Hindsight seems to increasingly make my life funnier than I thought it was at the time, even if the joke is all too often on me. I realized as I sat out reading on my sister's porch, where I figured that Jenny could spot me from the street if she was having trouble spotting house numbers, that this was the longest gap I'd ever had in seeing a friend. It was weird to realize that, to count the years: another sign of how fast it all seems to be going, and perhaps a sadder consequence of my choices to try to live simply and to not own a car, in not maintaining my friendships in Chicagoland as I might have, which is not really too far away, after all.
She pulled up and got out, and we started talking even as we were walking across the lawn to each other, taking in the sight of each other and noting the sameness and differences of those years. "Oh, God, I forgot how cute you were," she said, as she enveloped me in one of her all-consuming hugs, making me laugh and smile at her still having a talent for making me feel incredibly special while I hugged her back. It was Jenny who taught me to hug, really, with this almost abandoned affirmation of another person's importance: whatever my hugs had been before that, they were some kind of anemic, cautious thing by comparison to this sort of upright tackle from this strong dancer who had an inch or more on me. I remember having had the impression my junior year of college that when I returned home to give my family this new sort of hug for the first time that I rather creeped them out, perhaps making them wonder if this was some other trait I'd picked up from all those strange and enthusiastic Evangelicals I hung out with. But that was her and her family, as I found out when I got to know her Mom and her sister. As I grew up in an extended family that at the time possessed no "social kiss" that I can recall, I used to joke that what I had previously considered making out was the Pattons just being friendly – all the Patton women were fabulously welcoming Forces of Nature, it seemed to me, and her father seemed a milder sort who had dedicated himself to simply surviving the love that was showered out on everyone in their presence. It was good to see, now, that nothing had changed in that regard.
Finding that my sister's area lacks good, independent coffeehouses, we ended up going to the area mall and sitting at a coffeehouse space in the midst of that, engaging in the mix of catching up, current news, reminiscing, and topical digression that was pretty much to be expected in a reunion like ours. A later run for dinner over to an Irish pub called The Kerry Piper ended in defeat as the place was rented out for a private retirement party, and so we ended up back at a Rock Bottom Brewery near where we had started out. All told, we ended up talking for about six hours, and when it was all done, we were perhaps most happy to see that it felt like no time at all had passed: like I had described my inner circle friendships of the Freeks and such folks from Notre Dame, it seemed that this friendship too had the virtue of being able to just be picked up from where we had last seen one another, without any kind of distance or distrust having crept in over time.
She and I have both had some significant health issues over the years – both starting to develop when we were undergrads, and both of us unaware how serious they would become. So we compared notes on that sort of thing, both insisting that the other has had it much worse. (I'm right this time, though: hers is worse.) But that long struggle aside, she's done so well for herself, particularly in marrying John, who seems to balance her out perfectly. But what was best to see was that for someone who endures so much physical pain, she still retains her gift for showering love and affection in a seemingly effortless way: I don't think I was old enough in college to realize how extra-ordinary that capacity really is in people.
I talked about some of that with her over the afternoon and early evening. There was something more there than I think a lot of her friends understood in college, that there was a confidence in her own faith that took a different shape than that of the Evangelical crowd around us and who were uneasy with the differences in the form of her Christianity, and her discomfort with most of the Evangelical groups. That misunderstanding is not unusual at a younger stage of faith, I think, where form and function are sometimes confused. But just the fact that such misunderstanding is not unusual doesn't stop us from jumping all over it. (Self-righteousness is a game we all play, even if it's a term that's generally used exclusively – and conveniently – of "religious" people.) That sort of thing is often used to condemn Evangelicals, or even more so, Fundamentalists – that their legalism overwhelms the freedom of grace they proclaim in the gospel. But I think it's actually just a pretty normal "anthropological" tendency that we see in any kind of social group: there's simply a stage where identification as part of a group is the higher appeal to authenticity than a conformity to an ideal instead of to the group. Some people recognize that emphasis on identifying with the group and leave it behind as a stage of development, and in others it lingers and becomes a more serious flaw. It wasn't easily understood at the time that the expectations of her Christian friends were often the biggest hurdle to her Christianity, but I think that it was in sensing some of these tensions where my roommate David and I both began to express some of our frustrations with the Evangelicalism we were moving in, and which we were in fact among the campus leaders of. Already then I can look back and see the beginnings of the paths that would lead Dave to outgrow his work in percussion and to become a Presbyterian minister, and which would lead me back into an adult Catholicism as a theologian that I now realized was – shock! – so much more sensible and compelling than the Catholicism I rejected as an all-knowing teenager.
One story that came back up over the course of the conversation was that of Jenny's friend Dennis Rich. I had forgotten about this guy, but the name and the shape of the figure she had sketched out for me back in college days began to come back to me as she talked more about him. This was a friend of hers back from high school days that I apparently had a lot in common with, and with whom I seemed to fill a certain relational "role" in Jenny's life: someone intellectual and intense with whom she would wrestle over questions of Christian faith and just life in a complex world. As she brought Dennis back to mind for me, she also filled in some later story, as their tense and intense, argumentative friendship continued over these years that she and I hadn't so much been in contact. He had left behind his work in nuclear physics to become a philosopher, and to be particularly engaged by the work of Thomas Aquinas. In time, this shift also lead to his reception into the Catholic Church. Working in Germany, he'd also developed as a musician and gotten involved in a country-rock band over there called Far From Home. And this April, he had died, after a battle with appendix cancer over the last four years. Through the latter part of this final chapter of his life, he had been blogging, and I could see that it was important to Jenny that I might finally get some kind of chance to get to know him at last, as she had from our undergrad days always wanted to introduce us. Since his family had taken steps to preserve his blog, Life o' Dennis: Health updates plus occasional musings on things profound and stupid., I'll be reading my way through it in days or weeks to come. When I first turned to it, whether from something really there, or just from the power of suggestion from everything Jen had told me, I felt some sense of connection as soon as I saw his picture for the first time. She had dealt with death before, but nothing ever so untimely, from what I understood. I don't know how we can ever stop mourning such a loss.
She was funny and ferocious as she asked questions about my dating life over the last several years, growling over anyone she decided hadn't been good enough for me, no matter how much I defended them, and apparently disappointed in me for having succumbed to social pressures to the extent that I did in having cut my hair as much as I have. Despite the fact that I've gotten more compliments for this hair length or cut than anything else I've had in my life, and which still lets it remain longish, at least, she mourned that I wasn't wearing the hair that she remembered and preferred, cooing over the picture of me at Devils Tower in Wyoming as she leafed through the booklet in the copy of Life and Other Impossibilities that I'd passed her – a length or look that apparently everyone else among my family or friends didn't care for at all, and which would especially make my mother swallow her tongue. So all that just made me laugh.
There were some muddled attempts for me to explain my dissertation, but I inevitably distracted myself with some tangent as we went along, and I was content to just describe something of what my teaching experience had been like thus far, and what going on the job market for the next year entailed. I was more interested in getting the timeline straight in my head of how she and John had gotten together (he was just a rumour on the horizon when I'd last seen her) and to hear about their fabulously chaotic wedding and such, complete with power outages and attendant disasters-that-later-make-good-stories.
My brother-in-law Jim and I were talking about it some the next day as I was heading home to Milwaukee, and he asked me if I was thinking about "the road not taken." I laughed and said that, no, it wasn't anything so dramatic as that: it was just that in spite of time, distance, lives going in different directions and given to other friendships, there was still the same goodwill there. I'm getting several reminders of late of the power of endurance in love; reaffirmations of the reality of the Holy Spirit forging eternal connections that have a staying power beyond that of our purely natural attempts at love. Her asking me to pray before our meal together was as much of an articulation of that understanding as anything I've been able to come up with in thinking over this gift of an afternoon: that'll do.