This year’s Groundhog Day helped me put into context a habit one of my oldest friends picked up in recent months. His name is George and we’ve known each other for more than 40 years.
George’s habit is relatively new. He calls almost every morning from his home in New Mexico, often when I can’t answer the phone. So he leaves an upbeat voicemail message.
“Hi Eric, nothing urgent. Thought I’d call and say hello…”
He usually begins with that greeting followed by a brief weather report from his backyard, where a pretty sunrise and cool temperatures predominate, before making other observations in detail. This past Tuesday, George reported that his backyard bird feeder was inundated by hungry birds, species uncertain, while a covey of Gambel’s quail vacuumed the ground beneath the feeder.
Nothing much changes for him or me from one day to the next. You might think that two old guys would have nothing much to shoot the breeze about. You’d be right and you’d be wrong.
Consider Groundhog Day. Of all the silly celebrations on our calendar, Groundhog Day falls between National Shower With a Friend Day (Feb. 5) and Toothache Day (Feb. 9). The idea that a wild animal’s shadow bears any correlation to a winter forecast seems preposterous because it is. Naturally, I love Groundhog Day more than Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Riiiiinnnng! I pick up. George again. He phoned one recent morning from New Mexico where he lives in peaceful, if routine retirement. He drinks coffee while talking to me about breakfasting in his backyard. Back in the 1970s, we lived in Nebraska separated by nothing but corn and cows. Nowadays, it takes us half a day’s drive to get together.
George occasionally lets his imagination run wild with his scholarly appreciation for history. He told me last week that, while slurping his hot coffee, he noticed a band of Spanish conquistadors riding their horses up into the Rio Grande Valley. Hearing each other laugh was a luxury for us both.
Our conversations tend to revolve around our wives and our kids, our jobs in days gone by and what we did only yesterday. On Saturday night, he took his wife out to dinner for her 70th birthday. He gave her a bracelet with turquoise stones and a red stone he couldn’t remember the name of. He meant coral but that word stayed hidden in a dark recess of his brain.
Which brings us back to last Tuesday, when CNN and its competitors reported that clear skies over Punxsutawney enabled Punxsutawney Phil to see his shadow. “Six more weeks of winter,” the headlines said.
This annual feel-good story rarely fails to mention the movie “Groundhog Day,” which features Bill Murray as a TV weatherman. Unlike the weather, his life is one monotonous day after another. This movie’s title became a popular phrase to describe the human condition. Every morning, we wake up in the same old bed, eat the same old breakfast, work the same old job and feel stuck forever in an existential puzzle.
But change is inevitable, as they say. George called with grim news the other day.
He began by asking how I was doing. He greeted the morning with his same old cup of coffee while a familiar covey of Gambel’s quail strutted around his same old backyard. They reminded him of his quail hunting days, which reminded him of fishing for salmon in Alaska, which reminded him of something else. He paused.
“I’ve been diagnosed with dementia,” he said, explaining that his doctor recently broke the news. I was stunned.
For a minute or two, there was silence. I’d noticed that he’d begun to repeat himself, recalling wonderful stories over without remembering he told them before. He wasn’t complaining or morose, just describing the latest news in his world.
“I’m very sorry,” I said, feeling stupid that no better words came to mind. “You’ll deal with this problem, George, like you always have.”
Matter-of-factly, George assured me that he would indeed deal with memory loss. When you’re 78 years old, memories are golden, solid proof of a good life. Those were my thoughts which remained unspoken.
The next day, he called when I was working. He left this voicemail:
“Great sunset tonight. I sat outside, light breeze about 5 miles an hour. Chilly. Just had a drink and watched the lights come on in Albuquerque across the valley. The sun dropped below the horizon, just a red line along the southwest. Hope you are well.”
Hope you are too, George.