That’s What Friends Are For

Our very favorite aunt, Aunt Mary, is dying. In her lucid moments, she is as sharp and kind as she ever was. In her worst moments, she lolls and is incoherent. At 86, Aunt Mary has lived a long life filled with one great love — her late husband, Uncle Ozzie (dad’s brother — two great children, three doting granddaughters, one great-grandchild on the way, and a gaggle of lifelong friends. Literally … lifelong friends.

Aunt Mary’s gaggle consists of 4-5 women who have been friends since they were little girls back in the coal-hearted steel towns of Southwestern Pennsylvania. Aunt Mary is 86 years old, and she has been friends with these women, their husbands, and their families for more than 80 years. The “new girl” has been friends with them for only 65 years. Pfft! The gaggle has supported each other through births of children and grandchildren, deaths of husbands, and illness. Now, however, I think Aunt Mary is the first of the gaggle to be nearing her end. It’s sad to see, but I am grateful that these women are there to visit and support her on her last journey. My mother and Aunt Mary have been sisters-in-law and friends for 60 years. I think my mother is having the hardest time with Aunt Mary’s illness because Aunt Mary represents the last living tie to my father and his family.

I should also note that MIL has been good friends with Aunt Mary for the 17 years WineGuy and I have been together. (I only wish MIL and my mother would get along half as well, but that’s another story.) MIL has been visiting Aunt Mary in the hospital, in rehab, and at hospice diligently over the last several months. MIL would like to be in the gaggle, but she just can’t.

Why all the morbid talk? It’s a powerful response to an article that appeared in The New York Times Science Times section (4/21/09). Author Tara Parker-Pope writes in “What Are Friends For? A Longer Life”:

In the quest for better health, many people turn to doctors, self-help books or herbal supplements. But they overlook a powerful weapon that could help them fight illness and depression, speed recovery slow aging and prolong life:  their friends.

Researchers are only now starting to pay attention to the importance of friendship and social networks in overall health. … Harvard researchers reported that strong social ties could promote brain health as we age.

Ms. Parker-Pope went on to discuss a new book by Jeffrey Zaslow that chronicles the lifetime relationships of a circle of friends from Ames, Iowa. That circle, similar to Aunt Mary’s gaggle, has supported each other through the expansion of their families and the contraction of their worlds, especially by cancer. The thesis of the book was that “just having friends was protective.” Ms. Parker-Pope went on to say that “the benefits of friendship go well beyond physical assistance; indeed, proximity does not seem to be a factor.” According to Karen Roberto, director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Gerontology, “Friendship is an undervalued resource. The consistent message of [the various scientific studies cited] is that friends make your life better.”

My own gaggle is smaller and comprised of lifelong friends and those of a more recent vintage. I have already tested some of their mettle through two high-risk pregnancies, a couple of miscarriages, WineGuy’ sudden illness a few years ago, and my father’s death. I made it through with their support. I hope our friendships will stand the test of time as well.

Aunt Mary has been a central figure in my life. She is the reason I have a husband and children. She was culinary guide and inspiration to a young cook. She was a voice of reason between warring parents and in-laws. She always finds something nice to say. She is a lady through and through. Her failing health pains me beyond words. Nevertheless, I am grateful for her gaggle of friends who stand and will stand, although not as tall, with her daily.

Brothers & Friends

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