Wisdom says: Keep close to friends in old age. When you lose them, you lose part of yourself.
Our family members come unbidden, some would say unwelcomed, but friends are different since we chose them and bring them into our lives because we have shared with them something valuable that defines us.
As we get older, friends play an even more crucial part in our lives since they reveal something about ourselves at the time that we chose them and about who we become as we keep them close, or push them away or get pushed away by them. Either way, we integrate them into our sense of self, and that is why we mourn their loss.
My longest friendship connects me to a boy I met in kindergarten, and then we spent K-16 together, grammar school, high school and college. We planned none of it and were surprised to be together then and continue to correspond even now. There was a precipitating incident that may have bonded us so early.
On the very first day of kindergarten, we crossed streets on our own and got there as best we could, obeying the one traffic signal by the school. On the way home, Bobbie followed me home. My mother was really worried. He didn’t know his address, just a direction, and no one had a phone. I started to worry too. What were we doing traipsing around our community without supervision? I was four and a half, so was he, and I thought about being on our own through him. But parents were home with younger kids. We also played without supervision until dark after school in our neighborhoods. But where was his?
He finally set off on his own, my mother very worried. But the next morning he crossed the street to the school with me and I asked how did he know how to get home? He said he just walked until he got there. I thought, this is a neat guy. His nonchalant resourcefulness in the face of possible danger, comic in its casualness, has stayed with me over the years. It’s very much part of my character to this day. My life-long bond to him has something about reckless, cheery going-it-alone at its core.
Another life-long friend has been close enough to be a brother. Physical largeness pitted him against me as he joined our third-grade class where I was the supposed tough guy to beat. We faced off in the school yard and laughed at ourselves as absurd, unwilling combatants. We stayed very close after that.
His parents nearly adopted me as we spent hours and hours together, for instance watching the 1950 Senate hearings on racketeering on tv. This was a very big deal. I believe we were let go from school to watch them, or else we played hooky. We parroted the accents and comments of the crooks, mostly gruff-voiced Italian mobsters, characters such as Frank Costello, who mouthed the phrase “I refuse to testify on the grounds that it may incriminate me.” We imitated it over and over applying it to almost any occasion.
We never mocked an accent but deployed it for infinite delights. Our bond was language, crazy phrasing, anything ethnic in multi-ethnic Trenton NJ, which delighted us, giving ourselves and pals ridiculous nicknames signifying nothing but goofy incomprehensible celebrity. I became Bey, from “Beytoe, our corrupt Italian for Bob. We had a Spanish class in which Senora Murphy made the class repeat vocabulary words. Someone was always a syllable behind, off beat. That became a marker for us, a private code of silliness, and we would intentionally get one syllable behind in any reading or recitation.
We both got Ph.D.’s in language disciplines, he in Theater, I in English. We bonded through words, mis-pronunciations, malapropisms, invented words, often scatological and obscene.
There was a glitch in this friendship, however. He is a political chameleon, playing to my liberalism when we discuss social matters, and mouthing right wing ideology on the web. It separates us and reveals things about his past and family I was oblivious to. You do not click on all points with a friend.
He’s very ill now, miserable with numerous afflictions. Still, I offer sympathy not opinions nor advice.
(I’ve been through some rough health times recently and can tell you some friends have recommended that I take up yoga, meditation, chiropractic manipulation, veganism, eating turmeric, apple cider vinegar, medjool dates. These suggested cures often follow really nasty questions such as: how did you do this? -ie., it’s your fault, and how many pills do you take?)
I call my old friend and sign my emails “Bey” and tender connections flood over us again. If and when I lose him, or he me, we’ll lose that part of ourselves that only we share with each other. That’s a big part, a huge hole in the collective personality, a missing person, one we created over a life time of private verbal shtick, a form of transcendent connection.
Losing friends frightens us since we actually lose that living source of memory we can share with few others. With that memory gone, we give up a piece of ourselves. Our memories lapse, our senses dull, our appetites wane as good times with that friend cloud over and darken.
The wisdom here is to stay close with friends particularly in later life. There may be large gaps in outlook, in preferences, values, but the core one creates with a dear friend is part of one’s own heart.
We can also have a change of heart, which can lead to distancing some old friends from us. What’s the instigation? Often, it’s boredom, an empty present with them as if they are absent and on remote control or stuck in the past. Friends must stay active, engaged, changing in ways that interest us, as we evolve as well. This can be the case in a dead-end marriage, with a partner originally chosen as a beloved supplement or contrast, no longer able to stimulate the other. These are hardest friendships to shake, and will require a separate round of wisdom about spouses and friends of the opposite sex.
Also, a friend can dump you, often with good reason. You may say something not exactly offensive, but disturbing to the friend. A friend I bonded with as junior faculty member had reached his time limit on finishing his Ph.D. thesis. He confided his worry about this. I asked, how much have you written? A long pause, then he said, well, none. I thoughtlessly said. Well, you can’t finish it. That was the end of our closeness as I had articulated the unhappy thought he was unwilling to consider himself.
I convinced another friend who paraded around his leftist, pinko outlook to vote for Obama. He did but then Obama appointed Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary, a banker who helped bail out the failed banks. That was it, my friend concluded, I was a sell-out capitalist and so was Obama. No meeting of minds after that.
The husband of a couple we frequently invited to dinner at our place would show up alone, begging the wife off as tired or ill but we suspected a drinking problem. This was okay until the fourth time, when he also explained she could only take her meds with alcohol. I blew up and said, she was drunk, an alcoholic. That was the end, of course.
Even these broken friendships resonate with a pained sense of loss. They signal how tentative life and connections and love can be. Better complement and praise a friend when he or she connects to something deep inside since that’s your shared life force, an anchoring reality in another we need more and more as we age. I look around now and feel abandoned, not finding those friends I raise my head and eyes to greet.