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A Thin Line at the Front 


My friend’s older sister died. I rang him up at his Connecticut home. 

Rich, melodic, ”Hello.” 

 “It’s McGee,” I said. 


I got to the subject. “I heard Val died. I'm so sorry.” 

Pause…. “I appreciate it. Thanks. She died on the 29th. She’d been sick and had a recurrence. I got a chance to go out there and spend some time with her before it happened,” he said. “She’d become a Buddhist. She didn’t complain about her situation, accepting it all it seemed.”

 “I always liked her,” I said.

We talked about the woman who I’d known as a high school girl, the oldest of 8 children in an Irish Catholic family; kind, pretty, with a gentle way, who lived an interesting life, at times, in an alternative manner. 

In recent years, she married, earned a PhD and spent joyful times with her grandchildren in her small Oregon town.

I reminded my friend Mike of the time he and I and other mates visited her decades ago at a South Jersey beach home she'd rented for the summer. 

“We went surfing, or tried to,” I said. 

“I’d forgotten that,” he said. “You know, McGee, with her gone I realize now no one knows me as long as I have known myself. Kind of strange.”

I nodded to myself. “Wow. That’s right,” I said, never looking at the death of those close to us who are older in that light.

Mike’s parents are gone, too, so it seemed he was the patriarch of his family, of many siblings, his two sons and grandchildren. 


After our conversation ended, following talk about what we were doing activity-wise in the fourth quarter of our lives, I recalled another conversation I’d had after a close friend of mine died, years earlier. 

Staring at Jimmy’s casket at his visitation, a high school classmate, John, said, “It’s getting pretty thin at the front of the line. You feel that way?” I knew John was an only child, hadn’t married and his parents were gone.

“I hear you,” I said, realizing I had only an elderly mother and an uncle living who were older.   


“Who can you turn to with those big questions?” John asked.

I had no answers to his existential query back then. Today, though with my mother gone, as well as her brother, my uncle, I’ve joined John’s club, staring at that thin line in front of me. And, as Mike said, no one knows me longer than I’ve known myself. 

Frightening. Possibly. If I dwell on the thought. But then again, so it is to be in the circle of life. That is, if we are lucky to be around long enough.

As we age, if we have one of those bountiful, loving families, schooled to care for one another and as they say in the military, watching each other’s ‘6’, we are blessed. Perhaps, then the hollowness felt of losing an older family member feels less intense because we have others to share it with. But it still, no doubt, hurts. 

For most people, family dynamics are complicated. And whether one comes from a large family or a little one, having anyone you can turn to because they’re aligned due to biology who cares about your welfare is not all that commonplace. 

When you're left at the front of the line, as the oldest, there is no memory bank of another to retrieve what happened back then. “Hey, sis or bro, do you remember what dad said about how to…..? Or, what plumber is the best. Should I do this? What do you think about that?”

I worked with a psychologist I teasingly called Socrates. He was fond of facetiously saying, when work conundrums occurred, tempers brewing, what would Jesus say? 

So it is when we find ourselves at the front of the line, where no one has known us longer than we have known ourselves, and conundrums occur, simple or otherwise, we can ask what would dad, sis or mom say? 

There is a lonesome feeling, those passed, their voice gone forever, but our consciousness doesn’t know the difference when we think of them. They are still with us. Especially, if we ask them for guidance and help. 

I know Mike and his sister Valorie were close. They weren’t without their hardship early on living in a big family. And likely relied on one another. 

I can only believe with Valorie’s rich development as a person over her decades, that for her brother and her family and those that knew her well, she will be on standby to help with those puzzles of life. 

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