I like being old. At nearly 80, I think I am allowed to say so. Indeed, I like being old so much that I wrote a book about it.
But that doesn’t mean that everything about being old is wonderful.
Far from it.
And one of the things I like least is the loss of friends.
Roughly 20 years ago, I was chatting to a very reflective female friend of my parents, living in the same retirement community and aged 96.
My father had just died, and I noted that I had run up a large phone bill talking to his friends about the event, as well as phoning home to talk to my family.
She said anyone should consider themselves lucky to have a high phone bill. At her time of life, her phone bills were very low, because she had so few friends left to talk to.
Interestingly, that small detail brought home the point very vividly.
Clearly, one of the very sad aspects of growing older is the slowly mounting deaths among friends.
Each and every loss diminishes our lives a little bit more. These may be old friends we have known from childhood or someone who we just met, but had connected with and held high hopes for a lasting friendship.
I guess it is just down to luck as to whether you have lost a lot of friends over your life or just a few. I have been relatively lucky in this respect, but nonetheless, they do add up.
What somehow surprises me is how many varying circumstances there are.
You might think a death is a death is a death.
But that is not how it is. Indeed, each one seems surprisingly different.
A death from AIDS
There is the death of my friend who had been living with AIDS since I met him, about whom I have written before. He was very young and that made it especially poignant.
He would sit in my kitchen and talk about all manner of things, but more than once he just looked at me and said, “It’s not so much to ask, I just want my life.”
And he was right. At 30, you should have a life to look forward to.
An old friend from college
Perhaps my greatest loss was of a friend from college, who I had known for over 50 years. We had seen each other through various early boyfriends, then marriage, then children and eventually grandchildren.
She was a very deep person, perhaps not surprisingly as she was a therapist, and rarely did ‘small talk’.
We once met for lunch when we had not seen each other for five years. I went to her office, she put on her coat and walking up the road, immediately launched into a discussion of her worries about one of her daughters.
None of the usual “how was your flight?” which I always find boring. Who cares about my flight!?
She died from lung cancer, having lived a long time in its wake.
The conductor of my choir
People often feel a sense of kinship with the conductor of their choir (or orchestra). You see them frequently for rehearsals – often over many years – and music brings its own intimacy.
I had been singing with his choir for roughly 25 years. And he had a wonderful twinkle in his eye.
In addition, the man had been very helpful to my son, and we had become friends. We socialised together with our respective spouses. I had helped him out when his wife died of cancer.
He had TB, contracted when, as a young man, he helped a homeless man find a shelter for the night. As such, he would have undoubtedly been a likely candidate for Covid-19.
But he was already going downhill in his mid-70s and increasingly needed help with his breathing. He died before Covid was on the horizon.
Much of the choir could not sing certain music without tears in their eyes.
A fellow writer
And there are the sudden unexpected deaths. I had a writer friend, to whom I wasn’t very close, but we enjoyed each other’s company.
He lived alone, had many friends and learned about a year or so ago that he had an inoperable brain tumour and would not live for more than a few weeks.
I can just envisage him wondering what to do. His solution – surprising at the time, but actually very sensitive and sensible – was to post a notice to this effect on his Facebook page.
He also said “thank you” to all his friends. This gave everyone an opportunity to write kind or thoughtful words to him while he was still alive, while I am sure his closest friends rallied around.
The loss of friends
One by one, they drop out of your life.
You want to tell them something, but they are not there to hear. Or you want their advice, but they are not there to give it.
I want them all back.
A version of this article has been published in my book, The Granny Who Stands on her Head: Reflections on Growing Older
This was initially published by SixtyandMe.com