The three of us formed a tight little group back in high school: Ian, George and me. “The Mod Squad,” they called us, although our little trinity contained neither blacks nor females. Still, as witticisms went, it was certainly better than some of the others we faced. “Are you gay?” one young tough sneered at me. “I’m reasonably happy,” I answered, puzzled to hear such an archaic word from someone who appeared to be an inarticulate thug.
But we weren’t gay in the “not-that-there’s-anything-wrong-with-that” sense. We were just good friends. Ian and George were the most important people in my life at the time. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve,” says Gordie Lachance in Stand by Me. My special friendships came in my late teens, but I understand the sentiment.
As the years became decades, Ian and I stayed in touch: sometimes weekly, sometimes missing a year or two. George, on the other hand, disappeared like a ghost in the night; a ship over the horizon; an old TV show before VCRs.
But since then I’ve often thought: there must have been one last time the three of us were together. What did we do? Did we go somewhere, or did we hang around in a living room? What were the last words we spoke to each other? It seems unfair that so many last times come and go without leaving anything behind.
Death sometimes gives enough warning that we can mark the occasion properly, noting carefully some last message gasped through the rattle of Cheyne-Stokes breathing. Of course, there’s always the risk of not quite understanding what was gasped. In such cases it may actually be preferable to forget the details of a grandfather’s death than to spend the rest of your life wondering whether he said, “I miss Stephen Lewis,” or “Always stay Jewish.” Especially if he’d been a conservative Episcopalian.
Seeing people off as they depart forever to distant lands, such as the Orient, the Indies or the Suburbs, is another last time that generally stays in memory — unless of course the farewell celebrations are rather too successful, leaving details rather hazy.
In general, however, last times tend to be indistinguishable from every other time. They sneak up and scoot by without the slightest warning, leaving us with nothing to remember. Proust, who created an entire literary career for himself by remembering the taste of a “little crumb of madeleine,” probably forgot when the last time was he ate any.
Sometimes too, changes come in such small increments that it’s difficult to determine the exact point at which one thing becomes another. One day your favourite restaurant replaces their simple cup of coffee with a dozen vaguely-Italianate choices. A few weeks later the menu, which until now had always described the meals in terms of what they contained (”Hot open-faced chicken sandwich with gravy, peas and fries”), is replaced by a new one which seems more interested in what the meals now lack (”Low-fat additive-free chicken-substitute platter”). Bizarre and unidentified vegetables appear. The chocolate sauce on your dessert is dribbled in a random scrawl like the signature of an exhausted movie star. At what point during this metamorphosis can you say that you’ve been to your favourite restaurant for the last time?
This gradual change occurs in people too. Shortly before my grandmother died we went to a Chinese restaurant. During the dinner she asked several questions concerning my identity and then proceeded to drop sweet and sour chicken balls into her purse. I never saw her alive again, but could it really be said that this meal represented the last time I saw her? Alzheimer’s may be an extreme example, but incremental change affects everyone around us: friends who used to enjoy talking about music now talk about RRSPs; spouses exchange their shared passion for movies with a shared passion for real estate points. We may speak to our brothers or sisters every week without ever realizing that we no longer really know who they are. We talked to them for the last time long ago and never noticed.
“Look at the people around you,” read a piece of graffiti in Kennsington Market, “and remember the children we used to be.”
But now comes the most frightening thought of all: if so many around me are turning into unrecognizable strangers, is it really feasible that I alone have somehow remained immune? My violin hangs on the wall, its strings loosened so that the neck doesn’t warp. My old records, cassettes and CDs sit untouched, and no new ones have replaced them. I live in the core of a vibrant and exciting city, but when I’m outside, my main concern is to avoid the bicyclists on the sidewalk.
Still, could it be that although I may live for another thirty or forty years, I already, without realizing it, have seen everything for the last time?
Maybe I should tighten up the old violin strings and start annoying the neighbours again. I never was a very good musician, but somehow I don’t think that really matters. For inspiration I could even put on my CD of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies. There are also a number of Brahms symphonies I haven’t heard in far too long, not to mention some great Emerson Lake and Palmer, King Crimson, Led Zeppelin, and Annie Lennox.
Come to think of it, there’s something a little odd here. It would almost seem as thought the best way to avoid missing important last times is simply to keep alert, to see everything as if for the first time.
It’s also a great defense against bicyclists on the sidewalk.
This piece originally appeared in The Globe and Mail, April 5, 2007.