Greg Dennis: At a college reunion, ghosts of present and past

A woman takes her seat for a long train ride in a foreign country. She’s a plant biologist who travels the world to study and document rare plant species. It’s one more trip among many.
For the past two years, since her husband Michael died, she’s been traveling even more. Sometimes staying ahead of the pain, sometimes just learning to live with it. (This is a true story, though the names and some details have been changed to protect the principals’ identities.)
Occasionally the woman still has a strong sense of Michael nearby, beyond the veil of death. A feeling that he’s watching over her, during what she calls “paranormal experiences.”
Though she dearly loved Michael, since his death she’s been keeping her eye out. She wonders if there might be someone else in this world she could love as much. So far she hasn’t found anyone.
As the train readies to depart, a man comes into her otherwise empty business-class compartment and asks if he may join her.
She usually keeps her distance from strangers. But for some reason she decides he’s someone worth talking to. She invites him to sit down.
“My name is Howard,” he says.
As these two strangers on a train begin to talk, they’re drawn almost instantly into a riveting and deeply personal conversation. In the next three hours they share their secrets and dreams, their life’s mistakes and satisfactions. They connect in a way people rarely do.
When they arrive in the next city, he announces that they’ve reached his destination. For whatever reason in the rush of his departure, neither one of them thinks to exchange their contact information or even their last names.
When she returns home to the U.S., the woman tells her friends over drinks about this strange encounter.
“You’ve absolutely got to find this guy!” her friends insist. “He sounds so much like Michael. We’ll help you find him.”
All they know about him, though, is his first name and the city where he lives. Over the course of two weeks, their Internet searches turn up nothing.
One day, though, she receives an email from one of her friends with the subject line, “Is this him?”
It’s a link to a recent newspaper story about him. And it’s his obituary.
His name was Howard Michael Michelson.
Was this stranger her husband Michael in some back-from-the dead form? We’ll never know.
But I do know that people tell the strangest stories at their college reunions. Vignettes from lives lived since we were college students.
Freed from their fixed patterns at home, they’ve come back to the place and people they knew when they were young. When there were few limits on what you could discuss. When everything seemed possible.
Also during that reunion weekend, I heard the quiet heartache in the voice of a friend, a gay man who is involved with a much younger man. His partner comes from an anti-gay culture and works in a macho field where being known as gay is a huge risk. While my friend has long been comfortably out of the closet, the man he loves remains closeted, afraid of the havoc it might cause in his life if he were to come out.
At this point, decades after graduation, you also hear a lot from your classmates about their adult children’s heartwarming successes. But not all the stories are happy ones.
One classmate spoke of her mentally ill daughter, now in her 30s and long cursed with schizophrenia. After years of living in a group home, her daughter recently moved in with a boyfriend. He’s got some mental problems, too, but so far they are getting by.
Another woman related the story of her daughter — adopted as a baby from a South American country, after my friend and her husband already had sons.
Despite their best efforts and many advantages, their daughter has never really taken flight. She struggled as a teenager and now, in her 20s, she has trouble holding down a job.
Her parents have spent years propping her up. Recently they decided that after 24 years, they just have to let her fly — or crash — on her own.
My friend told us the story and then suddenly blanched. “I think I’m going to faint,” she said. As her knees buckled, we helped her to a chair.
Another vignette: Speaking on a panel at his 45th reunion last week, my friend Stefan told the story of the first time he went cross-country skiing. It was in the late 1960s, and it changed his life.
A longtime downhill skier, Stefan fashioned a pair of makeshift cross-country skis by cutting the edges off some old wooden downhill skis and jury-rigging a pair of bindings.
On a brilliant winter day after a fresh snowfall, he skied down into the farm fields west of Middlebury College.
As he skied west and then back around toward the campus, he took photos of that sparkling scene. He wandered through hundreds of acres of winter landscape, woods and fields unbounded by fences or other visible signs of the hands of man.
It was, he said, “a transcendent experience.”
Though he was only 20, Stefan found himself wondering what he could do with his life to save land like this, to keep it open and beautiful.
The seed of that experience flowered years later, when he decided to use his law degree to pursue a career in land conservation. Eventually he became a leading expert in how to preserve open space through conservation easements and gifts.
It was an easy call, then, for the college to ask Stefan to represent it in a potential legal transaction. A donor was considering the grant of nearby property to the college.
When he got the call from the college, his first question was, “OK, where is the property located?”
It turned out to be the very same land on which he had skied many decades before.
When he told the college representatives and the potential donor the story of his life-changing ski trek and showed them the photos he’d taken that day, they knew they had the makings of a deal.
And Stefan, like so many folks at their college reunions, had the makings of a good story.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Twitter: @greengregdennis. Email: [email protected].

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