Do you ever wonder about the roads in life you did not take, or what happened to the friends who took different paths than you did?
In our teenage years, Shawn was like our neighborhood’s version of the teen idol Shaun Cassidy, the kind of heart-throb who had soft, hazel eyes, sandy-blonde hair, and smiling eyes. Even now when I think of Shawn I want to sing Cassidy’s “Be My Baby.”
But the night we met again, I did not recognize him at first.
Shawn and I had been in the same youth group, and we had probably spent more time with youth group friends than we did with our own cousins. In those days, life revolved around the church routines of Sunday morning and evening worship services and Wednesday choir practice and parochial versions of Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts.
On weekends, there were seasonal and civic activities. We spent hours at nursing homes, unknowingly spoiling seniors’ diets with cookies and peppermint candies; we spent hours raking leaves for elderly church members we did not know. But we played as much as we worked, and jumping in leaf piles we scattered as many leaves as we gathered in raking. Shawn was with us all those golden days, the kind of boy who would volunteer to climb on rooftops to clean gutters – near invincible.
Some years ago when I was home, my children, parents and I were in a cafeteria, and I passed by a table with an older woman and a man my age. To my surprise, the man stood up and said my name, along with his own: “It’s Shawn.”
He must have realized we would not recognize him because of the change in his appearance.
I remembered the last time I had seen him – the summer before high school. We were in the back seat of a packed car on a youth group scavenger hunt – a competition where teams get points for feats like climbing a tree or taking a picture of a Camaro. I remembered that night we had all been sad because Shawn’s family would be moving; his father was being transferred for work.
In the darkness of the car, I reached out and took Shawn’s hand in mine. He squeezed my hand back, and we held hands until it was my turn to be dropped off for the night.
We lost touch, and that was the last time I saw him before, as Frost would say, “our roads diverged.”
It had been ages since we had met, but in earlier seasons of life we had shared so many happy times. Our parents knew each, too, but, now, Shawn’s mother, no longer knew any of us. She did not know Shawn either – regarding him only as a kind man who helped her because she could not remember things.
Shawn smiled at my children, and in another moment, we all hugged and said good-bye again. I thought about the different paths our lives had taken and how it had taken decades for our paths to cross again.
“Ages and ages” passed, and the summer leaves were fading into yellow woods. No matter how many times I read the article, I could not understand what had happened – only that Shawn’s mother and sisters still lived close to our old neighborhood.
I could only figure out one simple thing, something Walt Whitman said: “the truth is simple.”
The truth is that a long time ago I knew this wonderful boy who was a beautiful soul. He became a good man, the kind of man who helped family, friends, and even strangers, the kind of son who took care of his mother when she no longer remembered she had a son. I knew that a long time ago we had briefly shared the same path, and in the magic of the moonlight, everything in the world seemed possible.