The arsonist had returned. I would've been caught by complete surprise if it hadn't been for the smoke of memories; the recurrent waking nightmare of being trapped in a burning room of invisible flame.
The nightmares, barely minutes in duration, are thankfully few and far between in these middle years, but the arsonist knows how to create the right Molotov cocktail when I'm feeling unwell. This flammable concoction includes one ounce exhaustion, one ounce under the weather, and one ounce low-level nervousness. In the right environment at the wrong time, this three-fingered shot spontaneously combusts and the air around me catches fire.
My wife Amy saw the smoke as well, noticed the discomfort on my perspiring face, my eyes dancing and ready to bolt, the tendrils of translucent flame curling around my head. Without missing a beat, she went to the nearest table and poured me a glass of ice water, returning swiftly with a sunny smile on her face.
I kept talking to my reunion classmates as if nothing were wrong, this from years of learning how to keep the arsonist in its place. Although my conversations sounded as if they were coming from an rotary phone in the next smoke-free room, I hung in there. The ice water quelled the heat, the smoke cleared, and the arsonist was vanquished yet again.
One little victory in a span of minutes 30 years on, while for some of us, phantom villains keep tracking us over time no matter what we do to lose them. Phantom villains such as anxiety, panic attacks and depression, all of which come in differing forms and personas.
Mine is an arsonist, one that first reared its vile head in high school, a panic attack fire-starter. Decades later I keep the arsonist at bay, although once and awhile it burns me down, albeit briefly. This is why every Mt. Whitney High School reunion, including the most recent 30-year reunion, is such a special event for me.
My classmates cared. About each other and everything that affected us, especially our friend Robby who broke his neck at a swim meet our senior year. Whether or not we were close then (or now), whatever cliques we hung out in, whatever flippant drama many of us certainly did participate in -- we still all cared. A class nearly 500 in size, we crossed The Breakfast Club picket lines again and again, a subset of us eventually rekindling our friendships on Facebook.
To hell with phantom villains, because there are moments that alter all our worlds dramatically, that forever bind us together, our lives and futures inextricably linked in a lifetime of friendship -- through all the personal tragedy, incremental joy, marriage, children, divorce, career success and failure, falling outs and ins, illness, injury (a recent bum knee for me), addiction, anxiety, depression, and even death -- always laced with happy silver linings and much needed laughter.
I hope to convey to my girls how important it is to overpower their villains and surround themselves with people like this who care, share and laugh, who want nothing more than to be better and shine their lights, and that maybe a little of that light will shoo the darkness away, whether they only see them in real life every 5-10 years, if at all, or only online.
We are all now men and women of an unremarkable age, seasoned old friends with big hearts that are always happy to see each other -- and just friggin' glad to be here, now.
Big heart love to my class of 1984. Thank you.