The Last Jubilee by Stan Friedman
After my best friend, Ronnie, was diagnosed with cancer the first time, we made a pact: That though we were separated by geographic distance, we would hereafter, for the remainder of our lives, devote a weekend together each year to our “Jubilee.” In the Bible, each 7th year’s growing season was to be kept fallow for the fields to regenerate. Each 7th year was to be called the “Jubilee,” a very special year to be experienced only once in a lifetime.
And as we were now so aware of the fragility of life, and how it could be taken from any of us at any moment, Ronnie and I determined to strive to live each year as if it were a Jubilee, and to embody it and our immortal friendship during its annual celebration. In each Jubilee we were to alternate roles. The role of the Host was to plan the details for a wonderful and enjoyable weekend to be shared together. To give his all for the Guest. The role of the Guest was to permit himself to be given to. A far more difficult role.
The spirit of the Jubilee was to presume meaning to all things. So that when our wishes or plans were dashed, rather than to bemoan our fates and move on, we were to stop and look closer. Until MEANING emerged and fate’s plan became revealed. This is a tale from our final and greatest Jubilee.
For this event, I had one year earlier reserved a suite at the Ahwahnee Hotel at Yosemite National Park in the heart of autumn. As we drove there, we spoke of our love for the autumn wind, and La Mistral, the legendary winds which sweep across the south of France. And we wondered that if the winds were to be with us this weekend, perhaps the spirit of John Muir himself, the patron saint of Yosemite, would join our side and give us flight with the leaves.
The morning after we arrived, we went out into the day. Ronnie had never been to Yosemite before, and so I had planned a day of its most wondrous treasures. First, a drive beyond the Valley and over the mountaintop to Glacier Point. Then, a short hike to observe the panorama, and on to the Grove of Redwoods, the world’s oldest living things. Finally, a return to the Valley at dusk in time for dinner by sunset at the Ahwahnee Hotel.
But at El Capitan Peak, just before leaving the Valley, I noticed an inexplicable discomfort. I asked my friend if he felt it too, and he affirmed yes, that he, too, somehow felt this cacophonous anxiety amidst such splendor. We stopped the car and discussed our situation. What emerged was that with so much infinite glory before us, with all the infinite wonders “beyond the Mountaintop,” we could not permit ourselves to have fully but one thing. The ONLY thing. The NOW. Because so much had we wanted it all, we therefore could have nothing fully.
So we decided that in the spirit of the Jubilee, we HAD to surrender our plans and be prepared to give up everything “beyond the mountaintop.” We decided it must be here where we would make our stand, and for all day, if need be. We wandered across the meadow and sat beneath a maple tree rich with foliage. Feeling so full yet so sad and bittersweet. At one point my friend stood up and paced back from the tree. “When I was a little boy, we had a game. In the autumn, we would stand under a tree like this and when the wind blew, try to catch a falling leaf in our hands. We believed that if only you could catch it before it touched the ground, then surely something wonderful would happen.”
Neither of us could have then known that Ronnie was dying. But, unbeknownst to me, he had suspected it.
Until that moment the autumn winds had been blowing unremittingly all day. But the moment Ronnie had stood up, waiting, there was only sudden calm. Calm and silence. And not one leaf falling from the tree. After awhile, my friend looked up, and as if pleading, whispered “please!” And in a moment, as if from nowhere, a burst of wind. La Mistral! Several leaves floated down, Ronnie chased them with glee. But falling leaves are not so easy to catch. You commit to running one direction, the next moment they are blown another. No leaves. Nonetheless, we could not believe what had just happened!
Another few minutes, in poignant silence, and my friend raised himself again. But still the air held only calm. And this time, in a voice louder now, even more pleading, he called to the sky, “PLEASE!” Again, in but a moment, the wind. Only this time a larger, more insistent burst. Even more leaves were dislodged from the tree. But as before, my friend could catch no leaf.
For one final time now Ronnie looked up and stared into eternity. I never did learn what was in his mind at that moment, but I saw tears forming in his eyes, tears falling to the ground. And for one last time, as though his very LIFE depended upon it, and as if from the bottom of his soul, he pleaded and proclaimed to the skies,”PLEEEEASE!”
Silence. Immediately a low swirl. Louder, harder. Now a gust, now a burst, now a HOWL! And THIS time, a THOUSAND leaves were blown, and this time Ronnie caught his leaf. And at exactly that moment, I, who was relaxing under the tree with arms outstretched, felt a tingle on my palm, and closed my fist upon… a LEAF, which had fallen directly into my hand!
We then looked at each other with love and gratitude and agreed it was now time to move on with our day. And as fate would have it, we DID see it all! We saw Glacier Point, we saw the panorama, we visited the Redwoods, the oldest living things, we DID make it back to the Ahwahnee Hotel JUST in time for dinner at a glorious sunset.
My friend died six months later. But before he did, he recognized he had glimpsed eternity. And eternity NEVER ends! Ronnie, you CAUGHT the leaf! The leaf was life, a brief moment falling in the winds before returning to the Earth from whence it came…… and surely, something wonderful DID happen!
About the Author:
Dr. Friedman is a clinical psychologist who has recently relocated his private practice to West Los Angeles from San Mateo, California after 25 years. He specializes in adult and adolescent psychotherapy, with a particular interest in attachment theory, interpersonal neurobiology and mindfulness practice. He is on the clinical faculty of Chope Hospital in San Mateo and the Wright Institute in Berkeley, and has been responsible for arranging continuing education programs for the San Mateo County Psychological Association for the past 10 years.