SAN DIEGO – It’s been a week since, in what seemed like a quick vacation to the past, I traveled to my hometown to reconnect with high school classmates 30 years after graduation.
And I still have a reunion hangover. Here’s how I figure it: Muscles get sore when strained, and our hearts are made of muscle. As my friends and I tried in vain to squeeze three decades of memories, regrets, special moments and words unspoken into six hours of drinking, laughing and reminiscing, our hearts got a workout. We’re recovering.
Every high school reunion – 10th, 20th, 30th – is different. While the first two arrive with a shrug, the third, occurring a few yards into midlife, comes at full force.
These types of gatherings can scramble your thoughts and rattle your emotions. If the weeks before a reunion are filled with anticipation, then the days after are plagued by confusion.
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For one thing, I thought the reason people went to these get-togethers was so we would miss one another less, not more. A friend took to Facebook and expressed what many of us are thinking: “Didn’t give a thought to any of you [all these years] now can’t get you all off my mind.”
Life is sometimes illogical. Shouldn’t it be the case that the friends we’ve made in recent years, or those with whom we’ve spent more time overall, make the strongest impression? Instead, you don’t see some folks in 30 years, and suddenly they’re back in your heart where they used to be, like they pulled into a reserved parking space.
This probably has a lot to do with the fact that elementary school and high school are such formative times in our lives. A friend at my table offered another explanation, suggesting that our old relationships have endured because they were genuine and true, unlike many of those that followed. These people accepted us “as is” with all our flaws, fears and insecurities. Or it could be tied to the fact that we share something with our old friends: roots. Those are rare in an age when people and families are constantly on the move.
The morning after the event, my wife sensed something was wrong. Half-joking, she wondered if maybe I’d bumped into an ex-girlfriend who had stirred old feelings. Nothing that simple. What my better half – actually more like my better seven-eighths – picked up on was a profound sadness.
It was tough enough to say goodbye to these people the first time. At every reunion I attend, I have to do it again. That part is not fun.
Also, despite our promises – “stay in touch,” “holler when you’re down my way” – we’ve seen this movie before and we know it doesn’t have a happy ending. Eventually, our old friends will once again be crowded out of our lives by deadlines, carpools, promotions, date nights, Little League, and all the other demands in the latest episode of “America’s Busiest Families.”
Finally, while you do your best to find a quiet corner to tell your old friend what you always wanted to tell her, there will always be things still left unsaid. Beyond the classic rock and a cash bar, what they really need at these things are private, soundproof conversation rooms where you can talk, really talk, for a few minutes with an old friend.
A buddy I’ve known since we were 10 – back when, in the lyrics of an old song, “we learned of love and ABCs, skinned our hearts and skinned our knees” – pulled me out to the patio to share something he had been carrying with him for a while. After some stammering, he blurted out: “I’m proud of you!”
I smiled but quickly deflected the compliment. Here’s a guy who joined the Navy Reserve, after being on active duty and attending the U.S. Naval Academy. He recently took a leave from his job, and left his wife and daughters at home, to suit up again and serve our country in a dangerous, no-guarantees neighborhood halfway around the world. “No,” I told him. “I’m proud of you!”
My own children are now in elementary school, and they’re making friends. Or, as they call them, “BFFs.” I need to tell them to cherish the best of those relationships, and put in the work to maintain them. Because they don’t come along very often. And life goes by way too fast.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.