The Old Year

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Sean Dietrich

By Sean Dietrich

A nameless town. A tiny place you’ve never heard of. One without a stoplight. It’s a place so small that when you dial a wrong number they supply you with the correct one. The 2020 Christmas decorations on mainstreet have started to come down today.

Once upon a time, the beautification committee would have kept decorations up until New Year’s, but it’s been a weird year. The chairwoman decided it was time to take decorations down. The New Year needs a fresh start, she said. People are ready to forget the trappings of 2020 and remember that life goes on.

So the garland on local businesses was first to go. Then the pinery on lampposts. The snowflake decals in shop windows came down too.

Meanwhile, across town, there is an old man sitting in his yard in a wheelchair. He wears a surgical mask and watches grandkids play with a Nerf football. He’s hardly moving after his recent stroke, which nearly killed him weeks before Christmas. But they tell me this man is immeasurably determined, and even cheerful.

His granddaughter sits beside him, holding his limp hand. He has been through a lot, but there is no sadness in his mumbled responses, only reassurance to those he loves. His quivering lips seem to say, “Please don’t cry for me, life goes on, and so will I.”

Life does indeed go on. Just like it’s doing a few houses over, where a young man who we’ll call Billy is back home. Billy is visiting his mom for the holidays.

Billy has been sober for two years now. Although most remember him from his former days spent on a local barstool, playing the fool. But that’s in the past now. He’s dry, and constantly recovering. This makes his mama proud.

His mother, the former Sunday school teacher. The woman who taught the town’s children to memorize the Ten Commandments and recite the 23rd Psalm. A woman so devout that she once repented for using the 10-items-or-less checkout lane to purchase one dozen eggs.

Billy’s drinking problem made her the subject of ridicule. In some circles, she was a laughingstock. But in a way, Billy’s issues also reintroduced her to beliefs she truly held dear. He retaught her things like reconciliation, non-judgement and love without a contract. Concepts she had lost sight of once. And these virtues worked. They saved Billy.

Today when she looks at her son there is no criticism, no recollection of grievances. Instead she thinks to herself how grateful she is that life perpetually, mercifully, moves onward.

On the north side of the city, a 76-year-old man on his porch is thinking pretty much the same thing. He still has crud in his chest from a lingering coronavirus bout. But he’s doing better now.

Thankfully, his fight with the virus was the least of his life’s troubles. This is a man who once fought in Vietnam, who returned home in shreds. Who slept outside in his own backyard for one year because sleeping indoors made his nightmares worse. He was only a teenager when he joined Uncle Sam’s cause. He saw things over there he will never unsee.

And you ought to hear him tell the story of his redemption.

It happened in the 1980s. He was driving home one day from doing shift work at the mill. He stopped at a crosswalk near the elementary school. There, he saw dozens of children climbing from yellow school buses. They were laughing and smiling.

This simple scene touched him so deeply that he cried behind the wheel of his idling truck until cars started honking. It was their innocence. That’s what did it. When he saw children boarding those buses, he realized that, in his own words, “Life just keeps going.”

I think I’m noticing a trend here.

Ironically, one of those same yellow buses would’ve been driven by a lady who I’ll call Marilyn. Everyone knows Marilyn. She was a woman who always wore a mop of prematurely gray hair atop her head and smelled like Chanel No. 5 and Camels. She was feisty. Her house was run down, with dirt bikes in the yard. She raised four boys in that house.

When she hit her late 40s, her husband traded her in for a 23-year-old waitress. Marilyn almost didn’t make it after that. Her life was over, she thought. Totally over. Insurmountably over. Except it wasn’t.

“How’d you survive?” someone once asked an older Marilyn.

The elderly woman, with a voice full of good humor, said something along these lines: “Oh, sweetie, the world don’t stop for nobody, no matter who you are.”

She’s a real success story. And today she stands on a ladder, removing lamp post garland alongside other members of the beautification committee.

Because in a few days 2020 will be gone. The last 12 months will be purely memory. Our entire world will reach that singular moment when two calendar years collide. “The Year That Was” will bump into “The Year That Is.” The clock will ding midnight, and we will never date personal checks the same way again.

If you stand in any Smalltown, USA, on New Year’s Eve night, you’ll hear the same distant sounds in the far-off. You won’t hear people crying. They won’t be complaining, either. You’ll hear clanging pots and pans, rifle cracks, applause, hollering, cheering and lots of singing. There will be kisses among lovers. Hugs among family. Children’s foreheads will be smeared with Granny’s lipstick.

The remnants of yesterday will vanish. And this world will be reminded of something wonderful, something I keep forgetting. I forget that this New Year is not merely the closing of an old year. But it is a chance for me to embrace a brand new one.

Because life, you see, really does go on.

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