On Sunday Gary and I joined an old friend named Wes on the college campus where we all attended in the mid-eighties. As it was during the summer, we had the place largely to ourselves so we wandered from building to building, peering inside the ones that were locked, entering the ones that weren't, poking around in hallways, looking for fragments of ourselves, of those who peopled our lives then. Joseph, who had nothing else to do that day, tagged along--bemused, I'm sure, by his parents reverting to their twenty-something year old selves, talking of ducking security after curfew, of escapades that involved massive snowball fights, the legendary food fight, and chuckling over the time someone climbed the bell tower on the chapel and exchanged the hourly bell tapes for a recording that sounded mysteriously like AC/DC.
It was a strange step backwards in time, tickling regions of my brain that I don't think I use often enough, bringing up long forgotten images and all the emotions that went with them. In my mind's eye I could see us moving between classes, to campus jobs, to meals, to chapel, each preoccupied with our various problems or rejoicing in whatever joys our hearts held at that moment. Sometimes it was the well-written paper, sometimes love, sometimes an A, sometimes a D, sometimes heartbreak. Who we were was still in question and our futures still open vistas with a million untraveled paths to choose from.
While we were not especially close in those days, Gary and I attended the same weeknight worship services and often joined small groups of people for prayer at the campus chapel late at night. I remember both genuinely liking him and resenting his very direct (absolutely dead on) advice concerning the long-distance love of my life at the time. And I remembered his kindness when I would come to prayer time feeling beaten up and defeated by the inevitable heartbreak of the same long distance affair, my grades, or my "sins"--none of which did I share because I thought everyone else had it more together than I did. He never pressed me for answers, but his reassuring hugs, his gentle sense of humor, and his concern lifted me considerably. I didn't learn until two or three years later that he prayed for me often in those days. Trust me when I say, I really needed it.
Wes and I shared a love of music that connects us to this day. He played guitar and, back then, I played a mountain dulcimer and we both sang well enough that passing people would stop and (generally) clap when we finished. It became routine to meet under the tree at the east end of my dorm on Friday evenings, and sit cross legged on the ground with our instruments and play. Over time, we acquired a small group of loyal friends who regularly joined us as we sang along to Jim Croce, Peter Paul and Mary, John Denver, gospel tunes, and stuff we wrote ourselves. These evenings actually earned the title "Under the Tree Sessions". And it was then that Wes got to know a friend of mine, a girl that would go on to be his greatest love for several years. I don't think we knew it at the time, but it was during these Friday night gatherings that we began to separate ourselves from the identities laid out for us by our parents, giving voice to thoughts about politics, God, relationships and all the what-ifs of the universe.
Wes has moved to another part of the country where he works as an entertainer, making a lot of people happy with his music, extraordinary balloon art, and magic tricks. We touch base from time to time by way of Facebook and emails, but we haven't seen each other for close to twenty years so this visit was a special treat for us all. Meeting on campus was Wes's idea. It was the first time since leaving Branson thirteen years ago that we'd been back, and the first time ever that we'd taken a reunion tour.
We wandered down to "Lookout Point", a bluff that over-looks an arm of Table Rock Lake and the fields below. Having blown out my knee (again) while shoveling new squash hills in the garden, and sporting the slight cold that Sam brought home with him from camp (Some days I feel like I'm growing streaks of gray on the inside as well as in my hair), I chose not to follow Gary to the lower lip of the bluff, but stood back and watched him from a few feet away as he talked animatedly to Joseph about what was below.
A vivid flashback overtook me, an evening Gary and I spent sitting in the very spot I was standing in, shortly after we started dating. It was there that he told me why--at the age of twenty-seven--he'd decided to invest himself in a relationship for the first time.
I had surprised him by showing up unannounced on a Friday night. I arrived with a plan B, friends on campus I could spend the evening with if things went south. I was nervous; I'd been let down often enough by men who were not honest about what they did when they were away from me that I didn't really know what to expect. Would there be another girl? Would he be angry that I'd intruded on something he had planned with the guys? Did he just want his space and would he feel crowded? But when he saw me, he was actually overjoyed, showed me off to his friends, rearranging his schedule so he could take me out to dinner and spend the entire weekend with me if I wanted to. He made it clear to me that I was welcome in his world.
After dinner we sat at the Point holding hands and Gary talked quietly about how wonderful it was to have me in his life. He listed all my strengths as he saw them, stunning me with his attention to detail.
"I'm not much of a talker," he said. "I don't often let people in, and, even though there's been a girl or two, I've never been close enough to any of them to talk to them. But I'm tired of being alone and I want someone to know who I am. That someone is you." And he kissed me there with the orange glow of a tiger striped sunset reflecting off the water below. I think that might be the moment I allowed myself to love him, to believe it might last.
This Sunday, after visiting Point Lookout, we stopped at the music building and wandered the halls. Standing outside the office door, I remembered stopping there between classes to sit and talk with Wes and another friend named Andy. Andy was a professional musician, a day student, older than Wes and I, who lived with his wife off campus. He had been a friend of my parents and was a badly needed familiar face during that first semester on my own, a great source of encouragement and support as I found my footing as a college student. Andy died of cancer just a few years ago and I miss him still. In my mind, he is the patron saint of music and I often think of him when I listen to my oldest son play guitar. I think that would make him happy if he knew that.
After leaving the music building, we wandered over to the patio by the student cafeteria. Wes pulled out his guitar and played some tunes for us--some new ones, and some old ones. Then he broke into Time in a Bottle, an old Jim Croce song we used to sing together, and he did it so well, so wistfully, that I am sure that Croce himself would have teared up. I was quite suddenly at sea--washed into an uncertain place between the present and the past. Reflexively I reached for something to steady me. Gary's hand was waiting. He knows who I am too.
Later after hugging Wes and parting company, Gary, Joe, and I wound our way home through an hour of hills and curves. I was extremely tired, Sam's "slight cold" having somehow found its way into every joint I've ever abused (how do viruses do that?) including the now ripely swollen knee, and I was more than ready for some hot tea and bed.
But I found myself extremely grateful for my present day life, for where I am right now, glad I didn't take any of the other paths held out before me all those years ago. It put me in touch with how I got to be who I am and--maybe for first time--glad I lived every one of the moments that brought me here. I wanted to say thank you to every person who contributed to this culmination, especially Wes who unwittingly brought about this realization. And more especially Gary who wanted me to know who he was because he loved me and--in the process--helped me define myself.
Iris aka "I just want you to know who I am" covered by Don Klein