Looking back at the end of another year

Looking back at the end of another year

When about the best you can say about something is, “Well, I suppose it could have been worse,” you may have learned a lesson.

That’s largely been my experience with New Year’s Eve.

It’s built on a rather flimsy construct, one that invites all manner of menace and melancholy, and I’ve learned something valuable over time: Generally, it’s a very bad idea to force-feed a celebration onto the masses when the masses echo Bartleby the Scrivener, who famously says, “I prefer not to,” in the Melville short story.

Bartleby, for example, wouldn’t have found himself in the Miami police station on New Year’s Eve 1974, having been the victim of a felonious break-in while watching the Orange Bowl. Yet that’s where I was, and trust me, South Beach cops aren’t your friends.

It was stupidly optimistic, I suppose, to expect them to care on perhaps the most lawless night of the year, but I was a sophomore in college and still had some rudimentary faith in law enforcement.

Perhaps my roommate shouldn’t have parked his car — a blue 1965 Mustang — in a stranger’s front yard, paying $10 for something that cost three times as much at the stadium. And maybe we shouldn’t have left anything worth much inside, but that’s all hindsight.

As it happened, instead of celebrating the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame’s victory over the Crimson Tide of Alabama, we filled out forms while just outside the precinct’s doors. The Orange Bowl Parade went on as planned, oblivious to any human suffering.

It wasn’t my first New Year’s Eve disappointment, though.

That had occurred two years earlier when Roberto Clemente, one of my favorite baseball players, had perished in a plane crash while trying to assist the victims of a massive earthquake in Nicaragua.

Things got better in 1978 when my best friend and I spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s in Jamaica, flying to Montego Bay and back for something like $250. We had no plans, no real itinerary, but shared a young man’s dream of doing something exciting and kind of scary just for the pure fun of it.

Had it not been for catching the last plane out before a general strike closed the airport, we’d have been there for another two weeks, a prospect that — lack of funds aside — didn’t faze us a bit.

That illustrated the sunny-side-up coin toss of New Year’s Eve.

A few years later, I got a first-hand look at the absolute inverse.

Before I share a few of the details of that mess, I want to stress I no way blame my college friend and his wife for what happened. All they did was plant a seed. It was I who reaped the bitter harvest.

By then I had worked at my hometown newspaper for a fair stretch of time and, thanks to a very kind and understanding girlfriend, was beginning to understand what growing up meant.

What it didn’t mean was jumping into a car on New Year’s Eve after deciding to head back to campus in a horribly mistaken attempt to win back the affection of the young woman who had done me dirty in the months that followed my graduation. I wish I had a better explanation than, “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time,” but it was a crime of passion in search of a motive.

The ugly truth of it is after we had spent that ill-fated night falling back into the same destructive rhythms that had led to our heated relationship’s fiery demise, I was abandoned and stranded.

Then my girlfriend picked me up at the bus station back home.

It was the most odious betrayal of my life, one that shames me to this day. I’d like to blame New Year’s Eve, but that would not only be disingenuous, it’d a be lie, and I was raised better than that.

Faithful readers may recall my mother died on New Year’s Day 1981 and that I spent the night before in her hospital room, keeping up my part of the rotating plan my siblings and I adopted.

There wasn’t a whole lot to do, actually, as anyone who’s been through that kind of extended vigil can surely attest. There was no need for feeding, and the pain meds were of such desperate magnitude to render Mom all but serenely unaware of it all.

At one point, however, as I dabbed a little ice water on her parched and cracked lips, she opened her eyes and seemed to focus on the wall opposite her bed. I didn’t know then, nor do I know now, precisely what she was seeing, but she said, “Mother Mary.”

She might have been praying, or she might have been talking to her own mother, whose name was Mary, but something happened that didn’t involve me at all. I was just a shadow among many others.

In the more than 40 New Year’s Eves that have rolled by since that awful one, I’ve had more than my share of good ones, most of them spent with my wife, whose idea of the big night is a small glass of champagne while watching the ball drop in Times Square.

She’s content to let the world go by, happy enough to watch TV and spend time with me, playing Scrabble on a cold winter’s night.

And after all these years, I still don’t understand how it came to pass that I would ever get so lucky. She is, to quote Michael Douglas in “The American President,” way out of my league, which is to say it all could have been much, much worse.

Mike Dewey can be reached at Carolinamiked@aol.com or 6211 Cardinal Drive, New Bern, NC 28560. He invites you to join the fun on his Facebook page, where time has a way of healing us all.

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