One of the most depressing aspects of getting older is the loss of family members to illness or old age. I was quite young when my maternal grandfather died, but remember it well. It was an introduction to the loss of older relatives that prepared me for many more that came later.
However, I don’t think I was ever prepared for the loss of so many friends. For some reason, I grew up thinking that my close friends would be around for as long as I was, and their unexpected loss came as a harder blow than that of very elderly relatives who had lived long lives.
But you forget you are getting to an age where friends begin to pass away too. It just creeps up on you, but never gets any easier to deal with.
Last week, I was informed of the death of another close friend. Someone I had known since I was 28 years old, so almost forty years of friendship. As I received the text message from his wife, I was struck by the fact that I was holding the last letter he had sent me, preparing to reply to it that morning.
I met James Cassidy on my first day at the London Ambulance Training School. He was an experienced Paramedic who had chosen to become a training officer. As our large group of new entrants sat nervously eyeing each other in a big classroom, he walked in to introduce himself as our class instructor. Within minutes, his easy manner had relaxed everyone. He joked and laughed with us as if he had always known us, and when we went for a tea break, we all agreed that we were lucky to have got such a character to guide us through the long weeks of training to come. We also concluded that any job that could produce such a man must indeed be a good choice of career.
The next weeks of training showed his caring and commonsense nature to the full. He helped those who found it hard going, and continued to encourage us, as well as never sugar-coating the harsh realities of the job we would soon be doing. On completion of the classroom training, he became my personal instructor for the on-road, real life training. Six weeks of 999 calls, in one of the busiest ambulance stations in central London. Non-stop emergencies of all kinds, with very few days off.
During that time, Jim and I became firm friends. In between jobs, we would have long debates about politics, life experience, travel, literature, and the pros and cons of life in the emergency services. But once my training was over, I moved on to my permanent posting, and Jim went back to take on his next class of new entrants. But we didn’t let that distance stop us keeping in touch, and began many years of correspondence by letter, something that endured even after emails had become the norm. I only bumped into him occasionally over the years, sometimes at headquarters, or at retirement celebrations. But we kept in touch as frequently as our busy lives allowed.
Many years later, Jim left his training role, for promotion to Divisional Officer, in east London. Despite his elevation in rank, we stayed in contact just the same, right up until the time I was due to leave London for good, and retire to Norfolk. Jim and his wife came to my leaving party in 2012, and he promised to visit me in East Anglia. And he kept that promise. When he retired and bought a motor caravan, he arranged to bring it to a site close to Beetley, and we spent two marvellous days catching up. In his last letter to me, he mentioned that he would be coming to visit again, this time with his wife, and hopefully in the summer of 2019.
But that was sadly never to be, and his unexpected death last week came as a great shock indeed.
So rest in peace, my friend Jim. A great bloke, a true and loyal companion through most of my life, and never forgotten.