The Gift of Turning 70

Old friends invited my husband and me to dinner last weekend. The weather was delightful after the storms, heat and humidity of recent days. We shared stories of old times and people, which doesn’t always come easily anymore. What was his name?… I think it was 1975? 1976?… That was before, no wait, it was after…

I turned 70 in June. I’m the oldest among the four of us but they’re fast on my heels. Like all social occasions these days, it seems we spent a lot of the time talking about our health. All four of us have current heart issues or had past episodes, or have been flagged for tests to be sure there’s no future trouble brewing. I’ve had skin cancer, prostate cancer and am just recovered from a detached retina. We had a full agenda to cover.

Meanwhile this past May I was in Michigan for a few weeks caring for my brothers, ages 78 and 80, who have health issues of their own. And my sister, three years my senior, is dealing with age too.

Very odd, old age. Always knew it would happen, if I was lucky. I just didn’t expect it so soon.

Josephine Hart

I recall vividly one afternoon around the mid-60s when my sister and I were calculating what our ages would be in the year 2000. I’d be 47 and she’d be 50! No way! We laughed at how incredible that sounded. Yet here we are today, 23 years beyond those unimaginable ages.

My 70-year-old body is getting a little stiff these days. I’m overweight yet my hair is thinner. I’m constantly forgetting names or grasping for the right word. Thank God for my thesaurus. Age is no picnic, yet…

Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.

Maurice Chevalier

Indeed. Turning 70 is a gift.

I’m sure I’m not alone in this experience, but I find myself recalling dear friends who never had the opportunity to experience the challenges of age. Some of my closest friends from high school are gone — and their passings were too early and too tragic.

Bruce Heath (1953-1993)

Bruce was my secret crush throughout high school. I was in the closet, and I learned years later that he had been also. It never crossed my mind that he might be gay. The closet can be a tragic place.

I recall the first time I saw him. Just after starting high school we passed in the hallway and our eyes locked. Looking back I recognize that was a sign, but I was oblivious then. Still, I noticed and I vividly recall the moment to this day!

I don’t remember if there were intermediate meetings, but very soon we both became involved in antiwar organizing there in school. Our friendship blossomed. This was 1969. Thereafter we hung out together steadily for years, first in the school where we met and later at an alternative high school after we were both forced out due to our antiwar activities. Bruce spent countless hours at my house. My parents loved him and my Dad got him a job. Bruce had a little of Eddie Haskell in him. My parents never knew that he turned me onto marijuana and psychedelics!

We eventually lost touch. Fast forward to 1993, I got a telephone call one day. It was Bruce. He had returned to Cleveland from San Francisco where he was living and found me in the phone book. He explained that he had Kaposi sarcoma, a common complication of AIDS, and was dying. He had returned to Cleveland seeking to close the circle with old friends. I was the only one he could find.

He came over and we spend the afternoon and evening together. We had dinner and went to the Leather Stallion, a bar I guess he had once frequented. That was the last time I saw Bruce. He passed away on May 23, 1993 — 30 years ago.

Bruce’s friends in San Francisco prepared a panel for him in the National AIDS Memorial Quilt. It can be found in block #3226.

Tryge Widen (1954-1993)

Yearbook picture

I met Tryge (TRAY-geh) in junior high school. His family had just moved to the area and he appeared one day in the middle of class. The teacher had him introduce himself and his Norwegian name captured our attention. He passed by me on the way to his seat. I was immediately attracted to him.

I don’t recall our initial interactions but we soon became friends. This was a year or two before I met Bruce. We had a pool at my house and Tryge would often be over to swim along with Kevin Walk (see below). We also camped out a lot — if you can call it “camping.” We just stayed on my property which was about 6 acres.

Tryge had a highly-charged sexuality. Looking back he dropped a thousand and one pretty explicit hints, but I was simply too repressed to respond. But it wasn’t for lack of interest. I’ve wondered over the years if he was maybe gay or bisexual, but I have no idea. We eventually lost touch and he got married, but that doesn’t necessarily disprove homosexuality.

Somehow I had come to be aware that Tryge ended up in New Orleans. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, something told me to look online for word of him. What I found was stunning.

It turned out that Tryge had committed suicide in 1993 — and his neighbor had posted a poem online describing the event. I’ve corresponded with the author, an attorney now retired, and he gave me permission to reprint his poem here.


Filtered through lattice fence,
Broken mosaic scene
Of mulling cops and medical teams.

Source of pop was now plain —
Neighbor Tryge put a hole in his heart
With a .44 caliber.

On back stoop,
Muzzle to chest,
He stopped what ailed him.

For three hours the body patiently lay
Awaiting homicide and crime lab,
Coroner and his wagon.

When all pictures were made, every measurement taken,
Hands were placed in little paper bags
Like single convenience store beers.

Dark stain left on concrete step,
Bullethole through whitewashed wall.
He wasn’t always so blue.

The dog was taken next door,
his wife was away in Florida.
He never looked so peaceful,

While the cops talked football
And joked about things living and dead.

©️1996 David J. L’Hoste
Reprinted with permission

David’s poem paints a sad and vivid picture. I can’t imagine what pain Tryge must have been going through, or over what. He died on May 15, 1993 — just 8 short days before Bruce Heath passed away.

Peter Briggs (1952-1998)

Yearbook picture

I first knew Peter in elementary school. He lived down the street from me and we rode the school bus together. Some time passed after elementary school until we reconnected in high school when he joined in the antiwar organizing we were doing. In fact it was his mother who played a big role in getting all of us working against the war. She proposed or agreed (I’m not sure which) to host an after-school meeting at Peter’s home to hear a speaker explain the history and politics of the Vietnam War. The meeting was held on Wednesday evening, December 10, 1969.

Peter was subsequently arrested on a drug charge — dealing I think it was — and spent a period in juvenile detention. We all believed at the time that Peter had been set up by another student, a “narc.” Checking online now I see that our suspect has also died! I won’t name him given lack of proof, but he passed away in 2019.

School bus driver Tom Battles and Peter doing safety patrol in photo dated May 1964.

Groups of us would visit Peter’s mother while he was in detention. She was a nice woman — we considered her very cool — and I think she appreciated the support we gave her.

Peter later joined Bruce Heath and me at the alternative high school we attended after being driven out of our regular school because of the antiwar organizing. His drug arrest probably played a role too.

Given my observations above, I should probably note for the record that Peter was certifiably straight. There was never any doubt!

As happened with the others, Peter and I lost touch. I later learned that he moved to Phoenix where he was a massage therapist, rose horticulturalist and an environmental artist. Interesting combination. He had three daughters and a fiancee when he died on June 28, 1998. I don’t know the cause.

Flyer distributed for the antiwar meeting hosted at Peter’s home by his mother.
Front page photo from the Geauga Times Leader covering our high school antiwar group. Peter is sitting second from right.

Tryge was only 39 when he died. Bruce had just turned 40. Peter was 45. All too young! There’s a fourth friend I want to mention here too. He made it to geezerdom like me, but there’s a sad story.

Kevin Walk (1954-2022)

Yearbook picture

Tryge, Kevin and I spent many summer days and nights together during junior high. The two were seldom seen apart at school. I didn’t feel as close to Kevin as I did Tryge, but he came as kind of a package deal with Tryge. I eventually lost contact with Kevin as I moved onto high school and beyond.

In April last year I stumbled upon Kevin on Facebook, reached out and friended him. We texted on Messenger, catching up on old times. He already knew about Tryge’s suicide, another friend we have in common had told him. Kevin told me he had been a baker and was retired. He also said he had COPD and was pretty much living on borrowed time.

Kevin lived maybe an hour away so we made arrangements to meet at his home in August last summer. Just before our scheduled visit he texted to let me know he was in the hospital. He didn’t know for how long.

On August 10th he texted again saying he was back home and we rescheduled for August 17th. Then on August 16th I received this text: “This is Kevin’s ex wife Terri, I regret to inform you that he passed away.” Short and to the point.

So, so sad. We missed by a literal heartbeat.

Back when all of us were in junior high and high school it seemed that life would go on forever. Of course we realized we’d grow old someday, but that was lightyears away. What never crossed my mind was the idea that I’d outlive these friends by 25 to 30 years. And still counting.

Not everyone has died, of course, and I’m thankfully still in touch with a number of friends from high school and college. Many owing to Facebook. But while the untimely passing of my friends here is sad, it also presents an opportunity to appreciate the gifts that life has to offer. Indeed the gift of life itself.

Next time I have an ache or pain, or when a loved one is sick, or when discussing all the challenges of age with friends over dinner, I will take a moment to be grateful that we’re still here to enjoy the good and to struggle through the difficult.

Turning 70 is a gift. I wish Bruce, Tryge, Peter and Kevin had been able to do the same. I miss them.

Feature image adapted from a photo by Woody Van der Straeten on Unsplash

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