When I was a teenager, one of my good friends was Gary Nathan. Gary was one of those kids who was the target of the school’s taunters and teasers. Even nice guys threw barbs at him, but he took it all in a good-natured way.
I probably teased Gary myself on occasion … I honestly can’t remember … but I do know that I went out of my way to be kind to him most of the time. I liked Gary, because he was a genuinely nice person.
What caused him to be teased so much was the way he spoke (a little odd) and ran (very odd). Seems strange now, but no one — including me — ever stopped to think about what might be wrong with someone who had what we would now clearly consider to be a disability.
Back in the day, though, if someone walked, talked, or acted differently than everyone else, he was simply thought of as a “dork” or a “weirdo.” Compassion and understanding were scarce commodities in those days.
Things like learning disorders and conditions such as autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, or dyslexia were never discussed. Nor did teachers or school staff members even dream of giving kids with such problems special accommodations. It was a pretty cold world for those youngsters. You either kept up with everyone else or tough luck.
By the standards of yesteryear, Gary’s dad was perceived to be rich by everyone who lived in our little version of Peyton Place. By today’s standards, of course, he really wasn’t rich. But I loved going over to Gary’s house, because he had everything, including a great recreation room in the basement with a jukebox, ping-pong table, pinball machine, and more.
What was really interesting about Gary was that even though the bullies in our class tried to make him out to be a dummy, he was actually very smart. I remember playing a game with him one afternoon with two dictionaries. One of us would throw out a word, then we would frantically flip the pages to see who could find it in his dictionary first.
As best as I can recall, Gary found every word faster than I did. It just about drove me nuts. It was the first time I consciously thought about how smart he was.
I also recall often dragging Gary into touch-football games in the street with two of my neighbors who were roughly our age. He could catch the ball pretty well, but he ran stiff-legged like a duck.
One of my neighbors (Larry), who was in the grade below us, would mock him unmercifully for this. Which is interesting, now that I think about it, given the fact that Larry was one of the dumbest kids in his class, having flunked at least one full year that I know of.
As is so often the case, we all went our separate ways after high school. After a number of years had passed, I heard from Ben, my best friend in high school, that Gary had moved to Washington, D.C. Every time I came to Washington, I thought about trying to get in touch with him, but it never happened. Too busy with business matters.
Years later, when I moved to the D.C. area myself, I finally tracked down Gary’s telephone number. I thought it would be a real kick to get together with my old high school pal and see how his life had turned out.
I’d heard that he was an attorney, but I didn’t know if he had ever gotten married or had children. Plus, as an adult in a much more open, knowledgeable, and medically aware world, I was curious as to what Gary’s condition actually was and how successful he had been in rising above it.
Calling Gary kept creeping up on my To Do List, until he eventually made it into the top ten. I felt sure I would be able to get in touch with him and manage to have a little reunion within the next few weeks, and I was very much looking forward to it.
But before I made the effort to actually do it, I took a short trip back to Peyton Place to visit my elderly mother who was in a nursing home. Ben picked me up at the airport and, as soon as I got in the car, said to me, “Before I even pull away from the curb, I want to tell you something. Gary Nathan died a few days ago — on the operating table, while having open-heart surgery.” I was stunned.
I’m really angry with myself that I never got around to seeing Gary. I’ll never know the answers to all the questions I wanted to ask him about his life. I especially wanted to talk to him about his condition, as I have two children with disabilities. But I was too late.
Which leaves me thinking about all those things on my To Do List that were always ahead of getting in touch with Gary. I now ask myself, in retrospect, “Was each and every one of them more important than seeing him?” I guess I’ll just have to keep wondering … and wonder what our reunion might have been like.
Who’s on your To Do List, and how many tasks are ahead of your seeing that person? You might want to start wondering about your priorities. Wondering about them today — not tomorrow — might just lead to action instead of regrets. If you wait until tomorrow to wonder, action may no longer be an option.