Thursday, November 15, 2012

Retirement : The Dream vs. Reality

Our retirement dreams come in an endless variety.

There are those who dream of moving closer to kids and grandkids and participating in their lives on a daily basis.

There are those who read the glossy brochures about active adult communities offering promises of non-stop fun and activities and a new sense of belonging.

There are those who plan to stay in place but with more time to enjoy hobbies and interests.

And there are those who dream of travel and adventure -- from full-time RVing to traveling the world.

For many, these dreams come true, sometimes more vividly, more wonderfully than they ever imagined.

For others, there can be a huge gap between what they expect in retirement and what life evolves to be.

There are a lot of reasons why reality can be quite different from one's initial retirement dreams.

It can be a matter of timing. Grandparents move to be close to grandchildren just as they are transitioning to adolescence, have countless activities and want to be with their friends more than with family. Or some may wait for years after retirement - while staying close to family -- to move to an active adult community. At that point, they may be disappointed, feeling isolated and finding that this is not the ideal lifestyle for someone at an advanced age and/or with significant disabilities who might be happier in assisted living or in a life care community.

It can be a matter of an imbalance between fantasy and gritty reality. There are many people who read the brochures for communities like this and come to visit in the winter -- and think it's perfect, only to be shellshocked come summer.

There is a couple who live a block away from us who followed that pattern. Natives of India who have lived most of their lives in London and then, more briefly, Chicago, they came for a visit in December 2009 and were blown away by the beauty of the place and the wide range of activities. They immediately bought an already completed spec home and moved in the next month, absolutely delighted. The shock came around May when temperatures began to soar. The husband, who is in his late 80's, was hospitalized twice with heat exhaustion even from brief exposure. The wife, who is a decade younger, is active in exercise classes and other activities, but also suffers from the heat. Now they are here only five months a year -- needing to stay with their son in New York or their daughter in Northern California during the spring, summer and early fall months. And they talk a lot about selling their home and moving to a more forgiving climate.

Their experience -- and that of many others -- could have been avoided if they had come to look at the community at another time of year. If you're thinking about moving to the Southwest, here's a hint: do an exploratory trip in late July or August. You'll get the double treat of the blazing heat along with monsoon humidity. If you're planning to be a full-time resident, that's the true test of whether this is the place for you. Only if you're an aspiring "Snowbird" would checking out a community like this in the winter make any sense at all. (Bob and I made two trips over here in July of 2008 and July 2009 before making the decision to buy.)

Even if you don't re-locate in retirement, the gap between dream and reality can be jarring. Life just feels much different than you imagined once you clock out at work for the last time.

You may have dreamed of life feeling exciting and free in retirement. And it is. There is something incredibly delicious about going to the movies at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday morning or living largely free of alarm clocks and tight schedules.

Aunt Molly always told me that the best part of retirement was waking up each morning and saying to herself "Today is MINE!"

But for some people, the loss of work connections and prestige and the weight of unscheduled time is an unexpected stressor. There are, of course, some of us who are delighted with every moment and fill our days with good conversations, reading, hobbies, family and friends and volunteer work. But there are others who feel overwhelmed by all the available hours or who wonder, with quiet anguish, "Who am I now??"

One neighbor sits mindlessly watching anything that happens to be on t.v. or, often, he just sits and stares straight ahead for many hours of the day. He never developed interests or hobbies outside of work -- and thinks he's too old to start cultivating any now. Of course, it's never really too late to be fascinated by life, to offer one's services and skills. Many men who live here find that they miss their work lives more than they ever imagined, but are filling the gap with volunteer work or consulting.

There are those, too, who envisioned a retirement entirely on the move as RVers or constant travelers and who, in reality, have ended up modifying their dreams by choice or by unforeseen circumstances.

Our neighbors Bill and Susan were full-time RVers for six years before they decided to buy a home here. The reason? "We felt rootless," Susan explained recently. "We missed having a real home base."  So they hit the road with their RV from May through October and come home to be lively members of the community the rest of the year. It's a lovely mix now of new roots and new adventures.

Some other neighbors, who absolutely love travel and have made some memorable trips in the three years I've known them, have been grounded now by ill health. It's quite likely that their traveling days are over forever. They have warm memories of their adventures -- and are grateful to be in a home they love and with many caring friends. Staying home full-time isn't exactly what they had in mind quite yet -- but they're adjusting to the new challenges life has given them.

Of course, not all the gaps between dreams and reality in retirement mean modifying or letting go of pre-retirement dreams.

For some, retirement is even better than the dream.

Envisioning living life on 1/3 of our previous income, Bob and I were cautiously optimistic. The reality has been much better.  Life on our smaller income is has turned out to be better than we ever imagined,  largely because our  lifestyle and our priorities have changed.

When we were working, we were often too tired to think of going home and cooking dinner,  so we'd eat out -- a lot.  We both dressed up for work. We squeezed times of fun in between the many hours of work and our vacations were true getaways so we could escape the stresses of our lives.

Now we eat out only occasionally and dress casually, strictly for comfort. We do have fun activities.  Many of them, like trips to three different excellent libraries and reading the treasures we find there, going to the gym here, swimming and making music, cost nothing. And while we've taken several getaway vacations -- one to New York, two to Hawaii -- since retiring, we have no plans for any others anytime soon. In the next year, we plan to thoroughly enjoy staycations here at home or day trips to local points of interest and maybe a driving trip to see my cousin Caron who is dear to my heart and unwell.

We've found that life on a reduced income can be just fine -- especially if one has no debt and a willingness to explore new ways to enjoy life.

Making a retirement dream reality can mean a lot more than simply wishing and dreaming. It can mean a lot of hard work and careful planning long before you leave your workplace for the last time. It can mean weighing all your options carefully, researching all the advantages and disadvantages of moving or staying put, getting free of debt before retirement, developing interests that don't cost a lot in addition to plans for those once-in-a-lifetime travel adventures.

It can also mean developing a sense of belonging wherever you are. For some, belonging may mean staying or moving near family. For some, belonging may be the vision of active social lives in one's familiar town or in an active adult community where people come from all over the nation and are eager to build a new circle of friends. And sometimes, belonging is a mixture of treasured people and places.

When I was first dreaming of retirement, I wanted to be in a community where neighbors knew each other well. In Valencia, where we lived for 29 years, we had very few friends in the immediate area. People who lived in Valencia -- us among them -- commuted long distances to work and were too exhausted in the evenings and, often, on weekends, too, to even think about socializing. The whole concept of belonging in the Del Webb community literature -- "It Isn't Just a Place to Live, But To Belong" -- was tremendously appealing. I envisioned lots of socializing, participating in a full array of exercise classes and academic classes, being involved in clubs  and volunteering.

The reality has been limited in scope only by my own inclinations.

When Bob and I first moved to Sun City Anthem Merrill Ranch two-and-a-half years ago, the ambiance here on our street, in our immediate neighborhood, was highly social. I hadn't seen such popping in and out of neighbors' houses since I was a child in the Fifties. There were open houses, dinner parties, excursions and meals out all the time. I found that I enjoyed knowing my neighbors, but that I also craved time alone to think and read and concentrate on writing.

I found that I enjoyed exercising daily, but in my own time and way, unhampered by a lock-step schedule of classes. I found that my own interests were so time-consuming that club activities didn't really appeal as much close up as they had from afar.

 Now the social scene overall has calmed down a bit: some friendships have cooled, others have deepened. We've settled into a lovely routine of abundant alone time to read, time at the gym (where we see lots of friends) and time with people who have come to be extended family to us.

At the same time, I fly back over to Los Angeles on a regular basis to visit with my friend Mary who is unable to travel because of her husband's increasing health problems, and with my brother and his family who now live mostly in Bangkok, but who are occasionally back in L.A. for business and pleasure. It's always a pleasure to see them and familiar haunts.

But I don't regret the move here. This has become home, with a unique sense of belonging that exceeds our sweetest dreams. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Complicated Friendships

I ran into my blogging friend "Calamity Janet" this morning at the gym and, often on the same wavelength, we started talking about friendships and how they can change over the years.

"I've lived in Arizona since 1966 and have friends from Tucson who were once so close -- maybe when we were mothers with young kids or newly divorced -- who now seem like relative strangers," she said. "We've changed and grown -- or not grown -- and now some of us seem to have little in common."

Have you ever had a friend you thought you'd be close to forever -- and now you wonder how and why you were ever close?

Have you had a friend with a quirk that used to be funny -- but now, years later, you've stopped laughing and started getting irritated?

Have you ever had a friend that you sometimes love, sometimes hate?

Have you noticed that, as we age, long-time friends become even more of what they were before -- and sometimes that's very good....and sometimes not so good.

I took a deep breath and called my lone surviving college roommate Ruth the other day to wish her a happy birthday. And when she answered, I was both glad and on edge to hear her voice.

I was glad because, since the untimely deaths of my other three former roommates, I don't take survival lightly. I'm happy to hear she's alive and well.

We roomed together at Northwestern during my junior year and her senior year when we were thrown together in a tiny attic dorm room because we both had bad numbers in the housing lottery. We didn't know each other at all and had asked for specific other roommates -- both of whom also had drawn wretched lottery numbers and were assigned elsewhere. But we quickly adjusted and began to enjoy each other immensely.

I admired her intelligence, her audacity, her triumph over a childhood filled with an acrimonious parental divorce, the impoverished aftermath living in a trailer park, serial stepfathers and a Dad who didn't want to know her now that he had a new family. Having grown up with a different type of family dysfunction, I nevertheless understood well the feeling of being a perpetual outsider and forging ahead through pain and innumerable obstacles.

While we were -- and are -- very different people, I've always felt deep empathy and understanding for where Ruth has been and joy for the wonderful turns and choices in her life that have led her to a place of happiness and contentment.

But I was on edge when I heard her voice on the phone the other day because one aspect of her character has survived these many years: barbed teasing and casual contempt for what she sees as stupid life choices. It seems these days -- when we talk twice a year, on her birthday and mine -- that our conversations end up the same: with me feeling hurt and wondering why we're still friends.

This conversation started well enough.

I asked her how she was doing and her reply was a litany of wonderful things. I was truly delighted to hear that her law practice is going well, that she still found such pleasure in her work, that her wonderful daughter Catherine is doing so well both personally and professionally.

Then there was a pause and Ruth asked me about my life.  "Terrific!" I told her and braced myself for her arguments to the contrary.

And it hurt my heart before a word was spoken.

Then, predictably, she proceeded to tell me everything that she thinks is wrong with my life:

Retirement is a hideous mistake. It's the beginning of the end.

Living in an active adult community has to be the most depressing lifestyle ever.

How can you allow yourself to look so old?

Why don't you wise up and write a steamy sexy novel that will make some money instead of working on memoirs that no one will ever want to read? And blogging?? Give me a break! I keep forgetting to read your blog and if I --a life-long friend -- can forget, why would anyone else remember?

Your family is so crazy and dysfunctional. No wonder you and your siblings have such horrible lives....

What hurts my heart is not only the content of what she says, but also the fact that she would say it at all.

It seems to me that an important part of friendship is celebrating, not denigrating, differences and
giving each other the safety to share not only what is happy and good and working well in our lives but also painful confidences or disappointments. With my closest friends, sharing vulnerabilities, the whole balance of our lives, is a defining trait of the relationship.

One of my dearest friends has political views that are nowhere close to mine but we give each other the space to believe as we wish and defend each other's right to hold our own views. "Honey, don't torment our dear friend with our political views," she said gently to her husband during my recent visit with them. "Kathy feels differently -- and that's perfectly okay."

I have close friends who are addicted to bridge or who dislike cats or otherwise disagree with me in many ways, but the respect and acceptance we offer each other makes friendship not only possible, but perhaps richer for this loving respect of differences.

And I wish Ruth could hear and understand my quiet contentment with my life.

Retirement is allowing me -- and so many others -- to follow our true passions without the drudgery of working long hours at something that is not a passion just for that paycheck.

Living in an active adult community is an eye-opener -- providing me with many fitness role models and many cautionary tales in terms of taking care of myself. It is also a much more friendly place than my old L.A. neighborhood.

I look my age and I don't mind. I've earned my wrinkles and white hair. I'm comfortable with the person I've grown to be.  I'd like to be slimmer for health reasons. But I truly don't mind looking every day of my 67 years. I'm grateful to have reached an age that neither of my parents was fortunate enough to achieve.

I may not ever be rich, but I love writing -- at long last -- what interests and inspires me. It isn't all about money, after all.

While my brother, sister and I grew up in a deeply troubled family and suffered abuse, we also learned a great deal, laughed a lot, and were inspired by the creativity and passion we saw in our parents and, especially, in our very special Aunt Molly. If given a chance, I wouldn't change how, where and with whom I grew up. My brother says he wouldn't either. Where we've been is so much a part of who we are now. And my brother and I agree, we're in a lovely time and place in life.

But it is a very different universe from Ruth's.

"Well, as far as I'm concerned," she was saying. "I refuse to date a man over 55 years old. I like them young. But my daughter made me agree that I won't date a man younger than she is."

I laughed. Ruth is a character. She is pretty and looks years younger than she really is. She and her 31-year-old daughter look like sisters. She's very smart. She's tough. She's resilient. She has truly earned her professional success. And she has been blessed with a beautiful, kind, and truly gifted daughter.

With all the blessings, why the harsh judgments?

We ended our conversation with promises to keep in touch and she mentioned once again getting together, with her using frequent flyer miles to come from Atlanta to Arizona to visit. But I suspect she won't. I breathe a sigh of relief.

And I wonder just what it is that makes me (and so many of us) hang onto friendships that hurt.

Sometimes, of course, we don't.

Years ago, I became friends with a talented young actress. We talked and visited every day. We shared confidences and clothes and went on innumerable diets together.  In hours and hours of talking and sharing, we told each other our fondest hopes and  dreams. And when she got a starring role in a popular, long-running television series, I couldn't have been more delighted for her.

Several years into her new stardom, however, the balance in the friendship began to change. She would call me at my magazine staff writing job asking me to run errands for her during my lunch hour. I knew she was on hiatus from filming at that time and asked why she couldn't do the errands herself. "I have a tennis lesson," she said. "And, besides, I thought you might be happy to help." The imperious tone gave me pause.  I was growing up and had a stronger sense of self. I wanted to be treated as an equal.

The last time I saw her, she had invited me to her lavish new home to celebrate my birthday and to talk about something. When I arrived, she looked at me with surprise, obviously having forgotten about the promised birthday dinner. But she had a proposition. "You live in such miserable circumstances in that dumpy apartment and are making so little money for that stupid writing job you have," she said. "I'll pay you $100 more a month and you can live in the maid's room here if you'll become my personal assistant."

I turned the offer down and she thought me terribly ungrateful. We haven't seen or talked with each other for nearly 40 years.

But Ruth, well, it's different. She has expressed caring and loyalty -- minus judgments and criticism -- during some of the lowest moments of my life. And when challenged on her hurtful behavior, she apologizes and says being critical and bossy is a habit, that she gets like that with people she cares about and doesn't mean to hurt my feelings.

But still...the pain is real.

I came across a quote from George Eliot the other day and it resonated with me: "Friendship is the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words."

As much as I dislike categorizing people and, certainly, friends, George Eliot's thoughts have prompted me to see certain complicated friendships in a different light.

There are close by or long distance friendships we gradually let go as our conversations dwindle and what once united us begins to disappear.

There are long distance, limited contact relationships -- and safety is maintained by distance.

There are long distance, intimate friendships with safety and joy however we connect.

There are close by acquaintances who will never be more than that, no matter how much time we spend together and close by new friends with whom I feel safe and loved.

Friendships built on mutual respect, caring and safety are a treasure whether they're new or have thrived through a lifetime of change.

Monday, November 5, 2012

A Heartbreaking Loss...and Toxic Condolences

                                          Nora Morello-Shea    2004-2012

Nora Morello-Shea was, quite simply, the world's greatest dog. Her fur was wonderfully soft, her manners impeccable, her temperament invariably sweet and mellow.

She shared her life with our neighbors Marsha Morello and Joe Shea, who found her in rescue when she was a young adult and who had enjoyed her company for the past seven years. In many ways, their lives revolved around Nora. Their walks through the community several times a day were a fun highlight not only for them, but also for neighbors who stopped to greet Nora and to talk with Joe and Marsha. And if the talk went on for more than a few minutes, Nora would calmly lie down on the sidewalk or the street and wait patiently. She was a lovely playmate, a wonderful companion. So much of the playfulness and fun in the Morello-Shea home centered on Nora.

When she became ill a few weeks ago, we were all concerned, but not alarmed. After all, Nora had survived a bout of Valley Fever last year, recovering fully. But this time, it was not to be. When I called to check on Nora's progress one day, Joe choked on "Hello" and handed the phone to Marsha who tearfully told me that Nora had died the day before. I sat on the other end of the phone, tears rolling down my cheeks, as I listened to Marsha's grieving. Nora was a much beloved member of their family. It was hard to imagine life without her. Joe, who is in his eighties and in frail health, was crushed by the loss. Their walks together had become the best part of each day for him. Snuggling with her was an incredible comfort. Her light brown eyes shone with kindness and caring and an intelligence that suggested that Nora understood far more than any of us imagined. She was truly one-of-a-kind.

In the sad days since, Marsha and Joe have received warm condolences from friends and neighbors who can understand, at least a little, the magnitude of their loss.

But among the warm words of consolation, there have been some toxic comments -- some unintentionally hurtful, some that simply take one's breath away.

At a time when companion animals have become family members for so many and when the loss of these beloved animals may be as painful as the loss of a human family member, it's important for others -- animal people and non-animal people -- to be mindful when they offer condolences.

When Bob and I lost Timmy, quite possibly our best cat ever, to melamine poisoning in 2007, we grieved for him and cried over his loss almost as much as we did when our parents died. The empty place he left in our home and our hearts was enormous, gapping, devastating. And it wasn't helpful to hear comments like "I can't believe you're so upset about a CAT!" or "Well, you still have Gus."  We were -- and are -- indeed grateful to have Timmy's littermate Gus still with us. But that didn't make the loss of Timmy any less painful.

It's the same with Marsha and Joe. One neighbor, seeking to comfort them, said "Oh, it's terrible that you've lost Nora. She was a wonderful dog. So you'll grieve for a few weeks -- and then get another dog..." The neighbor meant well, but the mention of a future adoption was a bit premature.

No animal can ever be replaced. While Marsha and Joe fully intend to bring another rescue dog into their home at some point, they need time now to resolve the grief they feel over losing Nora. This will be quite a bit longer than a few weeks. They will know when it's time. And, in the meantime, they need to hear how others loved and miss Nora.

And it is definitely not the time to use their loss as an opportunity to register one's disapproval of their life choices or circumstances.

When another neighbor walking by saw Marsha crying as she picked up Nora's toys in the yard, she said she was sorry...but then added a smug zinger that gave voice to her obvious disapproval of the fact that Joe and Marsha are a long-married, childless couple.

"Now if you had children and grandchildren to love and be concerned with, the loss of a dog wouldn't matter so much," this neighbor told Marsha. "It's because you lack so much in your life that this is so painful for you."

No, it's because Nora meant so very much to Marsha and Joe that the grief runs so deep. And this has nothing to do with having children or not having children.

My friend Tim, who has four children whom he loves dearly, had another love in his life until a few years ago: a sweet Calico cat named Patches. Patches was very special to him -- greeting him at the door when he arrived home from work, cuddling with him in the evenings and giving comfort as he dealt with painful conflicts and decisions in his life. And when she became terminally ill at the age of 18 several years ago and was living with unbearable pain, he made the difficult decision for euthanasia. His son Steve took time off work to go with Tim, his wife Barbe and Patches to the vet's. Tim held Patches, whispering words of love, as her life ended. And Steve held Tim as he cried for the loss of this very special, irreplaceable little companion. And, several years later, Tim's eyes still fill with tears as he remembers her loss.

The death of a beloved animal companion is a major loss. It's important to understand this reality when seeking to console a bereaved friend.

So words of comfort need to be the familiar ones....

I'm so sorry...

My heart goes out to you...

You're in my thoughts and prayers...

What can I do for you?

I'll always remember her (him)...what a wonderful companion she (he) was....

Or maybe a hug. A hand clasped. A grieved silence and shared sadness....

Honoring the love for this beloved animal and the reality of so much missed....

There will never be another Nora.

She was a perfect dog, a lovely companion, a delightful friend.

She loved unconditionally and was so dearly loved by all who knew her.

She will not be forgotten.

Rest in peace, sweet Nora.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Magic of Friendship

There are times in our lives when we meet someone and know immediately that somehow we'll be close friends forever. These are rare and wonderful relationships that not only begin with a startling depth of feeling, but also weather the tests of time, of distance, of differences in lifestyle and life choices and are as magical and comforting in age as they were in youth.

Such relationships are treasures in our lives. And one of my most treasured friendships began in less than promising circumstances.

It was windy with bone-chilling cold and blowing snow that night -- so long ago -- when my college classmate Tim Schellhardt and I met at the Evanston L station for a ride into Chicago to catch a train to a town well south of the city.

Starting out, we weren't especially pleased to be making this trip together. We didn't know each other very well and first impressions -- that he was a farm boy with a corny sense of humor and I a know-it-all snob from L.A. -- weren't especially favorable. But Elizabeth Swayne, our writing instructor, had paired us for an assignment with an agenda in mind: our strengths and weaknesses dovetailed nicely. I was terrified of interviews and actually wept during my first solo venture out; Tim, though still in his teens, was an expert interviewer. We were both excellent writers, but our teacher thought that Tim needed a bit of coaching on structuring a story -- and that was my strength.

We were assigned to interview and write a story about the Lemme family in Dolton, IL who had recently moved into a comfortable two story home on a nice street in Dolton -- and were, not so incidentally, the first African-American residents in town. It was the fall of 1964 and crosses were being burned on their lawn. Neighbors were shunning them and no classmates would walk home from school with their six-year-old daughter Pamela.

We were charged not only with learning from the Lemmes and trying to see the world through their eyes, but also with learning from each other.

On the train, after a few minutes of sullen, uneasy silence, Tim and I began to talk....and talk and talk. We realized, somewhere en route, that we had a great deal in common, that we shared a lot of interests and goals. His sense of humor was keen, not corny. He learned that I was shy, not a snob. We laughed and enjoyed each other's company more with each mile.

Somewhere along the way, while changing trains, I lost one of my gloves. He gave me one of his, then plunged his hand into my coat pocket. We took turns with the glove and the pocket game. We laughed a lot.

And by the time we reached Dolton, we were dear friends.

As I watched Tim do the interview with this brave and wonderful family, I began to understand, at last, what a good interview should be: not an inquisition with a list of questions, but a warm connection, a good conversation. It was a marvelous and memorable evening with the Lemmes. I was moved by their courage and intelligence -- and their generosity in sharing their insights and experiences with us. And I was filled with admiration at Tim's interviewing skills.

He was in similar awe when I started putting the story together, weaving elements of his interview together in ways he had never imagined.

We became each other's biggest fans and knew that somehow we would always share a deep and loving friendship.

It wasn't always easy. There was a time when I yearned for much more than friendship while his heart went in another direction altogether. Our lives took very different turns after graduation.

Tim married young and headed to Washington, D.C. for a stellar career as a political reporter for the Wall Street Journal, spending a number of years as the White House reporter for the Journal, traveling with and getting to know a variety of presidents.

I went back to L.A., stayed single into my thirties, worked for 'TEEN Magazine and began to write for national women's magazines and to write books for and about adolescents.

Tim and his wife Barbe had four wonderful children. I married Bob very happily in my thirties and we remained childless.

But our friendship persisted through the years and all the changes in our lives and careers.

Every Christmas, I would paste photos of his children in a memory book, watching them grow up in these treasured annual pictures.

We never lived close enough geographically for frequent visits: I was in California and now Arizona. Tim lived for many years in the East and then back in Chicago. But we kept in touch by phone, by mail and more recently by email and Facebook.

Tim and I would visit when our business travel brought us closer -- when I was in Washington on an assignment or when he came with a President to California. And later, after he moved to Chicago as the Wall Street Journal's bureau chief, I would see him when I traveled back to Chicago annually for meetings connected with my part time job in admissions for Northwestern. Each time, we'd have lunch, talk and laugh a lot -- and marvel at how time fell away and we could converse with the ease of having just seen each other the day before -- even if several years had come between our meetings. Each time we've seen each other in person over the years, we've had a renewed sense of just how special, how precious, our warm connection has been.

I watched with delight as his children grew up. His eldest daughter Laura is an award-winning playwright and teaches playwriting at Northwestern now. His second daughter Mary Kate is an accomplished film and television actress, whose career began in her teens when she played the younger sister of Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" and Tom Hanks' oldest daughter in "Apollo 13." His third daughter Eliza is a talented and beloved middle school music and drama teacher in Colorado. His son Stephen is an amazing singer and actor in musical theatre. Even more significantly, however, they are loving and caring people.

I'll never forget the evening that I met Tim and his daughter Laura for dinner just as she was starting her freshman year of college. "Tell me the story about that train ride," she said suddenly. "I've heard the story from Dad so many times. I'd love to hear it from your point of view. And I hope, now that I'm in college, that somewhere, somehow, I'll find and keep a friendship as wonderful as the one you and Dad share."

I hope she found such a friendship.

Tim has cheered me on through career ups and downs and quickly established a warm connection with my husband. Bob was charmed immediately by the humility and down-to-earth qualities of this bright and talented man. Bob even named his all-time favorite cat -- a sweet and loving Burmese mix kitten -- Timmy after our lovely friend.

Neither Tim nor I have been immune to the pressures and losses of aging. Our waistlines have grown. We've faced professional challenges and personal regrets and the loss of significant loved ones. I'm struggling to take my writing career in a new direction. He is in the process of ending his 44-year marriage with a poignant mixture of deep sadness and relief. Our communications have taken on a somber tone of late.

So when I received the notice of our 45th reunion scheduled for the end of October at Northwestern, I hesitated. Would this be the time to meet and greet and celebrate with classmates we hadn't seen in years? And then I thought "Why not?" I sensed that, above all, Tim and I needed to check in with each other for loving reassurance. Tim agreed with just a hint of hesitation.

It was a marvelous, magical, memorable weekend. We did enjoy seeing classmates from years ago and strolling the same tree-lined paths we had walked together as students so many decades ago. We cheered the Homecoming Parade and Pep Rally but mostly cheered each other as we talked and cried and laughed through the weekend. It was a time to remember the past with a smile and to embrace the present together, feeling smarter and more of everything -- kind and funny and edgy and loving -- because we had this time together. "Oh, dear friend," Tim told me just before I left to return to Arizona.
"I feel 1,000 percent more alive..."

So did I, as we returned to our respective and quite different lives wonderfully renewed and re-energized by our time together.

And I've been thinking a lot today about the special friendships in all our lives and how they live on in a continuing circle of joyous coming together and bittersweet parting, how much they keep us connected to the past and to the present -- and feeling so very much alive.

                          Dear Friends Tim and Kathy - October 27, 2012