I walk out the door of my suburban newspaper office, out to the parking lot, in the harsh sunlight of dusk on an early Friday evening. It’s been a long day. It’s been a long summer and autumn. I’m drained and want nothing more than to get in my car and head back into Chicago, to my empty apartment, for a supper of carefully calibrated proportions and a night of whatever’s on television.
The year is 1981. It’s late October. I’m dieting. I’ve lost 40 pounds in the last four months. I don’t eat desserts or anything else made with processed sugar. I’ve quit cigarettes. I’ve given up caffeinated coffee. I feel like a monk. Or, more accurately, a prisoner, living a circumscribed existence dictated by my body’s confusing signals of distress and my doctor’s grasping for answers.
At this moment, though, I have to make a choice. A few weeks earlier, I signed up for a retreat that my parish, St. Clement, is sponsoring for single people. St. Clement is in a former working-class area of the city, now undergoing gentrification. The parish roster is heavy with young, unmarried men and women like me, building careers and gingerly trying to figure out our place in a world much unlike the one our mothers and fathers found upon entering adulthood. Our parents, even the men who served in World War II, married early and started having children early. It gave their lives a solidity. They were firmly rooted. We, though, are the initial wave of a generation that, because of the women’s movement, the sexual revolution and our own fascination with freedom, has been slow to settle down. We are pioneers, exploring what life holds for those who don’t take the early road to matrimony. You could call us overgrown children — and there are those who do. But we’re also pathfinders, blazing a trail through a new cultural landscape.
Many critics of my generation are jealous of our freedoms. That’s understandable. But there’s a flipside to that liberty: Most of us, as we scramble up the ladders of work worlds and sample the wide variety of pleasures and amusements, are — when we go home at night — just plain lonely. We have control of our lives, but we have no one to share them with. We’re keeping our options open, and that means we’re hanging out in space, unconnected, apart, alone.
So, St. Clement has been beefing up its programs for unmarried parishioners. There’s the folk mass on Sunday mornings in the basement of the church. There are discussion groups that meet weekly or monthly, and outings, and parties. And the annual weekend retreat, held at a monastery, far out from the city, out amid the cows and cornfields at the distant edge of the suburban subdivisions.
I’ve never signed up for the retreat before. Although I go to the folk mass on Sundays, I haven’t locked into any of the other activities the way so many single men and women in the parish have. I recognize them — the ones who have turned the parish into something like a small town, their own small town where they know everyone and everyone knows them — as I sit in my usual spot in the back of the pews to the right of the altar, behind the guitarists and singers. I watch the smiles and hugs and kisses, the bright eyes with which they greet each other, and it feels like I’m in some other world. It’s as if they know a secret language that I’m too stupid or proud to learn.
But, at this moment in my life, I’ve made an initial if ever-so-tentative move to take a dive into the social stream by filling out an application for the retreat — and plunking down fifty dollars (the equivalent of about $200 in today’s money) for the weekend.
That fifty dollars is key.
Sending in the application and money was an impulsive decision a couple weeks earlier. I’d been changing so much about my life that this seemed to fit in.
The day after the Fourth of July, I’d woken up, achy and sweaty and dizzy. I couldn’t seem to focus my eyes very well. I had to concentrate greatly just to walk to the bathroom. A bad case of the flu, I figured; it would go away. But it didn’t go away.
And, suddenly, at age 31, after a lifetime of robust, good health, I was sick — and not just sick, but ill with a mystery ailment that had my doctor flummoxed. I had no energy. I felt overwhelmed, crushed. And the doctor’s inability to name, much less treat my illness made me feel even worse. At home in my apartment, alone, weighed down and empty, I thought how much simpler and less scary it would have been if I’d just broken my leg. A broken leg seemed, in that topsy-turvy moment, like a treasure I’d been denied.
Test after test failed to pinpoint the reason I felt so bad. So my doctor began to attack the problem on several fronts, hoping that one of the strategies or the combination of them all would do the job.
First, he had me work with the dietitian in his practice, his wife, to eat smaller, better-balanced meals and develop a regular exercise regime in order to lose weight and tone up my body. She gave me a paperback book, listing the calories of thousands of foods, including the entire array of McDonald’s cuisine, and showed me how to keep track of my daily calorie intake.
This has meant quite a lifestyle change for me. A single guy, I ate a lot of fast food. I ordered a lot of pizzas. A good meal in my own kitchen was a large steak, a box or two of Kraft macaroni and many glasses of Coke or Pepsi, with the greater part of a box of chocolate doughnuts for dessert.
Now, supper for me — the high point of my eating day — is a small, grilled breast of skinless, boneless chicken, a small salad with red wine vinegar instead of dressing and a serving of peas or green beans or corn. I drink only one glass of milk (skim, of course). And to top off the meal: Maybe an apple.
One of the tests I took showed that my body wasn’t handling glucose very well — taking it in too quickly and getting rid of it faster than normal. So my doctor has advised me to avoid processed sugar. Fruit and other naturally sweet foods are fine; so are artificial sweeteners such as aspartame. But anything with refined sugar, corn syrup and their many permutations is verboten.
Caffeine, my doctor said, also has an impact on glucose levels, so I’ve switched to decaf coffee and caffeine-free pop. And, in line with another of his suggestions, I’ve smoked my last cigarette — quitting at midnight on September 15, thirty-eight days ago (but who’s counting), as I now stand in this near-empty parking lot, considering the choice of driving the hour or more along suburban highways to get to the retreat or simply heading home.
I’ve been so rigorous in carrying out these lifestyle changes because I’d been so scared by my illness. In a part of my mind, I approached these new ways of living as if I were a rookie at spring training or a new recruit at boot camp. I put myself into the hands of my doctor and his dietitian, hoping, believing that, if I followed their guidelines, I’d feel better.
And that’s what happened. I did slowly start feeling better. About two weeks after the onset of the ailment, I was able to go back to work. Working out three days a week at the local health club, I feel stronger and more fit than I have since high school.
I’m still hungry a lot although much less than at first, now that my stomach and appetite have shrunk. I still miss real coffee; decaf is like drinking hot, colored water. And cigarettes — well, I’m chewing (sugarless) gum a lot.
But I’m aware more of my body, and of the world around me, and the snap, crackle and pop of life.
I’ve slowed down. I’m not racing on a sugar-and-caffeine high anymore, and, at work, I’m a little less frantic about getting things done quickly. I’ve risked changing, and the changes, for all their bumps and pains, have been good.
And, now, here I stand in the parking lot, facing yet one more change.
It was one thing a couple weeks ago to say to myself that, yeah, I was ready to take the plunge and go on this retreat — where a mix of praying and partying is promised — and meet and get to know some of the other single men and women in the parish….that I was ready to throw myself into the sort of social situation I usually abhor, in which I’m expected to introduce myself to total strangers, to make small talk, to act like I’m having a good time, to endure the acute embarrassment of putting myself in the social spotlight.
And it’s quite another at this particular moment to actually follow through. It would be so easy to chuck the idea and just drive for home. It’s so tempting.
And I’m just about to do it when I realize that, if I skip the retreat, I’ll be wasting my fifty dollars.
I was raised in a frugal family. We never wasted anything. My parents grew up during the Depression, and they instilled in me and my siblings an almost pathological respect for the value of money and the need to use it wisely.
All those teachings are crying out in this moment to me. To turn my back on the retreat — as scary a proposition as it seems — would be like taking a fifty-dollar bill and setting it on fire.
I just can’t do that.
So I go
So I go to the retreat. I feel terribly uncomfortable. But I meet a few people, including one red-haired woman with a slight gap in her front teeth and the liveliest eyes I’ve ever seen.
She, too, in recent months, had been knocked out of her rhythm when she broke her right leg sliding into first base (showing off). Her leg is still in an ankle-to-thigh cast, and she is on crutches. But, at the first evening party, when the music is loud and I am standing, as usual, along one of the walls, there she is, out on the dance floor, dancing in a manner of speaking — really, just jumping up and down on her uninjured left foot — and whooping loudly, with a smile as broad as all life.
A year and a week later, we marry.
And, now, three decades later, the time before we met seems like someone else’s life.
Our two children, young adults, are fascinated by the story of our meeting, and how the slightest change in my life or that of my wife could have changed everything — if I hadn’t gotten sick, if my wife hadn’t broken her leg, if I hadn’t been so horrified at the thought of wasting fifty dollars.
For them, the slightest of variations could have meant that they wouldn’t have been born.
The same goes for me.
Patrick T. Reardon
Originally published in the book “Hidden Presence,” a collection of essays edited by Gregory Pierce, 2003