“And you can sing this song
On July the Fourth
In the sunny south and the frozen north
It’s a day of loss, it’s your day of birth
Does it take a death to learn what a life is worth?”
— Jackson Browne, “Of Missing Persons”
The woman in the deli aisle turned to me suddenly and said:
“ — What is that awful smell?”
My reaction was probably the facial version of a shrug. It was true there was an obnoxious odor, something like Essence of Rotting Rhino Carcass, emanating from the produce section.
Her random stranger-to-stranger communication mostly put me off, but then I felt weirdly amused. (Because “weirdly amused” is one of my many personality defaults.)
What, I wondered, if everyone today was speaking in non sequitur nonsense to everyone else … and I just didn’t get the memo? “Caraway Space Kitten Overdrive,” confides an old man by the freezer case.
A kid in a bug-shaped, tot-sized grocery cart points at the ceiling and slurs, “Holden gave it all away!”
“Hey kid,” I reply, “I dig a pony.” His mother scowls at me and they move on.
I know, I know. This isn’t real. But after this past week, nothing seems quite real to me.
You see, the morning of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday I awoke to a startling addition to my email in-box. It was a notification from my WordPress blog there was a comment awaiting approval, to my post titled “Mandy.”
The comment read:
“This is Jay. I may have already left a reply. My dear sister passed away from Lukiema on 10/23/17. It is amazing reading your recollection of our childhood. Thanks for memorializing Mandy. She was very special.”
I had to sit down. It just came out of nowhere, out of a clear blue winter sky. It didn’t make sense, it was a non sequitur.
Holden gave it all away!
I hadn’t thought of Mandy since I’d published the post in 2010.
And I certainly hadn’t seen Mandy, or her brother Jay, in over 40 years.
To be honest, I’m not sure what I felt. I might’ve thought: “Well, now I know what happened to her after all these years.”
I had been coming off over a decade of losses, both personal and professional. The past couple years have been more positive, and I’m even starting to imagine future goals and things I want to bring into my life anew.
But hearing from Jay about his sister tossed me into a mini funk of sorts.
I wanted to tell someone, but didn’t know who might even relate to my “long-form story”: a guy who’s kept journals since he was 13 years old, a biographical blog for nine years, and recounts stories of family, friends, and lovers, all the people who’ve affected him for 50-plus years.
How do you even approach telling all that to someone — anyone? It’s like pulling out a bullhorn and announcing a rank odor in the middle of a grocery store.
Of course my old standby, such as I’m doing here, is to write about it. But I wanted to be careful about “what it all means.” In one sense, it’s meaningless. People come and go from our lives, and others stick around for years. Things change, friends move away, friendships fade, family members die. It’s the core reality of existence.
But here was an anomaly. A story that I thought would never have closure, well, suddenly did.
I had to reach out to Jay and learn how their family was shaped by the last 50 years, and to extend my condolences on Mandy’s passing.
Mandy Wickman was one of my first girlfriends. We were both between 7 or 9 years old when we met in the fourth grade, in Olney, Maryland. I’d had a couple girlfriends before Mandy, the first being Tonya, who attended my birthday party at a movie theater in the fall of 1968 (photo at left; I’m at the head of the table looking into the camera, Tonya is to my right, her back to the camera, in the yellow top).
The story of how Mandy and I got together in the fall of 1969 appears in my blog Completely in the Dark. Sensations from that time still hit me with absolute clarity: the scent of chalkboard dust, perfume and bubble gum, poster paint and books in the library, the sound of kids laughing and clapping along with pop music the teacher has brought to class.
I was shy, but made two quick friends: Sam Nesbitt and Jay Wickman. I often spent time at either Sam’s and Jay’s houses. That’s when I noticed Mandy and Mandy noticed me (in our class photo below, Mandy is second row from the top in the blue shirt; I’m in the bottom row in the brown shirt with the Timex wristwatch, to the left of the class plaque).
There’s some regret when I think about Mandy’s death. Sure we parted company a long, long time ago, when we were very young and our parents had their own struggles and goals, job changes, moves across country, and everything that was going on in the world at that time. In my blog’s comments I invited Jay to reach out by email or phone so we could catch up. He followed my blog and left an email address, and all last week we had daily back-and-forths about what has happened in our lives.
It was an intoxicating week.
It’s an odd sensation communicating with someone you haven’t been in touch with for over 40 years.
Mostly there are the questions: Who is this person now? What are their attitudes and beliefs? What has shaped their lives? What are they proud of? What are their regrets and failures?
Jay’s first email filled in a lot of details and two ironies that have stuck with me.
Irony number one: Their family moved to Minnesota two years after we left Maryland. For a span of three years they lived just over 30 miles from our house! Of course I didn’t know about this as we hadn’t stayed in touch. In 1975, Jay and Mandy’s father accepted a job in San Diego, CA, and they moved west.
The rest of Mandy’s story came from Jay’s emails last week. She received an athletic scholarship to UCLA where she graduated as star of the women’s volleyball team. She then embarked on a 25-year career in commercial banking and married a guy named Michael. (Irony number two.)
Mandy and her husband didn’t have children, but took Jay’s only daughter under their wing, along with another nephew by their youngest brother Marty and his wife. Jay mentioned that throughout Mandy’s battle with leukemia “we were close and her illness was a very tough progression.” I tried to imagine the weight of that on their family, and a lot of feelings resurfaced about my own family’s losses since 2008.
Reconnecting with Jay meant a lot, reminding me that when people are missing from your life, reaching out might just be the ticket. Sometimes being patient and open to whatever life might decide is another course. Oftentimes it’s hard to know which way is best.
One thing I didn’t mention to Jay was how I pined over Mandy after we moved to Minnesota in the early ’70s. She was the kind of friend I never thought I’d have again in my life. And learning that she was only a stone’s throw away for three years is hilarious. If I could tell my preteen self anything it would be: “Hey kid, the thing you’re missing is within yourself. It’s not someone or something from the past or just down the road.”
I’m not sure he’d listen, but maybe you catch my drift.
So, where to go with this now?
Jay Wickman and his wife and daughter now live 100 miles south of L.A. His older brother Chris and family live in Portland, Oregon. Another older brother lives in Mexico and the youngest of the family, who would’ve been a toddler when I was Mandy’s boyfriend, is a successful technical director in Hollywood.
They’re in the sunny south.
I’m still in the frozen north.
And Mandy’s no longer among us.
I would’ve liked to have gotten to know her better, even beyond what Jay wrote in his first email, that my blog post’s “insightful and keen details about her, our home and the antics truly captivated me. You knew things about her that most never will!” Maybe that’s because she truly affected me (I can even hear her raspy tomboyish laughter to this day) and how we connected at such a young age.
I guess my biggest takeaway is this: how astounding life can be when I’m confronted with the story that life wants to tell — not the way I wish it could be. Of course we’re all not merely at the whim of time, fate, kismet, or whatever you want to call it. We’re actors, making choices, we are present within the lives of those we care about.
Or, we’re missing in action.
I know I could always be more present. In the past ten years I’ve lost parents, friends, lovers. Sometimes it seems the only communication I have now is with non sequitur-speaking humans at the local grocery store. But in the weeks to come I’ve promised myself to reach out to more old friends and tell this story and listen to their reactions.
One last takeaway: we’re not so different in old age as we were when we were 8 or 9. It’s easy to dismiss “puppy love” as nothing on a par with mature and responsible loving adult relationships. Sure that’s true, but I’d argue for a holistic approach to personality, maybe because the elements that make up our early personalities never completely change.
Since receiving Jay’s emails, I’m reminded of Jackson Browne’s song, “Of Missing Persons.”
Maybe it points to a more hopeful direction:
“This will always be your day of birth,
May you always see what your life is worth.”