Do I look the same?
Does the cafeteria still exude that overcooked broccoli stink?
Will my first boyfriend be there with his wife?
How strange will it feel to walk those fluorescent hallways again, older, wiser, far stronger now?
The stereotypical worries brought on by high school reunions – made horrifying and hilarious by movies and TV commercials – are pure camouflage, scenic distractions from the havoc, and joys, the passage of time inevitably brings.
Today is the first day after my 72 hour, 30th high school reunion. Nearly 40 percent of the class returned to our tiny campus in Washington, DC three decades after graduation. People came from as far away as Los Angeles, Prague, New Mexico and Maine. Six of our most beloved teachers returned as well, looking – surprisingly — younger than they did 30 years ago. And although most of us from the class of ‘83 have added a few wrinkles and pounds, I’m here to say those cosmetic differences made no difference at all compared to what time has done to us on the inside.
Even before we graduated, life had taken its toll: one of our classmates was killed in a drunk driving accident in 11th grade. Another lost her sister in a car crash one month prior to graduation. Despite that dark foreshadowing, little did we know, at 18, what the future would bring.
Three classmates have fought cancer; one couldn’t make the reunion because of chemo. One classmate stared down sexual abuse; another domestic violence; several have battled infertility and miscarriage. One discovered an older brother he never knew. Our hearts have all been broken, several times over, evidenced by our multiple divorces. But hope springs eternal, with many of us remarrying and embracing second rounds of kids and step kids.
The range of current lifecycle phases was impressive. Three classmates, born within months of each other, had to leave early. One to attend childbirth class before becoming a father next month, at 50. Another to take his eight-year-old to a soccer tournament. The other to witness his 21-year-old’s college graduation.
Reunions offer a fleeting chance to reconnect, to look in the mirror, to trade notes on what life has doled out, and what we’ve done with our talents. Gatherings of old friends naturally compel you to look back. However, milestone can trigger a wide angle shot of the future as well. Where will we be in 30 years? Perhaps even more important, what will the next 30 years bring our children? Because the most important, hidden message from my 30th high school reunion underscores the role most dear to every one of us: parenthood.
If our kids are lucky, one day they too will attend their own 30th high school reunions. What will they face between today and then? Have they already found the friends and mentors to see them through cancer, death, career disappointments, the loss of us? The almost unimaginable actuality is that we, their parents, won’t be there for every milestone our kids face.
Nearly a third of my class of ’83 has lost a parent. So despite today’s increased longevity tables, it’s time to face facts of our own mortality. Time to give our kids the most important gift any parent can bestow: acceptance that we cannot protect them from life, from time passing.
But if we do it right, maybe we can hand down the same hope, determination, and bonds of friendship that have seen us through from our own childhoods to today.