When my daughter Melissa was seven, she contracted rheumatic fever and spent nearly a year in relative solitude, much of the time in bed. If she was not sleeping or being entertained by a member of the family, she played imaginary games or looked at books. As she got a little stronger, she dressed up her dolls and stuffed animals and made up stories about them. Several years later we were discussing a neighbor child who had become a pest, calling Melissa often to beg her to come over and play. Melissa surprised me by saying, “You see, Mom, she never had the advantage of being sick the way I did. I had to learn how to get along with myself.”
A few months after I began life without Bill a friend dropped by to visit and left me a book to read, a quasi-manual for new widows. I dipped into it and was advised that the relationship I had with my husband was now ended and I needed to understand what my new relationship to him would be. I didn’t finish the book, but I did think about that bit of advice. I happen to believe that love goes on forever; I’m not sure about relationships.
In the on-line dictionary, I found three meanings for that word as applied to people: the way in which two or more people are connected; the way in which two or more people regard and behave toward each other; and an emotional and sexual association between two people.
I accepted easily that Bill was dead and his life story had ended; everything I knew and loved about him was now static. The dynamic relationship between us had finished its long decrescendo, and silence reigned in my house and in my heart. I had never lived alone, and it was my turn to learn to get along with myself. Sad and anxious as I was, I still welcomed that opportunity.
To prepare for writing the memoir, I thought deeply about our relationship and identified stories that showed what the building blocks had been, the challenges and the “Wow” moments. I then dissected the years of Bill’s chronic illness and my caregiving, and what effect it had on the relationship. I dug deeply into the sadness of slow losses and made notes in my journals about our efforts to keep intact not only the emotional connections but also the ways we regarded and behaved toward each other. I’m not at all sure that I forged a new relationship with Bill during that process; rather, I gained respect for his determination. Once I was persuaded that it did not in any way diminish the cherished memories of married life, I admitted to myself that I actually liked living alone, moving slowly to the beat of my own drummer.
Here on Tybeee Island, after four weeks with the warmth and pleasure of visits from family and friends, I have been alone for the past six days. I have three more to come before two of my children—Melissa and Robin—and their spouses arrive. I’ll be thrilled to see them, and I know their vitality and love will nourish me. Meanwhile, I can eat a bowl of cereal if I don’t feel like cooking or roast a pork loin as I did last night. I can play opera CD’s and turn up the volume or listen to Yo-Yo Ma turned low to sooth my busy mind. I can be lonely and still be happy. I can exult in the joy I feel as I study the majesty of the winter ocean at the same time I notice the continuing pain that Bill is not there to hear me say softly, “Isn’t it beautiful?”