October 2009

For the Ones Who Are Not Yet With Us

An abridged version of this article was first published in the fall 2014 issue of Vision, CJ's alumni magazine. What follows is the complete literary work that Chris McDonald composed following the celebration of his class' 30th reunion in June 2014.

You were right, Sister Mary-Ellen, there is life after death.

It was only four years, but those particular years stretch along our entire lives. They follow us (or maybe we follow them), and in them there seems to be a mysterious and gentle power that draws us back to one another. The day I walked out of Chaminade Julienne with my diploma in hand, it was as if I stepped off the curb of Ludlow Street and straight into the body of a middle-aged man. But, we don’t come together every five years to remind ourselves that we’re getting older, nor even to relive the past. I think we come together to remind ourselves that in life, despite how often we feel otherwise, none of us is ever really alone.

I never would have dreamed that I would say such a thing. Like many of you in high school, I wasn’t sure I even wanted to be there. Preoccupied with myself and the need to fit into the group, I obsessed over being liked or not being liked by others. When I wasn’t in school, I was at home staring at the mirror in disbelief at how many pimples could occupy the space of a human forehead.

Like many of you, I tried to laugh it off. In those days I laughed at almost everything, even at things that surely weren’t funny — and, there is a considerable difference between laughter and joy. Underneath my laughter, there was fear and sadness. Though I had good times and found real friends (some of whom are still my good friends) — amid those 200 in our graduating class, I felt mostly alone. What I’m trying to say is that if we set aside nostalgia, if we’re honest with ourselves, high school was, for the most part, a mixed bag. It wasn’t anyone’s fault — we were victims of being 15 years old.

So why do I travel across the ocean from France every five years to see all of you? What would possess me to come back to something that was a source of as much pain as pleasure? When I left CJ, I thought it was the end. Whatever we had or hadn’t been, it was finished. No one told me that those four years would be merely the first chapter of a story that would continue — maybe for the rest of my life.

Last month when I walked into the reunion hall with its round tables and large, opened windows where the summer light poured through, what came to me was pure gladness. It wasn’t too hard to look past the gray hair and facial lines to recognize my classmates. I knew them by their eyes and by their smiles.

Being there with them, I felt the warm glow of familiarity that becomes more important as one grows older. We all greeted each other tenderly, less like schoolmates and more like family — like brothers and sisters who have returned from long excursions and are happy to tell each other of their adventures. There was laughter, but it was an easy laughter that bubbles up naturally when one is happy. We drank a little. We ate a lot. And, we told stories that weaved together past with present.

But what struck me most about the evening was not so much what was there, but what was not there. Absent was the confusion and insecurity of youth — that monstrous fear of being pushed outside the group. Absent, too, were the categories — those ridiculous classifications we imposed upon ourselves, and each other. We were no longer “jocks” nor “brains” nor “bandies;” we were simply people who could now look at each other with eyes that said simply, “I want to know you.” The only thing that seemed to matter at that moment was that we were all well, that we were all happy.

What we were that night was what we couldn’t be in our youth. This night, strangers were not permitted; if you entered the room, you were our friend and you belonged with us. The hurts that I inflicted on some of those very same people so many years ago, as well as the hurts inflicted on me, had absolutely no place among us.

Despite all the familiarity, it was like meeting these people for first time. The windows were open, and the warm, fresh breeze blew among us. I’d like to think that with age comes a second chance.

* * *

So what does Sister Mary-Ellen have to do with any of this? I clearly recall sitting in her class, looking out a dreary window at the rain while she talked about Christ’s resurrection. At one point she read to us about the women of Jerusalem, how one Sunday morning, walking toward the tomb, heavy with grief and memory, they looked up and discovered something both extraordinary and mysterious: In the place where they buried him, the place where they expected him to be forever, he was not there. Something inexplicable happened; he was now with the living. And I clearly remember looking at Sister and thinking, “How the hell does that help me? I can’t even look at a girl in the face!”

I’ve always been a grave-dweller — one of those people who likes to go to cemeteries, to look at the names and dates carved on the stones and to think about all that is buried there: the people with their trinkets and their memories all lying beneath me. And it may come as no surprise to you that such haunts, as they were, were not restricted to graveyards. For so many years I had dwelt among the tombs of my own life, brooding over the past. It was as if I had put memories of high school in a pine box and lowered it into the ground, burying the hurts and resentments. It was safer that way, for at least with dead things you know what you’re getting. I knew what high school was for me; I had the scars to prove it. And I expected nothing would change. Cemeteries offer few surprises.

But there comes a time in life when one gets tired of living and reliving old pain, of spending days more or less caved in on oneself. So there came a moment when, sick of looking down at my own feet, I began to raise my head. And what I found, you might say, was a broad, expanding sky made of light and possibilities and that seemed to want to lead me beyond myself. Of course, it had always been there, yet I had been too buried in myself to notice it.

Specifically, one day I decided to take down my dusty copy of the 1984 CJ yearbook. And as I sat there turning the pages, I realized that what I was seeing was not exactly what I remembered. Frankly, what I expected to find was meanness — cruelty that comes out of insensitivity and desperation. But what I saw was a myriad of doughy, awkward faces that seemed lost and, yet, were glowing. Despite the fashionable hairstyles, the tender expressions in their eyes and on their mouths could not conceal the vulnerable child within them. They were all motion, and their bodies gave off a kind of delicate, fluttering light that comes with youth.

I sat back and thought about my life in high school. Then I came to me: We didn’t mean it. God knows we didn’t mean any of it.

* * *

For those of you who are still greatly troubled by high school, who can’t bear to set foot in our class reunions, I think the rest of us can understand. No one came out of there unscathed. But I hope that one day, like me, you will get tired enough of looking down around you at all the chewed-up earth so as to discover a sky with its sun that is only there to give warmth and light. n that light you may find something beautiful that you never dared wish for, but is there for you anyway. And it may be something that has the power to change the perspective on whatever happened to you. It is truly extraordinary, I know, and I have to say it feels a lot like resurrection.