People are in our lives for only so long before we pass like ships in the night.
My neighbor and I were chatting this past weekend, as male homeowners often do, about what lawn projects were currently making our lives interesting. I was trying to tackle the shady dirt patches allergic to grass, and my neighbor was digging a pit for his wife’s rain garden project. We talked about a particular old house on the block, and I mentioned that the guy who grew up there in the 1920s still was still living not far away. My neighbor blinked.
“Lived,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Did Wally die?”
“Yeah, he passed away last fall,” my neighbor replied.
I’d met Wally at a National Night Out party in 2008. He was probably into his late eighties by then, and lived four blocks away from us. He told me about flying cargo planes over “The Hump” (a nickname for the Himalayas) during World War II in the China-Burma-India theatre of U.S. operations. Between 1942-45, nearly 1,000 men and 600 planes were lost doing this. Wally, who had played in big bands before the war, ended up going to school for radios, and flew up on Curtiss C-46 Commandos going over the Hump.
I walked away that night glad I’d gone, glad I’d met Wally and hoping to visit my new friend and talk more about history. I would drive by his pink house with the chipping paint, and wonder how he was doing. There was always a faded American flag flying by the door.
I meant to go over there. I really did. But I kept putting it off, and now, I won’t get the chance.
This has been happening a lot lately. For years, my mom told me to contact Brian Anderson, a man she’d worked with years ago when he was the editor of Minneapolis St. Paul Magazine. She remembered how kind he’d been to her, and said that I could probably benefit from talking to him. I would nod, and put it off. Eventually, that stopped the day I read that Anderson had gone into hospice care after a battle with leukemia. He a short while later at age 65, and everything I read about him showed me that I had truly missed out on meeting a great man.
We all have brushes with people or things greater than ourselves. I still kick myself for not seeing the opening act of a concert I covered for a college paper in 2004 at the Seventh Street Entry. They were a little band no one had ever heard of called the Killers.
“Come on,” I remember saying to my friend who was with me. “Opening bands always suck anyways. Let’s go get some drinks.”
Six months later, the Killers would be one of the biggest bands on the planet, and I was left only with a so-so story about what might have been.
My mom recently told me a story that has really made me think about pursuing these connections while the opportunity exists. When my parents lived in Baltimore in the 1970s, my mom debated reaching out to a TV reporter who was also new to town. As they were both young women in the communications industry, they may have found a lot of common ground, doing similar work in a new place. Time passed, and it was a meeting my mother didn’t pursue.
That TV reporter? Perhaps you’ve heard of her. Her name was Oprah Winfrey.
A cast of characters supports journeys through life. Some, like parents and siblings, are there for a long time. Others, like strangers on the streets, are mere living scenery dressing. Regardless of whom these people are, they all share one thing in common: none of them will be around forever. Wally was a member of our Greatest Generation, which is dying at the rate of 1,000 per day. By the time my daughter is old enough, very few of these men and women will be around anymore.
It’s an extreme case, perhaps, but it reminds me to make those phone calls now, to ring doorbells sooner than later, and to not forget that all relationships are offered on for a limited time only.