In college, I found myself facing an embarrassing problem.
I was taking a course on English poets, and my professor introduced me to William Wordsworth — “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” The title was a mouthful, and I gathered my courage. Then I began to read and the world fell away. I was swept off my feet by the current, the pulse, the heartbeat. But swept off my feet wasn’t the problem. The difficulty was that every time I read the poem, I broke into tears.
Of course, this was horrifically unacceptable. But in spite of my finest efforts, I was unable to reroute my appallingly inappropriate reaction. Turning to my friends for help was out of the question. How could I admit that I was crying over my homework? Worse, I had only a few days to get a grip, because my professor would be discussing the poem in our next class and crying was not — repeat NOT — an option. So I barricaded myself in my bedroom and read the poem over and over, desensitizing myself. I made it through the class tearless and my near-miss humiliation remained a secret.
Fast forward four decades.
My husband and I attended our 40th college reunion. As I walked the familiar paths of campus, I stepped into a time warp. I was a wide-eyed first-year, listening to the president’s welcoming speech, wondering if I’d become the Admissions Committee’s biggest mistake. I was a sophomore, seasoned and mature, strutting with confidence. I was a junior, questioning everything, wondering where I had misplaced the previous year’s self-assurance. I was a senior in graduation regalia, clutching the hands of two close friends as we bolstered each other through our final hours on campus. The reunion weekend was a medley of sounds and sights, each triggering a neuronal domino reaction, synapses shooting sparks. I was eighteen years old, and I was sixty.
Immersed simultaneously in my then and my now, I sat in the balcony for a concert in Woolsey Hall. A small group of “kids” took the stage. During their final year at Yale, they sang together and were now performing at their first official reunion, five years later. Afterwards, a friend joked that we should advise the young ones to sing while they had their voices, because “it won’t last.” We all smiled, remembering ourselves at their age. When the old-and-gray folks suggested that we’d one day be creaky, we’d nod politely. Somehow, those aging relics hadn’t figured out that unlike them, we were immortal.
We gathered for dinner in the Branford Courtyard, surrounded by stone gargoyles. The evening was mild, and we quieted as a reunion organizer took the mic. With an empathic blend of respect and warmth, she read a list of classmates who had died. It took quite a while. By the end, the courtyard was extremely still. Six decades into our lives, we all know that with or without our consent, sooner or not sooner, our names will land on that list. The notion is both knee buckling and strangely okay.
Before our class dinner was served, the Whiffenpoofs (an a cappella singing group) stood in their horseshoe, swaying with their signature song. A curious tenderness filled the courtyard, and my neuronal synapses began to quiver. I closed my eyes and for a quick instant, my hair was thick, shiny, the color of wheat at dusk. My skin glowed smooth, my musculature defined and strong. In that fleeting moment, I was immortal.
Standing in line at the buffet, I overheard someone say that their daughter would begin Yale in the fall. I wondered if she’d read Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality.” Would she cry? Would she stage a mighty intervention against her own tears? In any case, I wish her a wonderful four years.
It’s her turn to be immortal.
Amy Kaufman Burk, Yale 1980, is a therapist-turned-author in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, follows Caroline Black through tenth grade, in a school with over forty languages spoken among the students. The story deals with homophobic bullying, racial and economic diversity, and the power of friendship. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. This novel was written in support of same-sex parents, to fight the stigma of mental issues, and with deep respect for the human capacity to heal.
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