So we were pretty gussied up. This was my first black tie affair since my brother Dan’s wedding back in the 80’s. It was fun. Heidi wore a dark brown velvety dress with a low back. Very ooohh la la.
In some ways it took me back to my senior prom, only my tux was powder blue back in 1975. Colin took several pictures on the way out just as we did for his girlfriend and him on their way to their first prom. There was this weird role reversal and Colin and Mary Lyle had us cheese it up for the camera. They were all casual in jeans and t-shirts, Heidi and I were in our formal wear. They waved goodbye as we drove away.
The “gala” (my first – and in all probability my last) was held at the big convention center in downtown Columbia. As people were getting out of their cars it resembled the opening to a Hollywood movie. Men were wearing three piece suits or tuxedos with shoes so shiny that you could see your reflection. The women looked much more diverse. They were in all kinds of formal dresses from pastels to black or white. Boas, stiletto heels, satin, plunging necklines, pumps, hairspray, sequins, bright lipstick, velvet, painted fingernails and toenails, rouge, mascara, eye shadow, perfume, dyed hair, perms, shiny jewelry, nylons.
The guys got off easy.
When we got there we waited outside of the big banquet hall. I was a little intimidated because I knew I was expected to make small talk with people I barely know. But it was fun. I ran into an old student and some old teaching buddies and administrators I knew pretty well back in the day.
When it was time to go into the banquet hall it was confusing. The tables were numbered. We were to sit at table 83. The room was huge and the tables were numbered randomly. 13 was next to 93, 36 next to 41. I think there was a map somewhere, but we didn’t have one so we wandered around, trying to be systematic. After a minute we saw a young art teacher from the district. Leslie Drews was at my school years ago and, while I never had her as a student, she used to come into my room before school in the mornings and do little chores for me like pass out papers, file, collate papers or write out song lyrics on large charts. I was close to her folks for a while. Her dad worked in the state department and he hung out with me while I taught 2nd grade. His wife Patty was a teacher in the district as well. Good people.
I asked Leslie how her folks were and her face went sad. “My dad’s brother just died a few days ago. He’s taking it all right, but they were best friends. He is going to miss him so badly.” I felt her sadness. She was close to her uncle. It was her loss too. It was sudden and very unexpected. After expressing our condolences, Leslie said that you just never know. You just have to live every day like it is your last, because you just never know when it will be your time. So true. I guess it’s necessarily true that these big lessons come to us at the saddest of times. You hope they stick. You hope that you won’t have to learn that lesson again. We said our goodbyes and looked around for our table.
Then we ran into an old friend from who works as a computer tech in the district. I had his son in my class many years ago. Thomas Foreman is as warm and personable as a guy can be. I have gone months at a time without crossing paths with him and when we do catch up, it’s like no time at all has gone by. I ask about his son Thomas who was in my class and his lovely wife who spent so much time at our young school as a volunteer. His daughter is also a teacher so we have lots to talk about. He is about the most laid back person I know. He is an easy man to be around, smart, great sense of humor, big heart.
“How’s it going, Thomas?” I said after a warm handshake. “Good,” he said automatically, and he smiled. But his smile quickly faded. “No, not so good.”
“What?” Heidi and I asked simultaneously.
“My sister just died a few hours ago. Five o’clock. I was already here so I’m just going to stay a little longer, then head back.” The look on his face was so sad. “She had cancer. The thing is, it was in remission…”
We talked for a few minutes. I didn’t want to leave him there. He was taking pictures of the big gala for posterity. Couples mostly. He put on his game face and shook my hand. He gave Heidi a warm hug. “You just never know,” he said. “You never know how much time you have left. You’ve got to use it the best you can.”
As Heidi and I walked away, we were a little stunned. What are the chances that in about three minutes two people you know tell you about the death of a loved one and pass on the valuable lesson about how precious life is? Mathematically, the chances are very, very small. Almost infinitesimal. But in the big picture? In the God picture?
That was a lesson I needed to hear. Right then. Sometimes I forget. Maybe we all do. Sometimes I put life on cruise control. I put in my hours, go through the daily grind, live the same routine and don’t stop to really think about how blessed I am. And I am. Blessed. Beyond measure.