There’s a quote that is attributed to Buddha, but I guess its veracity is such that it might as well be something from Mark Twain. “The problem is we think we have time.” It resonnates with Solomon in Eccelsiastes. And even if the Buddha didn’t say it, it rings true. We always think we have more time. Even now with the world behind held hostage in this pandemic. Our life expectancies have gotten higher than any other time in history. And yet…it isn’t just death, but the ends of things we take for granted.
I have several moments in my life which were last looks I had with someone, though I didn’t realize it until later. I’m tired of those moments, though I’m sure my life will be riddled with them until that ultimate Last Look.
In just a couple days, it will be the seven year anniversary of the beginning of my journey through divorce. Or lately as I’ve called it a house fire that has been burning for the better part of the decade. I talk about it plenty of times because when I was heavily considering making that change in my life, there wasn’t much out there to support me. The first page of a Google search was a lot of links to “Work harder to preserve your marriage.” They advocated counseling, all sorts of things that had been tried and were only perpetuating an unhealthy situation. That fire had already been burning and it was time to get out.
The last look I remember on the morning of Halloween, 2014 was that of my then-wife frantically clicking on the computer to buy Christmas presents on Amazon because “The kids should at least get Christmas.” She had found out that the papers were about to be served and wasn’t happy. She didn’t even look up from the computer when I walked out of the house. The kids were another story. The older kids were dressed as Walter and the Dude from the Big Lebowski for their Halloween parties at their middle school. As I dropped them off in front of their school, I called out, “Hey! I love you!” My son didn’t even look back. Just the unidirectional purposefulness of his mind telling him to get to class. My daughter turned and looked back, but didn’t say anything back. She just ran to class. They were never the same after that.
About a month ago, I was walking to get the mail. A former classmate of mine who I never really got along that great with was turning the corner as I was crossing the street. He raised his hand in a rare greeting, and for once, I waved back. A few days later, I learned that he had been found dead in his tiny apartment later that day. I might have been one of the last people to see him alive. What a strange moment to reflect on.
In August of 2009, I stood beside my grandpa’s hospital bed. My aunt was there and she called to him “Grandpa! Clint’s here!” His eyes fluttered open for a moment and his head lolled over to look towards us, but they closed again. His leg was black with gangrene. His kidneys had stopped functioning. I signed off on the papers that said “no heroic efforts” and they stopped treatment to clean his blood. They kept him comfortable, as they say. By the afternoon, he was gone. It was a last look I could have skipped. But it gave me closure, knowing that he was no longer suffering. That he had reached the end.
In March 2020, we were at the beginning of this pandemic. It was a Sunday night and my girlfriend at the time was about to spend Spring Break on a road trip with her family. I was originally going to go with them, but my youngest was coming back to me from Spring Break before their trip was going to end. So I bowed out. We spent the day together and ended the evening watching TV together on the couch. Her head in my lap as I brushed her hair to spoil the hell out of her. She nearly fell asleep like that. When it was time for her to go, it was beginning to snow. A chilly, wet evening with big heavy spring flakes falling almost like slush on shiny black streets. We knew quarantines were coming. Two weeks to flatten the curve. We kissed and because I was standing in the cold in my sock feet, she told me to go back inside before I got cold. She rolled up the window and waved as she drove off into the night.
Six weeks later, the quarantine had changed the world. We talked almost every night until the end, but I never saw her again. I was blocked. Erased. Forgotten. So easily too. No second chances. No regrets.
In July, I didn’t know I would have another moment like that. But, you never really see those moments until it seeps into your consciousness that they have happened. Kissing someone goodbye on their porch. Too many times. Maybe you knew it. Maybe you could have stopped with one kiss “until next time” but it became half a dozen until you were both laughing and they were telling you “Go!” and laughing with every kiss. Maybe you knew there would be no next time. Maybe you always know at those defining moments. If you realized it at the time it would break your heart. You’d never have been able to leave.
When I was a kid I wasn’t much of a reader. I could hardly get through a Dr. Seuss book. In Jr. High I started reading the Guardians of the Flame series by Joel Rosenberg, in which a bunch of college kids get sent into a Dungeons and Dragons type universere and are stuck there for the rest of their (usually short) lives. After that I read a LOT. One character in particular, a thief/frat guy by the name of Walter Slovatsky became one of my favorite characters. He had a series of quotes known as Slovatsky’s Laws. The one that seems resonant with all of this is this one:
When you say goodbye to a friend, assume that one of you is going to die before you ever get to see one another again. If you want to leave something unsaid, fine…but be prepared to leave it unsaid forever.Walter Slovatsky
Things like this hit differently when you are older. It fucks with your abandonment issues. Your lack of closure. It’s not always a death, but certainly the end of something. You have to grieve the good and the bad. Grief is what allows them to become memories. Pile on enough of those memories and I guess that’s what gives us baggage. It’s hard out there. It’s hard to stay “good” when you just see patterns repeating. When you begin to suspect that every look back could be the last.
If you live long enough, I’d imagine it becomes more and more likely that those last looks back could be your last.