On Thursday night, I received a phone call from my dear college friend, Chris. I don’t often talk on the phone with people, so when I saw his name pop up, I was excited to engage in some good reconnecting and reminiscing. Chris has a magnificent energy that keeps you on your toes and always makes me smile. When the call connected, we had our usual happy greeting, but his voice was a little more subdued than usual.
Something was wrong. He had just lost his mom, so I thought maybe that was it. It wasn’t. After stammering for a moment, he revealed some terrible news. Mike, one of our college friends, had died in a freak accident.
Blank. Brain blank. What do you say? What is there to say? I literally had nothing that made any sense to say.
We chatted for a short time, talking about the limited details that he had, trying to figure out what to make of the news. At one point, he quietly said, We are the adults now. Ouch. That resonated with me. At heart, we are theater kids with a Peter Pan nature. He dances and posts his super-flexibility-at-50 photos, I flip and call myself the Geriatric Gymnast. Of course, people like us know how to “adult”—we’ve been doing it for years. We pay bills, have nurtured our families, developed our careers, and have dealt with plenty of serious business and life traumas. But inside, we still hold on to the post-adolescents we once were, playing in the studio theater, experimenting with how to parry with a quarter staff and exploring characters in full costume and makeup.
College was the pinnacle of our youth; our theater circle was a small, relatively tight unit. We had most of our classes together and for four years, we were a family. We made friends with the upper- and underclassmen because we always did shows together as a department. After rehearsals and shows, we’d hang out together, since we spent so much time in the same spaces. While we all moved on and have gone our separate ways, the magic of the interwebs has enabled us to stay connected, even from afar, through groups and chats, sharing old pictures, stories and videos of our college glory days, as well as current successes in our lives. We’re never really that far away from each other.
Sadly, in the last 10 or so years, we’ve lost six people in our Montclair State theater community: five of our peers and one of the adults. Every one more sad and tragic than the last. The first was Bart, one of our amazing techies, with an incredible sense of humor. Then, John Henry, a triple threat who was a lovely sprite of a human with flaming red hair. My college roommate, Cara, the spirited activist with an unquenchable joie de vivre and a smile the size of the Grand Canyon, was next. That hit hard. She succumbed to a drawn-out battle with colon cancer and left behind two young boys. Most recently, Candy, a combination of quirk and smokiness, and Joanne, the “mother” of the group who worked in the business office who everyone knew and loved. All had extraordinary talent and good souls. With each announcement of their passing, I think we all felt a collective gasp. Shocked, stunned, unable to fathom that these people with such vibrance and life were just…gone.
After Cara died, I created a private Facebook group; a memorial page for the theater kids from the early 90s to stay connected, specifically focused on the dear friends we had lost. While I don’t like that this page exists, I appreciate our collective need to have a place to reminisce and stay informed. I also don’t like that we now have another person to add to the page.
And now, Mike
Mike Finn was one of those people who had the mix of everything that attracted people. He was good-looking with a square jaw and long, flowing blond hair (we called him Thor), an affable, laid-back personality, and heaps of talent. He was the golden boy with the golden hair who everyone wanted to work with, and he always seemed happy to do whatever work he could. He took on challenges like a pro and was a true learner of life. I did an acting scene with him in class from the play Extremities, where he played the bad guy and I played the victim. Of course, it was hard for me to really get into the role properly because I think I felt safer than I should have with him as my partner, but I digress…
This was much of my acting class in our first year. You can guess which one is Mike.
Mike fell in love and married his college sweetheart Marcia, another acting major in our program one year our senior, who was uber-talented and super sweet. Together, they were adorable and remained so as they grew through their adulthood, had children and enjoyed their lives together. After graduation, we all went our separate ways, and I’d enjoy seeing the occasional post or comment from Marcia on Facebook (Mike was not a social media kind of guy).
With the news of Mike’s passing, there was yet another breach in the force. Every time I play the news back in my mind, I have a very unsettled feeling in my gut. In a way, they are so similar to my husband and I; we fell in love young and stayed that way through all the trials and tribulations of marriage and parenting.
I can’t help but to internalize this news, because in Marcia, I see me. The life partner, now the widow: it’s such an awful word for an awful state of being. Now, for the rest of her life, she will be haunted by her memories, the happiness and joy that they built together, as she figures out how to revive her own life without him. The thought of this, always quiet in the back of my mind, has come flooding in as I think about the impossible existence she is now enduring. I pray every day that I don’t have to experience this until I am very old, wrinkly and dementia has set in.
I also see myself in their children, now without a father. I lost my father in that time of my life, and sadly, I now have lived more years without him than with him. I pray for them that they have only joy, connectedness and stars in their eyes when they think of him. I pray they have said everything they needed to say to him and that they shared big bear hugs whenever possible.
I think about how madly in love they were, from the time they found each other back in college. I wasn’t an insider in their world, but in every picture of them and their family, there was unbridled love and joy emanating from them that always made me smile. If nothing else, they were happy together.
“We are the adults now”
This truth keeps rolling in my head. Like it or not, we are the adults now. No longer those randy college kids exploring who we are, Generation X deals with the responsibilities and backlash that life throws our way. While we are the backstop for our kids, we are also making life happen for ourselves. We are now starting to design the second half of our lives and sometimes, we are doing all that through the lens of our post-adolescent selves.
While working through this terrible news, I was talking to my husband. I told him that I didn’t feel like I’m 50-something. He doesn’t either. He has a working theory that we are actively working against the set expectations of what it means to be this age. Our parents, much earlier than their 50s, had abandoned the child-like experiences that we have come to embrace as self-care: he loves Legos and comic books, I flip and podcast. It’s the stuff that many adults today might scoff at, but it keeps us connected to the version of ourselves that made us who we are, and fundamentally, we like who we were in our teens and 20s. Why not hold on to that part of ourselves that was happy and thriving?
That’s the interesting dichotomy of our adult experience. When the universe decides that it’s time to take someone away, we the adults, who maintain a semblance of our Peter Pan perspectives, have to process the loss through both lenses. Perhaps the loss doesn’t directly impact us, but we feel it just the same. We mourn both for the family and friends left behind and the sweet memory we hold of our kinsman. In truth, we ponder our own mortality as well, since we are all now 50-somethings and now much closer to, well, the end.
It’s all a lot to process.
Despite the rumination, I’m still a little blank in the brain, but I’m grounded. My thoughts are with Marcia and their kids as they figure out how to move forward. I’ll hug my husband and children a little tighter now, perhaps. I’ll appreciate each moment I have, each breath I take a little more.
To Mike, rest in eternal peace and love my friend. You were a good man who was loved and left behind a beautiful legacy to uphold.