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Washington Voices

Front Porch: Getting older can mean you get it

Thu., Oct. 13, 2011

Sometimes there’s a sadness that’s hard to shake.

I find myself there right now, and I wonder how many Baby Boomers find themselves there, too. Others older and younger experience similar things, of course, but since so many of us Boomers are hitting the big six-five now, we are a statistically significant lot, and there may be something of a critical mass gathering here.

I lost a dear, dear friend this summer – not the first good friend to die, but this time, I’m not recovering so well. Yes, I know it’s not about me. It’s about her husband and brother and their personal and intimate loss. And after reaching out to them, staying in contact through the brief hospitalization and through the death and the time afterward – frankly, my thoughts turned inward and I began to feel very sorry for myself and what the loss of this friend means to me.

She and I lived on opposite sides of the country all of our adult lives. The last time we spent more than several weeks in close proximity was when we were in junior high school. Yet we were the closest of friends, having frequent long conversations, often through email.

Zim was a bridesmaid at my wedding. She married later in life, and we went back to Boston for her wedding. She was my go-to person. If there was something troubling me, maybe something I chose not to discuss with my husband, she’d be the one I’d take it up with. Sometimes you just need a girlfriend for that. Nothing was too small or too embarrassing, too intimate or too petty. She knew when to give advice or when to just listen.

I remember once several years ago, I was doing my usual stoic, German, by-your-bootstraps thing over an issue, trying to be strong. After much conversation, she quietly said, “You know, strong people suffer needlessly; smart people get help. Be smart.”

So I did what she suggested – and it helped.

During a visit in Seattle a few years ago, my husband and I took Zim and her husband Art down to the waterfront. After a while our husbands went for a long walk, and she and I parked ourselves in a Starbucks and talked about everything, big stuff and little. It was wonderful – one of those quiet times in which nothing particular stands out, but everything seems to be special.

Anyone would be fortunate to have such a good friend. And the fortunate among us do, which is why the loss of that friend is so difficult. But there is an added dimension to such a friendship, I think, as we get older. The group of people who knew us as children grows smaller or disappears entirely. As we lose the people with whom we have a lifetime of shared history, we feel more vulnerable. Or at least I do.

I think of the aged people I have seen in nursing homes, people who have outlived spouses, children, siblings and everyone meaningful in their lives. And while they may be surrounded by people, activities and sunlight, they are very lonely. I’m beginning to get it.

OK, this is getting awfully melodramatic and maudlin. I should slap myself. I have a great husband, great children and friends, and a life that is meaningful to me. But I’m beginning to see where we Boomers are marching off to: a future inside a diminishing circle where we are surrounded more and more by strangers and by things strange to us. No one lives forever.

Gloomy. I guess I’m in a glass-half-empty mood.

I’m also beginning to understand why we resist change so much as we age. I remember when Zim got mad at a longtime neighbor who retired and moved to South Carolina. That upended her safe world. I get it.

I get why older people feel more secure sleeping in their own beds, seek out the familiar and spend a lot of time discussing ailments, surgeries and symptoms. It’s pushing away the dark, clinging to the world that makes sense, reaching back to that time when we felt more relevant, less vulnerable and stronger – a time when it was all out there ahead of us. It was a time when we got it, and it got us.

We’re not adapting well. And we don’t have as much time as we used to, as much time as we expected to, to establish new histories, new narratives with new people or in new places. We are in fact running out of time.

And I miss Zim like crazy.

Stefanie Pettit can be reached at upwindsailor @comcast.net.


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