A friend of mine died recently, a girl I grew up with. I hadn't seen her a lot because she lived far away, but I thought of her frequently, usually smiling. I'd always taken for granted that she'd be a part of my life even when I got old. Alas, I'm hitting that age when you no longer have all the time in the world to catch up with old friends.
A few years ago, a patient came to see me, a 96-year-old woman who was sharp and always dressed to the nines. She looked sad and said bluntly, "I'm depressed."
"Why?" I asked.
"I got no friends," she said in her Manhattan accent. "They're all dead." I suggested she make new friends, possibly go to the senior center.
"No. I don't like young people," she said.
"But I'm sure you could find some nice 80-year-old youngster to talk to," I said.
"I don't like young people," she said. When I persisted, she gave me that annoyed New Yorker attitude: "Look, honey, I'm 96 years old, and I only like older men."
It is a recurring theme in my practice. It's not quite loneliness, but the older someone is, the more friends they've lost. I remember my Grandpa sitting at the kitchen table with the New Haven Register spread out in front of him, reading the obituaries out loud and commenting irreverently.
"Oh, look, they just planted that old Frenchman, Ducharte." And he'd go on to tell a hilarious story about old Mr. Ducharte, or whoever had just been "planted."
My mother would act scandalized at his irreverence. "Pop! Have some respect for the dead."
Grandpa said, "If I don't laugh about it, I'll cry. It's a helluvalot better to laugh than to cry."
A friend told me the joke: "Why do husbands die before their wives? Because they want to." I'm pretty sure that men handle the deaths of their wives a lot worse than the other way around. Women are more social; men seem to stay to themselves. I told my beautiful wife, Carla, that I don't want her dying before me. I don't want to be alone without her. But you can't ever be sure, so I told her I'd trade her in for two 20-year-olds. My uncle Ralph, who was over our house because he'd been helping me out with some electrical work, said: "Two 20s? You can't handle 220. You'll blow a fuse!"
A few years ago, a nurse was telling me about a 97-year-old widower who died because he'd been hit by a car going to the store. It seemed tragic, of course, but I told her that if I'm a 97-year-old widower, I wouldn't mind dying like that. Only I wouldn't want to be going to the store. Rather, I'd be crossing the street to go visit my girlfriend. The nurse pointed out my obvious flaw: "No, Jon, not on the way to visit your girlfriend. You'd want to get hit by the car after having visited your girlfriend."