At my post op appointment with my surgeon a few weeks ago, I thanked him for calling my mom and my entourage after my surgery. I laughed and said that I imagined my calling list was a bit confusing, as I had several friends on call to pick me up from the hospital and take care of me those first few days.
“I’m not used to depending on people,” I said.
“It’s good to depend on people sometimes,” he said.
This is a good lesson for someone like me. I’ve lived alone for all but two of the last twenty-five years. Alone, I travel; have moved across the country and countless times locally; have both bought real estate and gone through foreclosure; have survived the death of a parent and beloved pet; have gone through the hiring and tenure process; have been involved in a major car accident and several minor and major medical problems; have gone through the ups & downs of every day living. Every day I wake up alone, spend the vast majority of the day alone, and go to bed alone; I am alone on birthdays, holidays, and benign weekends. Alone is not the same thing as being single. Alone is alone. Doing things alone — and the independence that emerges from this — isn’t something I consciously think about; it’s the only way I know. However, aloneness is a concept that is unfathomable to most people. I can count on a couple of fingers the people I know in my situation: middle-aged with no children, partner, or roommates and no family nearby.
Many tend to romanticize my situation: Oh, you’re so lucky. You can do anything. As if I spend my carefree days at brunch, sipping mimosas and my carefree nights at the discotheque, surrounded by hordes of admirers. Were it that simple.
Of course, many are confused by a person like me. As in, “Are you really spending Christmas/your birthday/New Year’s alone? Won’t you be lonely?” Truthfully, Christmas/my birthday/New Year’s alone isn’t much different from some random Thursday alone. Maybe I’ll be lonely. Maybe I won’t.
Then there are those who pity a person like me. A few years ago, I was setting out to travel to New Zealand for the summer.
“Who are you going with?” an acquaintance asked.
“Just me,” I said.
Sad. I thought about that word a lot while on that trip. I still think about it. Sad. Is it sad? Am I sad? Is my life sad? A lot of people will rush in to answer: “No, it’s not sad. You have so much freedom.” And while yes, it’s true that I have so much freedom (so much freedom!) there are days where the weight of aloneness can get pretty overwhelming.
These past two months have been a shake up for my reality. Not only because of the surgery recovery but more because of how much time I’ve spent with other people and how much I’ve needed to depend on others for even the most basic activities. I’ve stayed with friends for several weeks, and they have driven me places; cooked for me; opened doors for me; loaded my laundry into the washer; brought me food; lifted small objects for me; hauled my luggage; pushed the cart at the grocery. I’m beyond grateful for this support, but at times I’ve felt helpless being so dependent; at times I’ve felt pathetic. Weak. Not at all like me.
But even more than becoming aware of my dependent self, and recognizing that dependency can be a sign of strength, not weakness, I’ve become conscious of my self as that self relates to others during the most mundane activities: watching TV with someone; cooking dinner with someone; eating dinner with someone; washing dishes with someone; buying groceries with someone; having conversations with someone. There’s a lot of someone in my life these days.
It’s a nice feeling, being with others in the day to day, though at times I’m not sure how to navigate through the realm of someoneness. Is it okay to go to my room and read? Is it okay to start a movie without asking? What if I have to pee when someone’s in the shower? Do I need to get consensus to make lunch when I’m hungry? Is it wrong to eat the last peach? I imagine that those who spend their lives with others don’t spend much time thinking about these things; watching TV and making dinner and buying groceries with someone nearby is just life. But for the loner, this life is entirely foreign.
I remember a boyfriend I had a couple of years ago. He also lived alone. We had both spent the last few years being single (both single and alone) and we reveled in the quiet mornings we had together simply doing nothing. Drinking coffee. Doing the crossword puzzle. Frying eggs. The relationship ended when it needed to end, but when it was over I found myself contemplating pancakes. Not that I particularly like pancakes, but bizarrely I found myself craving them, dreaming of them. I quickly realized that it wasn’t pancakes I wanted but more that feeling of someoneness. I wasn’t craving pancakes. I was craving making pancakes with someone, preferably with a side of bacon. Making pancakes for one on a Sunday morning — halving eggs and freezing batter and heating a griddle made for ten — suddenly did feel sad. Sometimes a person just wants someone to help mix the batter.
Now, almost six weeks post op, I’m finally gearing up to leave the country for my year abroad. I’ll be back to my old normal — watching TV solo, cooking dinner solo, eating dinner solo, washing dishes solo, buying groceries solo, having conversations…well…with myself. This moment doesn’t make me feel sad about my life. I feel strong; I feel empowered; I feel like me. The solitary life is my life, and I excel at this life. But I will miss my days with someone. I will cherish these days.