For 25 years, I have been the Young Friend. What I mean is that I did not fit in especially well with most of my peers as a kid, so I gravitated toward the adults, who understood and appreciated my quirks.
In the back of my mind, I knew I was playing a dangerous game: If all your friends are 20+ years your senior, there will come a moment when you are left alone. When you reach that moment, you face a question: What do I do now?
I have a few friends my age. Some go way back; some are newer. The older I get, the more I find I have in common with my peers. Age is a great equalizer. But I have always cherished my older friends. And I have always known I couldn’t keep them forever.
Nearly five years ago, my friend Laurel died unexpectedly. I treasure the years I had with her. We had a host of things in common and delighted in discovering them, usually over sushi. She was nearly 30 years my senior, but we might as well have been sisters. I miss her.
In late November, while I was busy surviving COVID-19, one of my oldest and dearest friends, Anna, lost her battle with lung cancer. Anna was my sophomore English teacher. She was my parents’ sophomore English teacher. She was also one of my biggest cheerleaders. If not for this godforsaken virus, I would have headed back to Illinois to see her the minute she told me she was sick.
When I got word that she had slipped away, I wondered: What next? What do you do when you’re the Young Friend, and your Older Friends leave you?
The answer is: You become the Old Friend. I started grad school this semester (something Anna had long nudged me to do), and I soon befriended a young classmate. The book in this picture is a Christmas gift she sent me, along with a sweet note that sounded a lot like something I might have said to Anna or Laurel.
I still miss them. But I am not as lost as I thought I’d be. I understand my role now, and I honor them by fulfilling it. I have always loved circular plot lines, and Tiara’s gift completes a circle.
This new role is strange, yet oddly familiar and eminently comforting. I embrace it. As Sandy Denny said: “I do not fear the time.”
One thought on “Circle of Life”
“It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch.” Wrote Judah Halevi.
My associations and friendships with people much older than I have far outnumbered those with contemporaries. The obvious downside to having superannuated friends is the near inevitability of outliving them.
Still, when these close friends are also mentors and role-models, I think there is a countervailing benefit that outweighs the heartbreak of separation. Tapping their wisdom and experience gives us a leg up in our own life-journey. After all, how much are we likely to learn from those our own age, people who are on the same learning curve that we are? Probably not much. In which case, limiting close friendships to one’s own generation also limits opportunities for learning, growth, and enrichment.
Furthermore, the passing of those who have strongly impacted and shaped our lives differs, in my experience, from the passing of those with whom we have mostly shared the enjoyment of each other’s company.
The demise of those whose companionship and shared social and recreational interests were the focus of the relationship, carries with it a sorrow that is not offset by any mitigating factors. When they are gone nothing remains of the relationship aside from nostalgic memories, a sense of finality and irretrievable loss, and a pining for what can never be again.
On the other hand, while the death of a mentor elicits grief, I believe that grief is tempered by the knowledge that those for whom we grieve live on within us. To the extent that they have shaped our lives, enhanced our professional abilities, and informed our world views, their influence remains with us as a continual presence that is not vulnerable to the vicissitudes and vagaries of life. While we miss their physical proximity and treasure bittersweet memories of happy times spent with them, the spiritual kinship prevents the separation from being so total and final. We see our departed friends in ourselves all the time, and hopefully we pass their influence on to others.
Most of those with whom I have enjoyed the closest associations were from 25 to 50 years my senior. They have all died. Still, their presence is real and palpable to me. I carry it with me every day, and as long as I have awareness, I will never be without them. For that reason I could never be altogether lonely.
I have to disagree with Halevi. I think there is something more fearful than loving what death can touch – keeping people at arm’s length for fear of losing them. The cost of having nothing to lose is having nothing worth keeping.