By Kathy Berken
Eventually my 50th high school class reunion was going to happen.
I honestly didn’t have a pressing desire to attend the August event, except that my closest friend Maria and her husband Gary, who had lived in the Seattle area for decades, would be there, so I figured it would be a chance to catch up.
Pulling into the Knights of Columbus Hall parking lot, I felt nervous about seeing classmates I wasn’t sure I’d remember. What if their perception of our relationship was that we were “great friends” and mine was that we were only in study hall together one year? It could get awkward.
I took a deep breath, walked into the bar area, and bumped into Frank, a guy I don’t remember knowing. He humorously informed me that the check-in table was “down the highway a few miles then turn left by the big tree.” I didn’t have time for a witty retort. “Sharon is handing out name tags over there, around the corner,” he said smiling. My nerves were gone and I was smiling, too.
As I made my way through this throng of gray-haired old folks, I quickly realized that we were all the same age. At least we’re in this together. Then I noticed something even more amusing. Each person looking for an old school buddy would look into the other person’s eyes, smile, quickly glance at their name tag and senior photo to see if they should know each other. Hello, . . . no. Move on to the next. Talk about feeling awkward.
When I found Maria and Gary, I was home. More than 50 years of a friendship with Maria that included letters, Christmas cards, photos and visits grounded us. We met on the school bus as freshmen and were daily seatmates for four years. We had mostly the same classes and teachers and spent our time satirizing everything. Hey, we were teenagers. Maria asked me to be her maid-of-honor when she married our classmate Gary after college and we made the effort to stay in touch.
Our conversation that night was easy because we had many shared memories. I also connected with Larry, Stephanie, Nancy, Sharon and Mary Jane and discussed our health issues, religion, politics and recalled a few key moments from high school.
Then I ran into Gail. We had many classes together and she was part of our lunch gang. After high school we lost track of each other. I remember getting word that while in college, Gail was in a serious accident and suffered a head injury. By then I had moved away, and we just didn’t get together anymore.
I asked her about her accident. It was very serious. She had to have major facial reconstruction, she was in a coma for months, and when she woke up, she had permanent amnesia. “These nice people came to get me,” she explained. “They were my parents, and I did not know them.” They took her home where she met some young people about her age. “They were my brothers and sisters, and I didn’t know them either.”
It was a very long recovery for Gail physically, emotionally and mentally. Family and friends spent hour upon hour reconstructing her memories for her, using stories, photographs and objects, working hard to help her rebuild her life. Which she did, amazingly well.
“Oh my gosh,” I said. “You came to our high school reunion not knowing anybody?”
“Of course,” she said. She was happy to be with people who once knew and loved her.
I was humbled. Here I was worried that I might not remember someone I really didn’t hang out with anyway, then finding a few people I could share memories with, and Gail had the courage to walk into a group of people she knew she would not know, because she has to keep doing normal things. I said I would stay in touch.
God is good.
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton 1999-2009 and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)