When I was at school I had two separate groups of schoolfriends, both comprising three girls plus me. One set comprised my official “best” friends – my very best, my second best and my third best. Sounds ridiculous but that’s kind of the way it was. We went around together most of the time, sat together in class and knew one another’s secrets. But these girls all took packed lunches while I ate in the canteen. So my lunchtime friends were three other girls: M, G and S, with whom I also shared a lot of girlish chat.
I’m still in touch with all of these girls, though with some more than others. I’ve always seen M intermittently – she would come down for a meal with the family maybe once a year. She was unmarried, and when you have small children you sometimes hesitate to inflict yourself on childless friends whose life is more focused on a successful career than on picking up bits of Lego from the floor. But we got on well and she was very empathetic and – a lovely person. I’ve always been rather enchanted by her. In fact, when I was a girl, I really wanted to BE her. She was from an interesting and talented family and always seemed to be confident – not in an arrogant way, but calmly, as if life were simple. In fact, like the rest of us she had her neuroses, as I found out later in life. But she was sweet.
One of the surprising things about her was that she always seemed to fall for unsuitable boys/men. They were older than her, or they were planning on a career that wouldn’t have fitted in with her plans (for example, one was very religious and planned to be a minister, while she wasn’t at all religious) or they had emotional problems … anyway, though she was very attractive, she never seemed to find her life partner. And then, in her late thirties she did, though he came with baggage: he was quite a lot older, had been through a messy divorce and was wary of commitment. Eventually he recovered from this and they got married, but she was in her late forties by then.
At first when they got together, we asked them both to the house but he didn’t want to be regarded as part of a couple so she came by herself. Later, they did both come to dinner but we didn’t feel it was a great success. He was nice enough but I don’t think we had much in common and they never asked us back. He was retired but had been a top civil servant and clearly had lots of money and she was also quite a high earner and I suppose I vaguely thought that we didn’t seem important enough to him. I was sad about it but on the other hand, she seemed to have found happiness, which was good.
M and I continued to stay in touch via Christmas cards and notes and several years passed without much more contact, though we did occasionally mention meeting up and I certainly assumed that we would at some point. But you know what it’s like when you’re busy. Years go by. I was deep in family and teaching and she had a high-profile, engrossing job. I missed her but thought that when we retired and had more time, we would resume our easy relationship. We’d known each other since we were five and always just picked up where we’d left off.
But then we didn’t get a Christmas card for the past two years, which I was slightly hurt about.
Recently another of this group, G, moved back to Edinburgh and I met her yesterday. And she told me that M, beautiful, charming, funny, kind M was diagnosed two years ago with a rare form of dementia. She’s 57. She’s in a wheelchair, requires 24 hour care and is like a completely different person. This form of dementia decreases social inhibition and people become aggressive or say embarrassing things. There’s no treatment and she will just get worse and worse until she becomes vegetative and dies in a few years’ time.
I just can’t stop thinking about her. I’m so sad. How I regret not making more of an effort to spend time with her in recent years. How I ache to think of all the things she wanted to do when she retired and had more time. When I think of adjectives to describe her, they’re all to do with light and warmth: golden, glowing, radiant.
I also think of all my plans for retirement; for the rest of my life, as I fondly hope. Better get on with some of them now.