It was New Years Eve, 1999, I remember. I was sitting in an easy chair with the fire crackling across the room, and my hosts were sitting on the couch beyond the coffee table, leaning back side-by-side, together in warmth and that happy expectancy as we waited to bring in the last year of the millennium together. She was looking at me with eyes raised in question, while he was looking askance at the fireplace in response to my question "Hasn't this been a good year? Don't you just hate it to see a good year get away like this?"
"Well," he said looking across at me sideways, "there have been good moments, and then..." his voice trailed away.
Uh oh, I remember thinking, I've stepped in something here. Me and my big mouth. "We'll be into the New Year in just a few minutes, and I'm happy to be spending this time with you" I replied.
I saw that my hostess was looking down at the coffee table, and the cover of the magazine laying there showed a cruise ship and the caption "See you in Jamaica" flashed up at me boldly. "I wonder, have you been traveling?" I asked, gesturing to the magazine with a quizzical half smile. Her response, and the moments that followed, made the evening one of the most memorable in my life.
She looked at her husband, who was smiling in a sort of lockjaw way, and commenced to wipe her eye with one of those napkins I'd brought and then said "Last year, our son wasn't able to be with us. He is about your age, and had been gone for two years in a row, three now, traveling. We got cards and letters saying he was here and there, a world traveler with regrets that he couldn't be home, and stories we were thrilled to read. We accepted the empty place where you're now sitting as a place of his memory; the remembrance of those letters and their stories took his place and made the room seem whole, somehow. Can you imagine?"
I nodded, wondering about a son my age I hadn't met. It made me quickly ponder how I happened to be here, sipping eggnog and sharing the hospitality of strangers in a very comfortable and friendly living room in Groton, Connecticut. Outside the temperature was just above freezing, the wind had died down and the neighborhood pine trees looked like tinted ghosts with their snow coats glimmering from the light being cast through the dual pane storm windows. This was a Thursday night, and I had arrived earlier than invited, about 6:30 for the dinner being prepared and served by my hosts. After being welcomed and putting away my overcoat and hat and gloves, we had settled amicably at the dining room table and I again had expressed my gratitude at having been offered a home away from home, an opportunity to spend a nice evening away from my hotel room and the awkwardness of being a stranger in a strange land while others were enjoying family and friends this memorable evening of any year.
We had met the week prior, at a small Groton suburb boutique where I was buying a gift and they were managing the store. During my purchase, I had explained that I was in town for the holiday season on business and that I wished there were some way I could deliver the gift in person but circumstances prevented me from being home this year, and would they mind if I had them ship the gift? They had looked into each other's eyes in that meaningful way that tells you you've hit a nerve, and then she said "Look, we're having a quiet New Year's evening together, just the two of us - can you join us for New Year's Eve?"
Her husband nodded, his eyes warm and the unexpected offer made the two of them seem so sincere and friendly that I was tempted to say yes. But after all, I didn't know them, and although I had no plans for the evening but to go to sleep and wake up in the new year, I had contemplated spending New Years day walking about the New England countryside, enjoying the scenery and serenity of the Connecticut landscape before heading back to the big city.
I shook my head No but in a rush she exclaimed "Oh, please don't say No! We'd love to have you come for dinner, spend the evening at our house. We've a nice fireplace and my husband and I would be delighted to share the Evening with you!". I saw both an offer and a plea in her eyes, and his face mirrored her concern. "I don't know", I quavered, "the thing is, we've just met and you don't know me and"
"Stop!" she commanded. I saw her look again at her husband, and then she said, "We're alone, and we can tell from your gift and your thoughtfulness that you're a lot like our son. He can't be with us, but we'd love for you to help us spend this New Years evening in the spirit in which we see your similar need - to be with someone you love and yet cannot."
This was not a maudlin gesture, I saw, and perhaps it was nothing more complex than what she said, a simple need to be with someone you cannot be with, and to accept a substitute would be a better alternative than simply spending empty time doing nothing.
"What can I bring?" I asked, looking for some sign that maybe I shouldn't be doing this.
A smile leaped from her face as her husband responded, "Why not bring some eggnog and some napkins, the paper kind?"
He, too, seemed grateful, somehow. That's the feeling I had, that I was somehow gratifying them - and yet, I was the visitor, the intruder. But now I had a plan for New Years, something I didn't realize I was missing out on, and with the plan some minor obligation to get the drink and the napkins and so with a sense of purpose I asked directions to their house, got their phone number in exchange for my own (in case something should 'come up'), and the events transpired as you might expect which brought me to their doorstep on New Years Eve.
The eggnog was freshly chilled from the nearby supermarket. I had planned to pick it up just before they closed for the holiday evening and almost missed getting the drink because they were closing a half hour earlier for some reason. But the clerk saw me, unlocked the door at my frantic gesturing and allowed me to rush to the dairy section and retrieve three bottles of the stuff. Three bottles! It may be a long evening, I thought, and maybe even three wasn't enough - but no, three turned out to be just right.
I acquired the napkins as I passed a display and all in all I was ready and on time and feeling still a bit awkward as I knocked on their door. It swung open, he was standing with outstretched arms and a warm smile and I knew I was glad to be right where fate found me that night.
And thus I was now contemplating her words, "We accepted the empty place where you're now sitting as a place of his memory, the remembrance of those letters and their stories took his place and made the room seem whole, somehow. Can you imagine?"
"I think so", I said. After all, I was away, and someone very meaningful to me was sitting with an empty space where I should be. We had talked on the phone, the absence was understood to be necessary and unavoidable, the circumstances of the offer made and my being in the presence of perfect strangers all explained and at least accepted, if not understood. So again I nodded, and said, "I think so".
My host noticed my glass to be half full and said "More eggnog?" I puffed my cheeks to indicate I was full of eggnog and he smiled, then looked at his wife. "I think we'd like to share a story with you", he began. His wife smiled, nodded and gestured towards the leftovers on the dining room table. I smiled, shook my head and returned my attention to my host.
"About three months ago, my wife and I were at church and after the service we were standing around in the foyer, talking with folks, sharing thoughts about the sermon, those moments before everyone who comes together for a purpose sort of gather and chit chat before going their separate ways, you know?"
Puzzled, I nodded. This was the beginning of a story, after all - I guess I understood the situation. "Go on?"
"Someone we hadn't seen for a year or two, a friend of our son, came up to us and asked us how he was doing. We smiled and said we get letters, you know, how do you know what to say and how much to say when someone says 'How's it going?' or some such thing. We knew he was a friend, but not much more than that about him. So we said 'What have you heard?', emphasis on the 'you' since maybe he knew something we didn't know. He said he was just curious to know how our son was doing in that treatment center on the south side of Chicago." My host paused, cleared his throat, looked at me closely, and then turned away for a moment.
Oh boy, I thought, the son is a drug addict. And here I sit as a reminder of him, a placeholder for normalcy or whatever it means to have good thoughts in a not good situation. But I was a guest in a caring situation and I understood my role was not to be the son but to be someone these folks could share good feelings with, that I represented a way for them to feel that life is OK after all. I tried to smile an understanding smile, in what could well have been an awkward moment. I suggested "Have you heard from him, then?"
She took up the narration at that point, while he regained that sort of lockjaw smile I had seen in the boutique when we first met.
"Yes and no", she replied. "We spent over two years living in a fantasy world and not knowing it. We accepted the letters, the stories of far away places, all of it, as though our son was some sort of hero. We dreamt of the places he'd write about, marvel at his adventures, wish him well in his travels, and all the time we never really 'heard' from him. Just the letters."
She patted her cheeks with the rather soggy napkin again, and I tried to nod in sympathy and understanding. I imagined a drug addict, a never done well kind of kid who was now doing well, sort of, but not doing well at all, in reality. That is what I was hearing, that is why I was there, I felt. I was the chance for these folks to purge themselves of feelings of failure regarding their son's upbringing, their parental role failure. I saw myself as being the sounding board to examine a failed life. That is what I saw, and that was why I was sort of nodding and feeling very, very awkward. And that is why that night, and what was said next, became a singularly memorable night, a New Years Eve that I shall never forget.
"You see," she choked out, "our son died over three years ago. He went hiking on one of those long weekends with friends, and slipped off the side of a mountain to his death." In the telling of it, a composure settled on her face. Her glasses slid a bit down her nose, and when she glanced at her husband the motion caused her to have to adjust them quickly. He nodded, and she continued, "His friends simply could not accept the responsibility of telling us what had happened. The authorities apparently were satisfied that next of kin had been contacted, based on input from his friends. We don't understand any of that, how we could not have been told by someone, but the story we received was that our son was setting out on a world tour and had to make travel connections and would let us know where he was and when and so we began to receive letters and post cards and everything seemed so, well, OK. On the face of it." She sighed, and looked at her hands and that soggy napkin she was twisting in her fingers. The pause grew extreme, and he took up the narrative.
"We found out, were told the true story, when we tried to discover where our son was, what treatment center he was in, where in south Chicago might we find him? We didn't find him; we found one of his friends, one of the group that was hiking with our son when he fell. The person we found was the same person who had been writing the letters we received. He knew all about our son, because he had taken his identity!"
My host, too, now seemed more resigned, more accepting of the story as he put it in words. He looked at his watch, then the clock on the wall, and said "Ten minutes". I duplicated his glance at the wall clock, nodded my head, and said "This must be very difficult for you, my being here, and this Evening being a significant reminder of past years."
"Difficult in some respects, yes," he replied, "but in others we are very grateful that you could join us this evening. My wife and I realize that a reality check had to be made, that we had to accept whatever happened to our son, accept that wherever he is, whatever happened to him, happened. Now we know it, we have to accept the truth of the event. The fellow who took our son's identity, for whatever reason, had his own hell to plow through. He perhaps failed to accept the reality of the loss of his friend, our son, or perhaps he saw an opportunity to change his life direction or maybe he had some justification that we can only imagine, because we'll never know. That friend, too, died in an overdose situation while in a treatment center for drug abusers. When we found that person, or who that person represented himself to be, we found the ghost of our son."
"What is important for us tonight, what we feel very grateful for, is your presence in helping us establish that we are alive, that we are caring people, that we are healthy in every respect, and that with your help we can begin the New Year in anticipation of good things to come, we can carry on with a life normal in every respect."
"I don't understand", I replied. "How does this story have anything to do with me? How can I help? I think I appreciate all that you've told me" (glance at the clock) "and in 1 minute we'll be in to a New Year, 1999 - but how can I help you?"
My hostess cleared her throat and said "James? James William Shatlo?"
Puzzled, I said, "Yes?"
"That was our son's name. Thank you for being here! Happy New Year"