I stare back at myself from the pages of my high school yearbook—soft cheeks, full lips, eyes wide, so serious—self-conscious, not doubt, about teeth I considered far too large for my mouth and long hair that was always too frizzy to lay flat.
On page after page of the yearbook I co-edited in 1972, my classmates are captured in shades of gray, clothed in requisite suits and dark blouses, faces frozen in bright smiles, somber gazes and cynical smirks—17-year-olds anticipating life beyond high school.
And here we are, some of us, at least, gathered at an elegant inn overlooking the Hudson in autumn for our 40th high school reunion, to find out what really became of us during all those years. Very few of my circle of friends are attending, but I’ve decided to go, anyway. I’m curious and, yes, feeling a bit nostalgic for that time of infinite possibilities.
I’m met at the door by a classmate I barely knew who chaired the event. “You look beautiful,” he says, guiding me inside. You probably say that to every woman who arrives, I think, but I appreciate the compliment, nonetheless.
At the check-in table, I’m embraced by classmates who were former cheerleaders. I was one of the nerds. But there are no more cliques, none of that awkward adolescent silliness that could be so painful 40 years ago. Thank goodness. We’ve all grown up. Everyone is gracious and simply glad to be here.
I find two of my old friends, one who lives just an hour up the river and one who has travelled all the way from Montana. We hug and kiss and take pictures, find a table together for dinner and begin to share stories.
My Montana friend, vivacious as ever, has the scoop on many of our old gang’s whereabouts. As I mingle with other classmates, I discover more details. We are teachers, doctors and lawyers; social workers, nutritionists and psychologists; artists, writers, sales reps and consultants; marketers and massage therapists. One classmate is a government affairs director for nuclear power plants. Another frames fine art in Manhattan. A third got in on the ground floor of Pay Pal. A fourth overcame the stammer that plagued him throughout his youth and is now a leading speech therapist.
There have been miracles—one friend who was diagnosed in college with a deadly form of Hodgkins Lymphoma beat the disease, married and has raised a family. And there have been tragedies—17 of us are dead, nearly 10 percent of our small senior class. One friend couldn’t join us because he was rushing to see his sister, dying of cancer. Another shares that her beloved husband died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. “I’m so grateful for the years we had together,” she says.
I chat with the younger brother of one of our classmates (this reunion includes five groups of alumni) and inquire about his family. He tells me his oldest sister is in hospice, dying of a rare disease. He hesitates, searching for the word: “Sclarodarma?”
I catch my breath. “You mean scleroderma?”
“That’s it,” he nods.
“I have that, too,” I say. “It takes different forms in everyone. I fully understand what you’re going through.” But this feels almost foolish. I don’t really know. I’ve been lucky. I have the slow moving version, limited systemic sclerosis. Compared to what she’s dealing with, this is a walk in the park.
We talk some more. She was diagnosed three years ago. The disease is knocking out her systems, one by one. I try to empathize. We change the subject and discover a shared passion for trees and urban parks.
The program starts. We commemorate those who have passed. I join in a hearty rendition of our school song. We eat and share and laugh and philosophize about how, at this point in our lives, we’re just glad to be here, discovering self-acceptance, whatever our circumstances.
I leave before dessert to drive an hour to Emily’s college for an overnight stay. We gab until 1:30 in the morning. As I try to fall asleep, I find it difficult to absorb everything I’ve heard and seen.
Driving home the next day, surrounded by glorious fall foliage, I think back to the older sister dying of scleroderma. She was a few years older than me, beautiful, with long blond hair. We were in band together. I remember her one autumn afternoon, standing in formation on the football field during marching band practice, waiting as our director barked directions. She stood ramrod straight in an elegant black dress with geometric trim, reading a thick book balanced in her hands. I admired her and wished I could look like that.
How is it that we are now joined by this dreadful disease, but she lies dying and I, I am driving home from a wonderful weekend renewing friendships and sharing with my daughter? I think of the High Holidays liturgy, Who shall live and who shall die. I think of the Festival of Sukkot just ending, with its message of gratitude and abundance amidst the transience of life. I drive toward home, past the Berkshires, as trees the color of flame release their leaves beneath silver skies.
Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.