If you’re a Baby Boomer like me, you’ll probably remember the 1980s movie “The Big Chill.” It’s the story of a group friends in their late thirties who gather to mourn the suicide of a college buddy. They are on the precipice of middle age and are not only mourning the death of a friend, but also the end of their youth and the need to abandon many of their dreams and accept disappointment in marriage, career, and politics. The mood of the film is not so much mournful as it is sad and melancholy.
“The Big Chill” was talking about my generation, and I’ve been thinking about those years a lot since my old friend Hugh died a few weeks ago. His name really wasn’t Hugh, but he was a private person and that’s close enough. He wasn’t the first person dear to me who’s passed away over the years. I’ve buried both my parents and lost several other close friends, more and more of them as time goes by. Like going to college and getting married and having children, terminal illness and death is becoming a shared generational experience. So why did Hugh’s passing affect so many people I know so profoundly?
Hugh had an enormous number of friends. People who shared his passion for music. People from his professional life. From his many extended travels. And for a few of us, from the beginning, from our first day at graduate school, sitting in an airless administrative office waiting to register for our courses, silent and anxious, new in town, trying to hide our anxiety behind a mask of pseudo-sophistication. We quickly bonded, sitting close to each other in class, hanging out together in the campus coffee shops during the week and in one of our living rooms on weekend evenings, drinking wine and talking about philosophy. Our crowd consisted mostly of first-generation college graduates from lower-middle-class and working-class families who knew the world was bigger and more diverse than than our home towns, but whose undergraduate experiences—no matter how intellectually or socially stimulating—were ultimately designed to return us to that world of narrow conformity. Pretty soon, we began see behind each other’s masks and shyly and cautiously began to reveal parts of our personalities we had always tried to keep hidden from others.
As time went on, other people became part of our group, fellow classmates and their spouses, colleagues from the teaching gigs we worked at along the way. A few years later, as we left graduate school and our lives moved in different directions, we were no longer the tight-knit group we’d once been. Still, we stayed in touch through holiday cards, occasional telephone calls, and in-person visits when we were in each other’s new cities, and there was always that special connection of having shared something very important, the time when we began to be the person we wanted to be, not the person convention dictated we should be, the true first days of the rest of our lives.
As I read the online memories friends from throughout the world shared about Hugh, I realized in how many ways I knew him well and in how many ways I didn’t know him at all. We wrote about his elegant musicales and dinner parties, his commitment to his academic career through teaching and administrative duties, the deep conversations we’d had over so many years. I realized that the man Hugh had been included private aspects of his true self that none of his friends would ever truly know. And I knew that our reactions to his death said as much about us as they did about him.
Since Hugh’s passing, I’ve been having long Zoom and Face Time calls with several of my old graduate school friends. Our conversations often turn to memories of Hugh and why his death has had such a profound impact on us. Much of it was losing him, of course and some of this sense of melancholy also stems from the pandemic and the sense of isolation it has generated in so many people. But much of it, we have reluctantly begun to acknowledge, is the recognition that if “The Big Chill” were made about my generation today, it wouldn’t be about Boomers facing middle age. It would be about facing the end of our lives.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Whenever I hear people blame the travails of today’s world on my generation, I want to shout that we grew up being assured that we were the future, that we would end war, not only in Viet Nam, but for all time; that we would resolve racial and gender and economic disparities, cure disease and poverty and international strife. We did, in fact, change the world in many ways, but the world changed us as well. It gave us COVID and AIDS, wars in places we’d never heard of before, racial strife that incomprehensibly continues. If “The Big Chill” was about giving up some of the dreams and ideals of youth and moving into the acceptance of adult realities and disappointments, we’re now facing the reality that, as my friend Richard put it recently, the end of the line is getting closer to us, and Hugh’s passing brings each of us one step closer. If our midlife crisis was a chill, the future sometimes looks like a deep freeze.
As we were talking about Hugh, about the enthusiasms and disappointments in his life—the things we knew about, at least—we began to realize that when we talked about Hugh, we were also talking about ourselves. Amid the tears and the mourning, the longing for past joys and fears of the unknown future, it’s too easy to forget the person you’re mourning and cry not for him, but for yourself. After all, in “The Big Chill,” didn’t the director cut out the role of the dead friend the Boomers had gathered to remember and left scenes in which the once-living person appeared on the cutting-room floor. In the movie, the real person became a memory, an absent presence as they call it, no longer starring in the leading role. For a generation raised to think of itself as the center of the universe, that’s a difficult edit to accept.