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A Lesson Learned

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I had the good fortune to witness someone truly “live in the moment” when I was only fifteen. Yes, long ago I saw how life could be felt deep in the gut – Carpe diem incarnate! Admittedly, it is not something I have dwelled on – this particular memory comes to mind only now and again. However, looking back, it may have been that seminal event which sparked a desire to capture moments of unencumbered joy in my own life, a quest that takes on greater urgency as time unspools behind me. A couple of mornings ago, as I jogged around the local prairie path, I remembered that early example. It involved a summer night, the local carnival, and a boy named Jim.

Jim was a friend of a friend. Big, broad and Irish, Jim had a booming voice and an outsize personality. A few years earlier he had witnessed his father drop dead of a heart attack. I didn’t know this on the night we met, but he later described waking to see his mom pounding on his dad’s chest as he lay on the kitchen floor. Did Jim, because of this loss, recognize the fragility of life in a way I couldn’t at fifteen? Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not. All I can say for certain is I met him the summer before sophomore year in high school when the carnival made its annual appearance in my hometown. At the time, Jim was a teasing, goading boy who cajoled me onto the Ferris Wheel for a ride.

Jim and I boarded the car and it jigged upward, stalling and swinging to load other riders. At last we were at the top. The lights of the carnival glittered everywhere. It was a clear, warm night. I was admiring the treetops full and green below our feet when Jim said, “Let’s swing this thing.” Now I may have been just a teen, but I had already developed a healthy skepticism about the mechanical soundness of local carnival rides. The guys running the show didn’t strike me as the engineering types; swinging the car smacked of lunacy. I said something about getting off at the next sweep past the attendant. The ride lurched into gear and that’s when it happened.

In my mind’s eye I see Jim lift his hands off the guard bar, throw them over his head and turn his eyes to the sky. As the giant wheel swept us downward in one long whoosh he sighed, “Ahhhhhhhh!” I was gripping the rim of the car in anxiety and Jim was transfigured: losing himself in that night, that ride, that sensation. The sight arrested me, my own “I’ll-have-what-he’s-having” moment. It was fleeting. We circled back up and then a couple of more times around until our ride ended. I must have rejoined my girlfriends. Regrettably, I don’t recall anything more about that night.

Jim and I were friends for a long time. At some point in our late 20s we drifted apart. He married a woman and it didn’t work out. I thought he was rude to my fiancé and didn’t invite him to our wedding. I heard about Jim now and again through mutual friends. I can’t remember the last time we spoke (it had been years), but I do remember noticing his greying hair as I stood at his casket. The boy on the Ferris Wheel was long gone. No one really knew what had killed him in his early forties. There was speculation, but the issue was irrelevant because by then it was too late. Our hearts broke for his family.

Looking back, I wonder if Jim’s early death colors my Ferris Wheel moment, giving it outsize importance. Was it prescience? Did Jim sense his time was short or was he was just born with joie de vie, eternally a “glass half full” kind of person? I think living a joyful life is something that can be learned. Even if Jim didn’t know it, I was learning from him that night as I have learned from others since then. I try to pass the lesson on to my sons, telling them we can find those glittering seconds that peek out at us even when life’s hectic pace blurs our view.

Jim came to mind this morning – for the first time in a long time – during my run at the local nature trail. There I was, trotting along to my “mom music” as my kids call it, when suddenly I stopped in my tracks, awed by abundant sunshine in an achingly blue sky. I took in the clear air and felt gratitude for my life: a wonderful husband, healthy kids…the ability to still jog after age fifty. It typified those joyful moments I habitually look for. I absorbed it. I lived it. I sighed as I started back on the trail. It was a great feeling and as it passed, I suddenly pictured my old friend, somewhere young again, with his hands thrown high and grinning a long “Ahhhhhhh.” I whispered into the air, “Thanks, Jim.”

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