One of the reasons I so like Dan Fogelberg’s song “Same Old Lang Syne” is the first line: “Met my old lover in the grocery store…” Because that actually happened to me.
In my early twenties, I fell in love unexpectedly with a guy named Donald Anderson, whom I met in American history class. Now that I think about it, “unexpectedly” seems redundant. Isn’t that how we all fall in love? Donald was older. He’d fought in Vietnam. When he returned, he became a professional diver, doing underwater construction in Florida. One day his shoulder started hurting and wouldn’t quit. Turns out he had Hodgkins Lymphoma. They removed the muscles on the top of his left shoulder. Goodbye diving career.
At that point, he decided to go to school on the GI bill, and ended up at the same university I attended. Although I met him in American history class, it turned out he was an anthropology major, as was I. How strange is that?
Our relationship was…ill-fated. But I kept in touch with him as years passed through mutual friends. One day I got a call from his best friend Michael who told me that Donald’s Hodgkins had recurred. The doctors told Donald that his best hope of recovery was for them to remove the muscles in his neck; however, afterwards, he would not be able to hold his head upright or keep his mouth closed. Donald said no. He opted for Plan B: high dose chemotherapy, which might or might not work. I called Donald when he was in the hospital and asked to visit. He said no, I’m too sick. I don’t want you to see me like this.
When he got out of the hospital, I got another call from Michael. Donald had sold everything he had. Bought a pickup truck with a camper. Bought two dogs (Newfoundlands), and announced his decision to travel out West, because he’d always wanted to see it. So the night before he was to leave, Michael and I staged an intervention of sorts in our favorite bar, appropriately named The Last Laugh.
As interventions go, ours was probably pretty pathetic. Don’t go, we said. We are afraid something will happen to you. We’re afraid you’ll die out there somewhere and we’ll never even know. With all due respect, Donald replied, this isn’t about you. Get over yourselves. I mean, you can’t argue with that.
Fast forward many years. I lived across the street from the Piggly Wiggly grocery store, which was my home away from home. One day I was standing in the checkout line, and the guy in front of me turned around and said, “Phyllis?” And I said, “Donald?” We literally dropped everything we were holding and flew into a hug. To the delight of the cashier and the other people in line. It was definitely a Hallmark moment.
He came back with me to my apartment and we talked for countless hours. I got caught up on his life. He did his out-west-journey thing, ending up in San Diego, where he went to work for the zoo. There he embellished his skills and moved to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. (As zoos go, you don’t get better than those two.) He was about to move up in the zoo world again and got an interview with the New Orleans zoo. On the way to the airport to travel to his interview, he was involved in a horrific crash. He flew through the windshield and his head hit the right front tire. He sustained serious brain damage which left him with impaired hearing, no sense of taste at all, and petit mal seizures.
It turned out that at the time of our encounter in the grocery store, he had been back in town for two years, getting his Masters’ degree in, of all things, psychology, because that was the only department where they had a primatologist, and primatology was his first love. He was at the very end of that process, however, and one month hence, he was leaving for Ohio State to get his PhD. (Here is where you go…hmmm. Ill-fated. You’ve been in town for two years and you didn’t try to find me?)
It was an intense month. We spent almost every evening together. I got to know him as I never had before. He loved TV. He loved football. He loved music (although listening to music with him was painful…it had to be loud enough to peel paint off the walls.) We ate a lot of spaghetti. Since he couldn’t taste anything, he determined that spaghetti was the most nutritious thing he could eat to keep himself alive. When food interested him, it was because it was a different color.
I’ll never forget the day he left for Ohio. I was standing on the lawn in my bathrobe when he said goodbye. I was forlorn. For a while, we talked on the phone occasionally, and wrote letters to each other. But you know how that goes.
I saw him one more time after that, in New Orleans. After that…nothing. I moved to Iowa for two years, and then to Virginia. I became a little hard to find. He became impossible to find. One day while I was living in Virginia I decided to call his mother. I had never talked to her before, but it turned out to be quite an adventure. She was incredibly fun. She told me that Donald was living on the island of Saint Martin (or Sint Maarten) and was the director of the zoo there, and was hating every minute of it. Not enough TV. She thought he would be happy to hear from me and gave me his address. I sent him a Christmas card. He never responded.
It’s been 13 years now since that phone call to his mother, and I still wonder how he is and what happened to him. Google as hard as I might, I can’t find him. Dan Fogelberg’s song comes in handy here: “Just for a moment I was back in school, and felt that old familiar pain….” Be well, Donald, wherever you are.