My grandmother recently turned 89 and is alone for only the second time in her life. The first time was following my grandfather’s untimely expiration, which was mere days before the wife of a former bridge partner decided to make her way to the beyond. The two surviving broken hearts found each other in mutual loneliness, married less than a year later, and doted on one another for 20 more years until he died last November. She was able to do what an increasing number of women seem to fail at regularly these days, that being to find not just one, but two good men in a lifetime. Still, this woman who taught me so much about how to live is now asking me for advice on how to live alone.
My cousin and I are both convinced that we never would’ve survived our childhoods had it not been for our upbringing by our grandparents, brief though it was. He’s well into his forties now, happily married for over a decade and an amazing father to four equally amazing kids. He has become for them everything he missed growing up, coming to marriage late by virtue of being extraordinarily picky for good reason. He married, I didn’t. I went into the military, something for which he’s intimated a passing regret for not having experienced. Maybe we see in each other our alternate lives. I don’t know. What I do know is that we understand each other, he and I, and we place our grandmother upon a pedestal on which she would not approvingly sit, such is her humble nature.
For the longest time, I was passionate about nothing. This drove one particular ex-girlfriend insane, as passion for something seemed to her a prerequisite for being alive. I commented once that if this were the case, she was the blondest necrophiliac that I’d ever met. That she laughed was a testament to her sense of humor and had I been more in tune with myself, I might’ve seen in my statement the red flag being concealed by my flippancy. What I dared not tell her was something that I would dare not admit to myself for another four or five years. My aversion to opening myself up to such intense feelings for anything meant subverting a defense mechanism long since honed to perfection. I used to feel like disappointment couldn’t spoil a party to which it wasn’t invited. This, of course, is hogwash; disappointment sits in every unlit corner of our lives playing solitaire and waiting patiently.
The word ‘loner’ is wielded like an epithet by a society more intent on gazing at other people’s navels rather than studying their own. I recently read a book of essays called Party of One: A Loner’s Manifesto and had the sort of uncomfortable reaction of self-recognition one gets while casually flipping through the DSM IV and stumbling into the ‘Neuroses’ section. I’d always considered myself too much of a chameleon to be pigeonholed as the textbook loner, as I enjoy being the most outgoing bastard on the planet when the occasion calls for it. And yet, most of my primary pastimes have admittedly always been basically one-man shows: Golf, climbing, running, flying, hiking, destroying houses, rebuilding them, etc. Now it seems that I’ve finally found my passion in biomedical research and to my complete lack of surprise, it’s primarily a solitary endeavor. I, alone, am responsible for my success or failure, thereby alleviating the dangerous prospect of having to rely on anyone else. A very dark point of view, I know. One lighter passage in this book left a deep impression and may end up printed upon business cards for me to hand to those looking for explanations as to my feelings on dating:
Meeting an assembly line of maybes has as much appeal as severe sunburn. Opening lines, small talk, seem repulsive-and we haven’t even mentioned pursuit….For loners, spending time with strangers, again and again, a stream of strangers, not merely to get it over with, but to discern whether someday you will put your tongue in this person’s mouth, is the definition of surreal.
Of course, there’s a great deal more to it than that, which is what grandma was asking: How do you live alone? And I can’t bullshit someone who used to change my diaper. So, the answer that serves as the foundation for so many other answers: You have to be more frightened that the alternative will end up being worse than actually being alone. I recall her looking at me for awhile before finally saying, ‘Well, that sounds like a no-win situation.’
‘Exhausting, too’, I replied.
My disdain for self-pity is the main ingredient from my grandparents’ recipe for perseverance. I have to admit, though, that it is tiring being the rock upon which the rest of the immediate family has rested for so long, certainly since long before I was old enough to even qualify as rock material. She knows this and can see the discomfort in my inability to make things alright with her current situation. ‘It is what it is’, she tells me, echoing my own common refrain to people who have lamented whatever unfortunate situation I’ve found myself in over the years. The one thing that she has stated since my very honest answer is, paraphrased, that she feels that I’m not only carving my own cross, but nailing myself to it, as well.
‘We all need hobbies,’ I say, but no one laughs.
Sir @ October 5, 2009