A couple of weeks ago I lost a good friend. Not to the Grim Reaper, though that’s happened often enough over the last decade. (So many I can’t bear to delete from my phone contacts: I get a little stab of grief whenever I scroll past their names.)
That, horrible though it is, is part and parcel of 50-something life. It is something we can’t really do much about.
This decade was once described to me, by a doctor, as “Sniper Valley” because of the number of casualties that accrue. So far it is grimly true. Friends and family have gone down like ninepins and you spend as much time in your 50’s at memorial services as 30 somethings spend at weddings. (On a more comforting note if you make it through to 60, you’ve got a reasonable chance of making it for another twenty years, according to real, actual actuarial reports.)
It has been in my 50’s too, that I have rediscovered and rekindled friendships that got neglected in that tangle of teenagers, work, elderly parents that tied up my 40’s. Then I could barely find the time to wave at anyone who didn’t fall into one of other of those Venn diagrams. But now I’ve thrashed my way out of those thickets, one way or another – albeit with quite a few scratches. I’m back in the grassy meadows with my lovely friends and I love it here.
There are so many different rhythms to friendships. Some of them are tidal. Over the decades, they wane at those times when lives diverge – kids, that stupid job when you were always stressed out. But often, with the odd bit of maintenance, the best ones come bobbing back when you need them, as vivid and cheering as they always were. Being able to pick up where you left off, no matter how long you’ve left it or how far away you are is, for me, the surest sign of a great kinship. (That and liking the same books.) It is one of the wonderful aspects of middle-aged life that it allows you the time – and the priorities – to relax into those friendships again.
And my friends keep me sane. They patiently let me rabbit on about whatever is preoccupying me and are wise with their advice. They are always up for cinemas or theatre or new hobbies or lunches or dog walks or cakes. We can talk about anything and everything. They give me ideas. They make me hoot laughing. They keep me happy, busy, well turned out and, yes, married (in my experience there is an inverse correlation between the amount partners want to chat and the length of the relationship. But a Girl Gotta Talk. Step up friends!)
Of course not all friendships have that kind of longevity. Work friendships have an intense and short term rhythm and they are none the worse for it. I once worked with someone who, on a group weekend away, agonised as to whether he should save our team snaps in his “Work ” or “Friends” albums. He plumped for “Work”. We were outraged, but looking back, he wasn’t wrong. None of us are close any more.
Work friendships are not always for the long haul. When what binds you is a set of in jokes about THAT boss or THAT company, then without the fuel of new material, there’s nothing much to keep things going beyond reminiscence. You usually spot that after a couple of reunion drinks. Then, with no hard feelings and plenty of fond ones, both parties tacitly realise that it was good while it lasted and fade, cordially, back into their pre-You lives.
But generally, if you have known someone well enough to consider them a friend for more than five or six years; if they’ve been to your house and met your family, and you really like them because you are, for god’s sake, grown ups, then you don’t expect to lose them. Yes, things may cool a little. But never speak again? Surely not. But that, my friend, is just what happened to me recently.
Losing anything sucks. Losing a friend sucks double. Even if there are plenty of why’s and wherefore’s and fault on both sides, most of us are not capable of doing something so terminally awful that someone would never want to talk to us again. Even bad things between friends have a way of getting sorted out. Someone I know discovered his oldest school friend had been secretly syphoning money out of his bank account. This did put a crimp in their relationship and I think it’s fair to say a certain chilliness crept in. But a few years on and they are still best buddies. So a disagreement, yes. Hurt feelings, of course. We’re all only human. But a total breach? No way.
The ways in which you can feel disconnected from someone are of course multiple in our socially connected world. My erstwhile friend was able to step over that thin line between love and hate in a very unambiguous way by unfriending me. Being discarded in social media is like having your friendship stripes ripped off your sleeve. It is very effective because it is instantly noticeable. Teamed with well-worn old favourites like ceasing all conversation, it’s pretty final. You can see how, if you weren’t old enough to know better, if you were a fragile teenager, say, the harshness of being ghosted would be devastating.
It made me sad. It felt so unfair (I spent hours recounting the times I had looked out for my friend and protected them without them even knowing). I wanted a recording angel to turn up and point this out. (Where is St Peter when you want him?)
But eventually I calmed down. I realised that while we had been brilliant colleagues we hadn’t really nailed being friends outside that. Coincidences like living near each other, the love of a good laugh and a taste for flashy dressing had made us feel closer than we were. Would we have been in each other’s “Friends” album were it not for those random things? Who knows. But now we’re not friends any more, I realise we had nothing else to bind us together. And that’s why our friendship was so easy to dissolve.
But to quote Kermit/Bob Cratchit in that cinematic masterpiece, “A Muppet Christmas Carol”, “Life is made up of meetings and partings; that is the way of it.” When you are staring 60 in the face, you tend to feel that life is too short for absolute actions, but perhaps it is exactly the right time to be black and white. After all, there isn’t all that much time left – why not spend it with people who really like you and enjoy your company?
Friendship is such a wonderful thing. In a Marie Kondo world it may not be a fashionable sentiment, but it seems to me we should not only hesitate to throw it away, we should hoard it.