also a doctor, and I know what I’m seeing.”
“And what do you see – or, should I ask, what do you think you see?”
“Your arm that I just grabbed, for starters. All I got was bone. You weigh nothing, your hair, your skin tone. I can even smell it through your perfume – which, by the way, is an abomination.”
Amy snatched the glass out of Allison’s hand.
“And what’s this you’re drinking?” She sipped it. “Iced tea? I’ve never known you to drink anything but water, milk, and Coke.”
“It’s been a long time. A girl’s tastes can change.”
“Of course they can. But I’m guessing your system can’t handle the carbonation these days.”
“You’re coming on pretty strong there, girl. What’ve you been drinking?”
“I’m not finished. This business about you being home to take care of your mother.”
“I never said that.”
“But she’s saying it – including to my mother. I see your mom a few times a year, at least twice at synagogue during the high holidays and just around the neighborhood once in a while. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a healthier-looking seventy-five-year-old woman in my life.”
“She mentioned that she told you I was coming home.”
“She tried to suggest that it was to take care of her. I wasn’t buying it then and I’m not buying it now. I’m practically her fourth daughter, she can’t pull that kind of thing with me.
“So what I’m seeing, what I’m smelling – please, don’t make me ask to see your gums. Is it Abraxane? Lomustine? Or maybe Taxol?”
“Yeah, ‘Oh, Allie.’ I’ve been hearing that a lot lately.”
“How many courses?”
“Two. I vetoed a third; enough is enough.”
“C’mon, Amy, it’s pancreatic cancer. It’s not impossible, but I’ll be lucky to see spring.”
I said it out loud. I was so sure I could get through the evening without uttering that word.
“Well, come to the hospital at eight on Monday morning.”
“Because you’re going to need a doctor and it’s going to be me, that’s why.”
“What’s the point? You’re not an oncologist. My doctor in Orlando gave me the names of a few people at Fox Chase.”
“I’ll need to look at your records, but it sounds to me like at this point, there’s nothing an oncologist can do for you that I can’t. I can bring in an oncologist to consult if we need one. Besides, I want to see you through this. That’s the point.”
“You don’t need to do this, Amy. I almost didn’t come home because I didn’t want to drag everyone through this with me. I’m still thinking that when it really starts going downhill, I might just slip away to a VA hospital a thousand miles away.”
“But you did come home, and you can’t do it alone. Who better than me, when you think about it?”
“Thank you. I’d like that very much. My mother kept telling me I should talk to you.”
“Your mother’s a smart woman.
“So when you get home, email me the names and numbers of your doctors and I’ll get your records and have a chance to review them before I see you at the office on Monday morning.”
Amy paused for a moment before speaking again.
“Are you afraid, Allie?”
“No, not really.”
“How’s that possible?”
“I’ve been in war zones, Amy. Iraq and Afghanistan. The DMZ in Korea. Guantanamo. That’s scary. Rocket-propelled grenades are scary. Anti-personnel mines are scary. This isn’t scary. I’m not afraid of dying. I am afraid of dying a slow, painful death, but you should know right now, before you take me on as a patient, that as long as I’m in control of my faculties, I’m also in control of how I die. It doesn’t have to be slow and painful if I choose not to let it be.”
She paused for a moment.
“Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Tell me you understand what I’m saying.”
Amy looked at her briefly.
“I understand what you’re saying, Allie.”
“Good. That’s important.”
“So are you moving in with your mother?”
“Not entirely, no. I rented an apartment within walking distance of the house, so when I’m feeling okay, I don’t have to be under foot and can have my privacy and live independently. And when I need help, well, my old room is still there, waiting for me. All I have to do is pull the David Bowie poster out of the closet.”
“Your sisters know?”
“Yes. And their husbands.”
“And your nieces and nephews?”
“We’re all doing lox and bagels together at Marcy’s Sunday morning before a few of them head back to college. I’m going to tell them then. That’s going to be so hard.”
“So what’re your plans?”
I’m planning to die, my friend.
“I’ve been warned that making plans is pretty fruitless because how I feel will vary a lot from day to day. Notwithstanding my constant expressions of hopelessness about the airport here, a friend of a friend has put me in touch with the executive director and he seems pretty eager for any help I can give him. I’m going to do what I can whenever I’m up to it.
“But I do have special plans for tomorrow.”
“I’ve arranged to go to the Willow Grove Naval Air Station and they’re going to let me take up a an old E-2C Hawkeye for a spin.”
“You think you’re up to it?”
“Two weeks ago I would’ve said no, but right now I feel pretty good. I suspect that between closing on my condo in Orlando, packing up my stuff and driving up here, moving into the apartment, and getting ready for tonight, I’m pretty much running on adrenaline. I figure it’ll still be pumping for a few more days, so if I wake up tomorrow feeling like I do now, I wouldn’t hesitate. But I’m not going to be stupid about it, either. It’s still too soon for stupid.”
“And you now have plans for tomorrow night, too.”
“Yes. You’re not the only classmate who’s back in town for the reunion, so I’m having people over. I started out with about twenty and think it’s closer to fifty now. My house, eight o’clock.”
“I’ll be there.
“Can I ask you for a favor, Amy?”
“Let’s keep this between us for tonight – and for the entire weekend, for that matter. I haven’t figured out how to handle this, how to tell people or even who I should tell, but I want to try. I just haven’t figured it out yet.”
“We can talk about that on Monday morning. I’ve been through this with a lot of my patients, so I have some ideas. And tomorrow night, we’ll sneak off for a few minutes and talk about how to deal with your nieces and nephews.”
Allison hugged her friend.
“I feel like a huge burden has been lifted off my shoulders. You know, this thing eats away at your mind almost as much as it eats away at your body. It never goes away; it’s always just…there. I’m sure it’ll be back tomorrow, too, but right now, I think I’m going to sleep a little easier tonight.”
Allison gestured wordlessly with her head, took Amy by the arm, and the two women rejoined their friends at the table. Allison smiled; she was used to this by now. Amy fought to hold back the tears.