(Photo/Pixabay.com)
(Photo/Pixabay.com)

Over time, friends became more important than family

Some children are precocious, spouting clever insights one after another. I wasn’t one of them. I had only one illuminating insight at the not-so-early age of 12. It came as I looked at my family sitting at the dinner table — all substantially older than me. My thought: I need to form a network of friends to fortify me in life.

My parents had me late in life, and my two oldest brothers were 21 and 18 years older than me.

I realized one day that I would be the last Galatz standing.

For the sentimental, family minded me, that was a terrifying thought.

I loved our big, noisy family meals. The silly banter. The stories told again and again. The diet-defying meals cooked by my Hungarian grandmother. My father’s deep laugh. My brother’s glorious renditions of Broadway show tunes. Who could replicate such moments?

Turning to my best friend, Janie, beside me at the dinner table, it hit me. Friends were going to be the ones I’d share life and life stories with once my family was gone.

And that is what has come to pass.

Friends now play a central role in my life.

There’s Janie, of course, who remembers Grandma’s fiery goulash.

There’s Laura from college, who shares my passion for Broadway shows.

And sweet Shannon, who was there throughout my adult life. She witnessed the gossipy dating years, managed the bazillion buttons on my wedding dress, held my babies when they were born, sat shiva and sobbed with me when my parents and oldest brother died. Laughed and celebrated with me through lunches, holidays, birthday parties and everyday phone calls of “Hi, what’s new?” “Nothing.” “OK. Love you. Later.”

But my life plan has not been perfect, because in the decades since that “precocious” illumination of mine, a surprising number of friends have died, including, most recently, Shannon.

And yes, I have a wonderful husband and two delightful children. But children are not sisters-in-arms. They won’t gab on the phone. (I’m lucky when they return text messages!) Yes, they’ll be there in a crisis. But they are not my besties. They have their own lives, which is how it should be. But they cannot “remember back when,” especially when the “when” dates back decades before they were born!

I spoke to David Kessler, author of the bestseller “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief” and told him about my flagging, late-in-life friend-based support system. He observed, “There’s a saying: ‘Plans are what we have until we engage with reality.’”

I told Kessler I feel like a rickety warrior, ill-equipped, and with too few comrades-at-arms to face the approaching Battle of Old Age.

To this, Kessler said, “We have this idea of support as a static system. It is an ever-changing system. The people who support me today aren’t the people who were there five years ago. If we continue to stay involved in life, our support system will continue to change and grow and evolve.”

His words make sense.

My mother was 67 when my father died. After five decades of marriage, she courageously rebuilt her life. First, she earned a GED. Then she started college, planning a late-life career as a paralegal. Back problems derailed that plan, but undaunted, she became a super-volunteer, working countless hours leading a nonprofit organization.

Of equal importance, she formed a new circle of new friends who helped her through failed surgeries and increasing disability. And she, in turn, supported those women through their own life challenges.

But I should not paint these friendships as grounded solely in pain.

These were decidedly the ladies who lunched, brunched and dined. Went to movies, shows and book discussions. Debated politics, worked on campaigns and staffed polling stations. Bragged about their grandchildren. Several worked into their late 70s. One managed a popular band. All these women — Ellen, Shirley, Mildred, Violet — were role models. I celebrate their memories and inspiration.

Now, I turn to the future. I plan to follow David Kessler’s advice, continue growing my support network through work and community engagement — just as my mother and her friends did.

Yes, that support network is frayed. But I’m strong. I will rebuild it. And in the process, I will, as Kessler suggests, “find meaning in grief.” Yes, I am an aging warrior, but I will continue marching forward, strengthened by gratitude, hope and friendship.

Karen Galatz
Karen Galatz

Karen Galatz is the author of Muddling through Middle Age, a weekly humor blog. An award-winning journalist, her nonfiction and fiction essays and stories have been featured in multiple publications. She is a former resident Berkeley who now lives in Reno and can be reached at [email protected].