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  • Writer's picturePaul Burston

The power of goodbye - and a seal of approval

Updated: Sep 11, 2023

In my early 30s I was friends with a gay guy in his 50s. His exact age was a closely guarded secret. But during one of many holidays we took together, I sneaked a peek at his passport and discovered that he was 57.

The friendship ended shortly afterwards. Partly because I sneaked a peek at his passport. Partly because I published a book in which I described him as “one of those gay men who likes to be mysterious about his age and is generally assumed to be 57.”

That joke isn’t funny anymore. Yesterday I was 57. Today I’m 58, which I’m told marks my second Saturn Return – though to me it just feels like another step closer to 60.

I don’t like to complain about getting older. Not when so many gay men I knew didn’t have that luxury. But unlike, say, turning 50, approaching 60 feels daunting. At my 50th birthday party I ended the night curled up on the sofa, drunkenly telling my sister, “I’m very blessed.”

I don’t feel quite so blessed these days, though I know I have a lot to be thankful for. I haven’t drunk any alcohol in over two and half years. I love my job. My latest book is doing well. I’m in good health. I have dear friends and a loving family – biological and logical.

And yet. There’s no escaping the fact that as you grow older, you lose things – people, mainly, though I’m lucky that both of my parents are still alive. But there are other losses, too. Skin elasticity, for one. Sexual currency, for another. As gay men age, we’re in danger of becoming invisible. Or becoming a daddy, neither of which I’m ready for just yet.

Learning to let go is one of the toughest lessons life teaches us. I experienced an enormous amount of personal loss in my 20s, at the height of the AIDS crisis. So much so, I ended up with PTSD and a side helping of survivors’ guilt.

I wish I could say it gets easier with age. But if it does, I haven’t reached that stage of enlightenment yet. I’m more aware than ever of how fragile life is, and how short. How many more books do I have in me? How many good years do I have left?

It’s at times like these that I turn to Madonna. I think it’s safe to say that Our Lady of Reinvention has no intention of “ageing gracefully” – whatever that means. As she told Jonathan Ross 30 years ago, she’s never done anything according to societal standards, so why start now?

But despite her determination to keep going for as long as is humanly possible, she’s also written a lot about learning to let go. It’s been a recurring theme of her lyrical output since the Material Girl turned Spiritual Girl with Ray of Light some 25 years ago.

One of my favourite songs, not just from that album but from her entire back catalogue, is The Power of Goodbye. I’ve been listening to it a lot lately. It’s a beautiful song, and one I hadn’t really understood properly before. But listening to it on the gay beach in Sitges recently, it hit me like a truck.

If the stars are right and this is my second Saturn Return, this is the change I’d like to see in the year ahead – for me to finally learn the power of goodbye.

I was thinking about this earlier today when I went for a swim before breakfast. The tide was high and the sea was calm. No sooner had I taken the plunge than a seal popped its head out of the water to inspect me. It was so close, I could have reached out and touched it.

And then it was gone. A quick hello and not even a wave goodbye. Blink, and I’d have missed it. But what a magical moment it was. Suddenly, all those earlier concerns seemed to wash away. I was in the present – and really, isn’t that all we ever have?

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