My high school reunion is this weekend and I’m not going. Sure, there’s a part of me that wants to see all of the old familiar faces, find out what everyone’s been up to (in a non-Fakebook-y sort of way) and feel proud, even if I never mention them, of my recent personal and professional accomplishments. But I just can’t bring myself to go back.
In many ways, my experience growing up in a small town was typical. I goofed off, tried out new sports, hairstyles, laughs, and diets, and made out for hours with my cute soccer-playing boyfriend (could you imagine, these days, kissing someone for two hours straight?). A friend taught me how to drive a stick shift while her younger sister tried hard not to throw up in the back seat, and at least twice a week I headed over to the donut shop for hot cinnamon rolls and coffee. Summers were filled with long days lazily twirling the lifeguard whistle around my index finger and evenings consisted of mostly bonfires and lukewarm beers.
Sounds idyllic, right? Maybe it would have been, were it not for a home life that could only be described as hell.
So like a lot kids, I relied on my friends and their families to fill in the gaps. And, extraordinarily, they did. Before my freshman year of high school, my friend Robin’s family invited me to spend the summer living with them. Perhaps it was my mom’s black and blue eye, her 23-year-old boyfriend, or my frozen and fearful silence, but something told Robin’s mom that she needed to get me out of there – and fast. For those three months, I finally felt like I was protected. And safe.
And then I went back, because who wants to be known as the girl in high school who doesn’t live in her own house?
Eventually and not surprisingly, the situation at home deteriorated. Bad boyfriend number one made a dramatic and memorable exit and within months was replaced by a person who can only be described as a monster. I had to leave, but I was a high school senior and had already turned eighteen. That meant I was an adult, at least according to the state of Pennsylvania. I sought the advice of my guidance counselor who seemed more perplexed than helpful. I felt I had run out of options.
But then came Robin’s family – again. At the beginning of my senior year of high school, I moved back in with them. For those of you who are parents, try to imagine adding another person in your home, an 18-year-old. Another mouth to feed (Robin has 2 siblings), more discipline and life lessons to extoll, more worries about safety, college, and everything else that caring for a child should entail. Yet Robin and her family opened their doors to me in every way, lovingly. And I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to figure out how to thank them. What words can adequately express my gratitude?
In the last two decades I’ve also wondered: what makes a biological family discard a child but others with no connection other than a friendship step in to take of her? The question dogged me as I plowed my way through high school, college, the Peace Corps, and a career in the non-profit world. I thought about it the day I got married and the day I earned my Master’s degree from an Ivy League institution. I'm haunted by this question most when I gaze into my daughter’s eyes and feel a love so fierce and protective that I can hardly breathe.
I don't expect that this question will occupy my former classmates as they gather at the 20-year high school reunion I couldn’t bring myself to attend. Nor do I expect them to miss me much, as I've sought refuge in the distance both time and geography allow. Maybe in another 10 years, I’ll be able to go back. Maybe 20. There is still innocence to be celebrated, apologies to be made, moments to cherish, and perhaps even new memories to create. Until then and from afar, I can only thank them – and their families – for quite literally saving my life.
(I'm on the right in the pic above and the gal on the left is the friend who taught me how to drive a stick shift. This photo is from 1992.)