Now we are quite old

BMJ 2003; 327 doi: (Published 16 October 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:937
  1. Colin Douglas, doctor and novelist
  1. Edinburgh

    Of the original 150 of us, about 50–most with partners–gather at a country hotel on a Friday afternoon. The sky is dull, and rain threatens. Little groups form and re-form, on the lawn and in the car park and hotel lobby, and around a pinboard with odd memorabilia: an ancient class list, typed and yellowing; the menu from our graduation dinner; a group photograph of our 20th year reunion. How young we looked then.

    Who's who? It's not always clear, but name badges with photographs taken from our yearbook help, and an evening drinks reception helps a lot more. Voices have changed little, eyes least of all. But when we start talking, we are the same–if not more so.

    And there is no denying we grow old: hair thins and greys, skin wrinkles, girths sag, and cartilage marches on, so that ears and noses once unremarkable loom large–impressive, or worse. Someone I have known since we were 12 has come to resemble Roald Dahl's big friendly giant.

    We talk, how we talk. But now–and how different from our 10 year reunion 20 years ago–we confide rather than boast: careers are drawing to a close, and for many of us health, however subtly, is failing. And if middle age is defined as having to worry about your kids as well as your parents, quite a lot of us are middle aged in spades.

    Couples are intriguing: some intuitively close over decades, clearly till death do them part; others newer, even touchy and ill at ease. Perhaps reunions and trophy wives don't mix. But an old friend, hollowed out by a harrowing bereavement when last we met, has brought his new fiancée. Wandering hand in hand by the river in morning sunlight they radiate blessedness.

    Medicine has been kind to us, in many different ways and places. At our scientific session we hear some of it. Over drinks and meals we hear much more: rural practice in Devon, neonatology in Vancouver, medical bureaucracy in North Carolina, cardiology in Florida, even surgery in Edinburgh. But retirement too is much discussed. Time is passing. Talk of our 40th year reunion both helps and doesn't.

    On Sunday morning we gather on the terrace for yet another group photograph. Slowly clouds hide the sun. On trees in the parkland, and among the crags above, the leaves are turning. Once more we smile for the camera. There is a nip in the air.

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