It was with a feeling of numbness, more than grief, as I read the email in the Georgia motel room on the way back from Florida. True there was some sadness. But I had anticipated news like this one day. After all, when your "high school girlfriend" is 100, the relationship stretches for weeks and months, not years.But to hear that my precious Jeanne had died on my birthday? My life's start and her life's end all ironically packaged in one 24 hour period?
Instantly, my mind raced back to the day when I met Jeanne. It was October 2010 at Roosevelt High School's "all years" reunion in Chicago. What I had no way of knowing then was how fate had something special in store for both of us. My expectations were fairly simple - to reconnect with classmates from the 1960s. It wasn't until I read an article about 97 year old Jeanne Goodman in the Chicago Tribune the day before that I changed my plans. I was immediately captivated by her story as related in that article: a shy, retiring teenager, slowly blossoming into a more confident woman and then meeting the love of her life, Morris, with whom a solid fulfilling marriage endured for many decades. I am a sucker for schmaltzy love stories. There were enough such tidbits about the romantic side of that relationship featured in the article that I vowed to meet her at the reunion.She arrived, accompanied by one of her daughters and son-in-law. I politely asked if she would mind if my wife took a photo of the two of us. She agreed and we made small talk for a couple of minutes. I recall she asked if I played basketball on the school team. Guess when you are a petite 5 foot tall (if that) and standing next to 6'1", you will come to that conclusion. I said no and she followed with some self-effacing charm: "That's OK, people sometimes ask if I play miniature golf." She moved on to the cafeteria with her family and I thought to myself, great, I got to meet her and now have this anecdote to relate and a souvenir photo.In hindsight, taking that photo and then sending it to her set the stage for what followed. Not flowers or candy (though I did brighten her day with these over the next couple of years). A simple 4x6 print - that was the seed. Why? Because as soon as she received it, she called to thank me and relive some of the memories from the reunion. It didn't take long though for our conversation to get around to our respective backgrounds and history. As a 97 year old, I knew she was born the same year as my own mother, Rose, who had died 25 years earlier. I began to pick up on some of the many ways Jeanne reminded me of my mother and thought again about the serendipity that brought us together that evening. But, more importantly, I sensed that our relationship was expanding.When I learned that Morris was also born in 1913, I casually inquired where he had attended high school and she replied Tuley High School, my mom's high school. We had already established that Jeanne and I shared a classmate connection (albeit 34 years apart). I was now wondering if her Morris and my Rose had a more direct link 80 years ago and, fortunately, for both of us, I had the ability to research this further, namely Rose's high school yearbook. Without telling Jeanne I had it, we talked further and agreed to stay in touch.
Once I located it in the basement "archives", I eagerly (but carefully) leafed through the time worn pages. And there I found them, two fresh-faced 18-year-olds - she was smiling, he was more serious, staring at me
from the bottom two corners of the page (here outlined in red). Because of another welcome happenstance, the alphabet, Rose GORDON was closely linked to Morris GOODMAN.Wow, I wondered, they likely knew of each other, perhaps Mom even sat behind Morris. Did he carry her books home? Did she help him with his homework? Did he watch her tennis matches? Was she rooting him on at his track meets? No way of knowing of course. Just as there was no way of predicting that nearly a century later this man's future wife and this woman's son would be embarking on their own high school saga. I emailed Jeanne the next day, letting her know of this discovery and promising to send a copy of that page. She didn't take long to respond, informing me that although she once had a copy of the yearbook, she no longer did and offered her reaction at seeing his photo once again. "It's unbelievable that you found my Morry...I now believe that anything and everything is possible, all of this is so emotional for me."Her and Morry's story enchanted me. Here was a marriage begun two weeks before Pearl Harbor and suddenly ended six weeks before 9/11 when, during their nightly ritual of toasting each other with a glass of wine, Morry died of a brain aneurysm. National tragedies bookending a tale of love and absolute devotion to each other. I was charmed by the way that Jeanne praised Morry: "He opened a whole new world for me and I loved it." She met him at a dance in May 1941. "He was the cutest boy I ever saw" she recalled, "he asked me to dance, what a great dancer." And it was mutual. Morry proclaimed to fellow drivers in the streets of Flagstaff, many years later, rolling down the window and waving and smiling proudly, "You see her? She's mine. I'm the luckiest man alive."But Jeanne became mine as well, as part of this "love affair" borne out of a chance encounter at our high school. Over the next many months, we bonded during long phone conversations, discussing current events, politics, classical music, the arts, computers and technology (and I am the one born well after World War I), health issues and, not surprisingly, the afterlife. One of her emails requested that we would "keep in touch as long as possible, after all, it's later than we think as far as I'm concerned." The occasional visits to see her in Chicago were always cherished.It did not take long before I became an adopted member of her family, and forged a friendship with both her daughters. All of this culminated at her memorable 100th birthday party in September where I was privileged to attend and video the festivities.
Her reaching that milestone was never assured though. Just months before, she had received the cancer diagnosis. I was not the only one who was questioning how much fighting spirit she could muster at that stage of her life. After all, she was 99. But not to worry, especially with her unwavering commitment to dance at her grandson's wedding. With pluck and grace she soldiered on through biopsies, tests and surgeries. The promised dance materialized. And four months later, the eagerly anticipated birthday party would be held on a crisp September afternoon. The "proverbial good time" was had by scores of family members and friends from all over the country.But the sunshine and brilliant fall foliage outside the restaurant that day were symbolic for me. I knew their warmth and beauty would fade in mere weeks. The days would soon "dwindle down to a precious few." Natural forces were at work. And as all this transpired, inevitably, how would I feel? Especially because now I realized I had been given a remarkable gift. A chance to love and be loved by a second mom. My own mom's spirit had returned via Jeanne. And now it would be departing for a second time. I began to grieve for myself, as I also anguished for her immediate family.As we all monitored her declining health over the winter. I struggled with alternating desires. Selfishly, I wanted her to overcome the illness, ignoring the reality of the situation. But I washaving trouble with the notion of "letting her go." If hers was a "life well lived", maybe there was still a bit more "living well" ahead. Those were difficult times for me but nothing compared to what family members were experiencing. So ultimately, it is fitting that I found the greatest comfort in what her two daughters related at the service held to celebrate Jeanne the week after her passing. Sharon noted that Jeanne was everyone's role model and a wonderful inspiration. Heidi recalled many years ago that when she asked "Mom, what will I do without you when you're not here?" Jeanne softly replied "I'll always be with you because when it is time for me to leave this earth, my heart will live within your own."Words with very special meaning. For Jeanne and her family. For my mom and me. All of us together. Acknowledging a love that came full circle.