06/26/2015 10:13 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

You Never Forget Your High School Love

by guest blogger Renee James, humorist and blogger

"Love each other dearly always. There is scarcely anything else in the world but that: to love one another." -- Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Well, thanks Victor. That sounds easy, but it often feels like we never remember to do it until something horrifying reminds us to do just that.

In the aftermath of the tragic events in Charleston, South Carolina, the tiny shred of comfort any of us can grab hold of is the love and support that Charleston and our nation have shown to each other as we struggle with our sadness, disbelief, and outrage.

But if you're fortunate, once in a while--every once in a while--it doesn't take a tragedy to remind you about the love. I count myself among the blessed because last week, in the midst of a park, a picnic, and people who will always be dear to me, I did remember Hugo's suggestion. The occasion was our annual class picnic, a casual afternoon of food and friendship.

It's difficult--very nearly impossible--to believe we are almost 40 years beyond our high school graduation day. Our friendships, formed so many, many years ago, still felt fresh. Forty years ago, we had nothing but time in front of us, decades to be filled with dreams coming true, discovering just who we would become. On Saturday afternoon, we caught up on husbands and wives or who had just been remarried; whose children or stepchildren were getting married (or divorced); and who had grandchildren they adored. We laughed at some old stories. We opened up about our lives, about our personal losses and professional challenges. We soothed aching hearts.

Quite simply, we restored our souls. In the aftermath of our national tragedy, I felt renewed.

The unchangeable fact is that we will always have our history as classmates. We can live six blocks or 6,000 miles from our childhood homes, but we'll always belong to a little community that existed for one particular pocket of time and then dispersed. The friendships of our youth may grow hazy, but they never quite leave our consciousness. They are part of us--part of who it is we turned out to be. It's impossible to know who we would have become without the people who were beside us, every day in our classes, in our clubs and activities, on our teams, or on our buses, some of whom we've known almost our entire lives. Yes, decades have passed and we've long since grown up, but we remember the feeling of being on the brink of adulthood, and "really beginning" to live.

And not one of us could have predicted what that would mean.

In the intervening years, some of us have become wealthy or fulfilled by a career. Some of us have endured the pain of a marriage that ended or taken long, lonely walks down Green Day's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" as we faced challenging or tragic situations of all kinds. We've lost spouses, parents, siblings, and children. We've lost each other--classmates who left us far too soon.

I listened and nodded in understanding. I shared my own updates. But what I really wanted to say was something like this: Do you remember us? And who we were when we were 17? Do you remember what we thought was so life altering and so important back then? Because I don't. We're different now, right? Or are we? Maybe we're still almost exactly who we were then in the hundreds of small ways that matter, in spite of the 21st-century world and the ways it exhibits hatred and intolerance, ways that were unimagined in the world of our youth.

I know that's true because, despite all the differences we claim exist between our 17-year-old and 56- or 57-year-old selves and all the wounds we carry, visible and invisible, as adults we've left our judgment, egos, and general anxiety about "fitting in" behind and replaced all of that debris with a smile, an empathetic word, a knowing hug of support--a flash of love.

I looked around at the faces, including some I hadn't seen in almost 40 years, and thought, We're here, and that's a good thing. No guarantees about tomorrow--sadly, we know that all too well--but we're all better people for having known each other. In some way, measurable or not, we are. I believe that, maybe more than I could have ever imagined in 1976.

As people departed, we hugged each other good-bye. They were hugs of love and gratitude--for the day, for 40 years, for everything we were to each other then and everything we are to each other now. We have a bond, not a chain. The strong, silky thread that connects us is flexible, comfortable, and unbreakable. We went back to our lives, our homes, and the chores, bills, and to-do lists that never end.

"So much to do tomorrow," I thought, as I drove away. And yet, there was scarcely anything else in the world.

Renee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and wrote an award-winning op-ed column for The Morning Call, the Allentown, Pennsylvania, newspaper, for almost 10 years. Her essays were included in the humor anthology, 101 Damnations: A Humorists' Tour of Personal Hells (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. She invites you to Like her Facebook page, where she celebrates--and broods about--life on a regular basis, mostly as a voice in the crowd that shouts, "Really? You're kidding me, right?" (or wants to, anyway), and she welcomes your suggestions, comments, and feedback to the mix.

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