We’re all a lot skinnier in the first picture, that’s for sure. You can also see the varying effects of thirty-five years of life; wrinkles, gray hair, the sloop of the shoulders. But there’s so much you can’t see. You can’t see the careers, the romances, the children, the successes and the vacations. You also can’t see the bankruptcies, the hours sitting by a dying parents bedside, the fights to save the marriages, the calls to bail a kid out of jail, the questions and doubts and gambles that didn’t pay off.
You have to be present around the campfire to see all that.
These South Texas nights, horizons lit with a soft glow from nearby oil rig flares and ‘yotes yipping and cavorting like a circus of drunk frat boys. The night forms a familiar living room we all sink into. Years ago colored Christmas lights got strung up in the ancient mesquites ringing the fire pit. Most still light up. Red, green, blue, burnt out, yellow, red, and so on. The fire dances high and throws off just the right amount of heat. The whisky is aged and smooth.
Old stories are rolled out and repeated ‘til we’re crying with laughter. We might be able to fool others, but not the ones around this fire. There is a solid history here. Years may pass between these gatherings, but the foundation was set long ago and holds firm.
It’s there also that the ones who didn’t make it this far are brought into the circle. We name them and remember their stories. We tell their stories as well. We don’t run from the long ache of time spent missing them, wondering about the what ifs, recognizing the hole they’ve left in our company.
A young friend, not one of the old guard I’m gathered with on this night, recently lost his lover. They’d finally worked through plans and pains to chart a path together. Worked hard at it and were enjoying the intoxicating imagining of a life lived together. Then in an instant she was gone; alive, vibrant and making plans for supper after their latest adventure and then… gone. He wrote in the midst of his grief “What do I do with all the plans we had? The future we had planned together? I am here and she is there.”
So I rock back in my chair around the campfire and take stock of our friends who aren’t there, and of my friend reeling from his loss so far away. A strange longing forms inside of me. A longing for a campfire like this, but everyone is there. Not just those we are missing from our circle, but everyone. There’s plenty of time, literally all the time in the world. The chill of the night is forever held off by the fire, the lights give off their welcoming glow, every bulb lit. We’re all known there, we’re all welcomed. The deep wounds of abuse and abandonment are recognized, but have lost their power. Generations of war and division are laid to a final rest. Bodies and minds and hopes are all restored. We listen, unhurried and unafraid. We tell our own stories without shame or guilt. We finally understand. We finally see. We finally know what’s hidden from us here.
I don’t think it’s just wishful thinking, just metaphor. Something real happens when we share our lives with each other and make plans together, something that can’t be erased, even by death. I long to see the picture from that trip, the final one. It’s gonna be something.