Nine Dinners

My friend Melissa was the one who said it. “Nine dinners.”

There were fourteen of us at the table, all speakers, volunteers, or organizers at a week-long literacy conference in Virginia. Our host had graciously invited us to dinner: to enjoy each other’s company, to relax after a day of presenting, to eat good food and drink wine at someone else’s expense (thank you!)—to laugh, to reflect, to enjoy some spirited differences of opinion. Some of us were writers; some of us were illustrators; some of us were literacy experts; some of us were smart, opinionated librarians. (Ooh, I love smart, opinionated librarians).

The question was, “What would you do if you knew you had only nine dinners left with someone you cared about but didn’t see all that often?" I thought immediately of my brother who lives on the West Coast. And Melissa, whom I’ve known for thirteen years and who lives just a couple of states away in tiny New England, and yet it took a conference in Virginia of all places (!) to get us to the same dinner table.

What would you do to get yourself to one of those last nine dinners? And what would you talk about? Would you be sure to tell that person how much they meant to you? Or would you talk about the Red Sox? (Or how much the Red Sox meant to you?)

The conference director at the far end of the table called out, “I didn’t hear. What are y’all talking about?”

 “Death!” I shouted back gleefully. “Melissa is reminding us that we’re all going to die, and it’s going to be very, very soon!”

 “Oh, that!” said the conference director. She waved her hand. She had had a long day making sure each conference event went off flawlessly, making sure the needs of others were taken care of before her own. And doing it all in stunningly high heels and a gorgeous suit. That woman dressed to kill!

(As I think back on it now, she must have already received the news that a dear, elderly member of her family had just passed away. She missed part of the conference on Friday to attend the funeral. I know that that evening she smiled at us, a genuine smile, a warm smile. She liked seeing all of us enjoying ourselves around her table.)

Nine dinners.

What I thought about was this: If you knew there were just nine dinners left with a loved one—a faraway cousin, an old college friend—what would possibly keep you from one of those dinners? A broken leg, a bad case of the stomach flu, a terrible headache, that first tickling of a sore throat that means a cold is on its way, a forecast of heavy rain, an incredibly frustrating day at work, just that feeling of I don’t want to go out tonight. We’ve all done it. Made the last-minute excuse that was real or felt real or contained the possibility of reality. Because, of course, you could always reschedule.

Nine dinners.

Tomorrow, I’m driving two hours north to spend the day with Melissa. We haven’t done that in years. She has a new house to show me! Yay! We might go on a schooner ride. Fun! We might take a yoga class.(Hmm....)  I’m throwing my bike in the back of my car, in case we're in the mood for riding around the peninsula. I’m sure there will be at least one walking of dogs, as there always was when we summered nearby, years ago.

She thinks she has to entice me with 21-foot schooners and spectacular ocean views. But she doesn’t. I would drive up there just to sit around her kitchen table and yak about books and dreams and how to craft a story and why some shoes make so much noise when you walk while others are nearly silent. We have had these exact conversations and more.

Because the truth is—and we all know it, you do, too—that there really are just nine dinners with each of the people we love. Oh, the number might be slightly off. Maybe it’s twelve or maybe it’s two or maybe it’s forty-seven, but does that really make that much of a difference? Whatever the number, it is finite and it is not enough. That, I can guarantee.

So, now that I’ve told you, as Melissa told us, that there are only nine dinners, what will your response be?

Here’s one of mine: I’m booking tickets to see my brother in LA in October. You see, since the time when we were children and played the Milton Bradley game of Life (in which you had to bet your entire fortune on a single number and the spin of the wheel—ending up at the Poor Farm or Millionaire Acres), my lucky number was always nine. I bet it every single time. Why would I change it now? That would just be crazy.