Alone May Not Be For You

Wupatki National Monument, Arizona
View of the Painted Desert from Wupatki, Arizona

I remember who was with me when I took these photos in Arizona in September, 2017. No one. I was alone. The first thing that came to my mind after Michael’s death, after my fatigue lifted, was that I needed to travel alone and soon. Instinctively I felt that establishing my independence after being in a relationship for 45 years was paramount for my mental health. I was right. I needed to remind myself that I was capable, competent and strong. I’d spent my life trying to grow myself into that woman, with the support and encouragement from a partner who was all good at living with someone who was his equal. Sometimes he was more sure of me than I was. That’s how I lived before and that’s how I live now. As with most choices, nothing is perfect. But I’ve realized that I was actually on this path I’m walking decades ago, after I graduated from high school. Except for a few close friends, I was basically an imposter, a seemingly sociable outgoing person who was really a loner. A big part of me was distanced from my external self. As I participated in life, I always enjoyed spending time on my own and was basically content with a few friends and family, wanting only to find a true partner with whom I’d share a special connection, a person who fit with me and I with him, like the final pieces of a puzzle. I started the hunt for that person when I left home for college. At eighteen, just a sophomore, I didn’t go home for winter break, staying on the large, mostly empty campus, to see if I had what it took to get me through life, just in case I couldn’t find that person. I was on a serious mission. I came close to finding my person once, and pretended to be close one more time. And then at an early age, the magic happened. I met Michael and found my fit. Looking back, I should’ve been aware that practicing isolation was a strong indicator of my most authentic self. Michael and I were really similar in that way. We were intensely bound together but we each valued our individuality and private space. We spent a lot of time, right next to each other, doing our own things. We never once referred to each other as our better halves. Neither of us was a half. We were each whole. That was part of the magic.

Determined to continue what I’d begun by traveling just a few months after Michael died, the following year I kept with the program. I went to North Carolina with my daughter and her family during the time in which the first anniversary of Michael’s death occurred. But later that summer, I drove off alone to Cincinnati, to watch Roger Federer, my favorite tennis player, play in the Western/Southern Open, the first time I’d been to a professional tennis tournament. Later, I did the bulk of the planning for my 50th high school reunion in Chicago, which happily dovetailed with the Laver Cup, another chance to see Federer in person. Then I had the first of two long-deferred knee replacement surgeries in an attempt to make myself more trip-worthy for the future.

I started 2019 by setting off to Florida early in January to spend an easy relaxed time with old friends who knew Michael and me very well. That visit was buoying and comfortable. Then I had the great pleasure of taking a manic twelve state road trip with my son to the East Coast, a place Michael had visited so often that he never wanted to head that way. A fabulous Paul McCartney show was our first stop. We caught lots of history in Philly and Massachusetts, lounged on the beaches of the Jersey shore, and got through Acadia National Park. An unforgettably great time.

A few months later I was back on the road by myself, this time to Glacier National Park, one of my dream destinations. I followed up that trip with my second knee replacement, feeling grateful to have both done just months apart. What a gamechanger to be pain free. Describing the liberating feeling of doing exactly what you’ve dreamed of, on your own time and your own terms can be summed up in one word – empowerment. I never felt confined by my marriage – if anything the opposite is true. But as an older single woman in this culture, often marginalized and overlooked, seizing opportunities while you’re still able is deeply satisfying. Learning to put myself first was new and rewarding, despite coping with the constant grief for and missing of Michael. I think he would’ve been proud of me.

Glacier National Park

My continued relationship with my deceased husband is no surprise to anyone who’s read this blog. I’m not trying to put it behind me, learning to look back with love on our many happy memories. To simply move on. I have moved on. I’ve just taken Michael with me. He wished a different future for me. He told me many times before he died, that he was grateful for what we had, but that he wanted me to have love, intimacy and partnership when he was gone. I’d just stare at him. I was still in our moment. I had no idea what I’d want to do when he was dead. No one was more surprised than me to discover that I would definitively choose to be alone. But of course, given who I always was, this choice was logical, comfortable and right for me. Certainly I wish we’d lived to be old together, in the flesh and not just in my head. That didn’t happen. I know I could never be satisfied with anything less than what we shared. I have my lonely moments but they’re for him. And the fact is, he’s so alive in me that generally I’m just fine. Last year I was lucky enough to get back to Florida before the pandemic shut everything down. I lost out on a big Alaska trip planned for May but given the big picture in this life that’s a small thing. This year in the fall, I’m headed west again, having been lucky enough to stay healthy and be fully vaccinated. Off to Yellowstone.

And Michael, the proverbial gift that keeps on giving, will ensure that he comes with me as his endless surprises continue to appear. I haven’t touched his laptop since 2017 when I did a cursory once over to make sure there was no unfinished business that needed to be addressed. Then I used it for the slideshow I assembled for the public event honoring his life at the end of 2017. After that, it’s just sat here, next to the spot where he sat fooling around with it when he had to retire because of his cancer. We never looked in each other’s computers or shared emails or the like. He had his stuff and I had mine. I knew there were files that had to do with his teaching on his laptop and some music. But I never bothered to explore. A few days ago, as I continue to plow through my massive amount of photos, I ran across some CD’s tucked into one of my photo albums.

I thought that maybe I’d ordered them along with prints but really wasn’t sure. One was labeled 2008 family pictures. My laptop doesn’t have a CD/DVD drive, but his does. So I decided to load these in to see if there was really anything worth saving. Amazingly, after sitting idle for so long, the computer cranked right up, including the flimsy drive. Sure enough, all four CD’s were loaded with pictures, still in good shape and worth transferring to an external hard drive.Then I figured that as long as I’d opened this old machine I might as well look around.

Our grandsons as the background display.

Before long I realized that I was walking through Michael’s mind as he contemplated his death, tried to figure out how to make the best use of what time he had left and how to provide love and sustenance for his family. As we’d sit together at night, him tapping away on his keyboard while I was doing my thing, that’s what was happening. Of course we talked through so many issues. But seeing what he’d created without my knowing until just now felt so incredible.

In the music files, there were two folders called Barnacle 1 and Barnacle 2. I can’t explain the circuitous way one of my nicknames became Barnacle but I knew those had to do with me. When I opened them I just sat here stunned. They were lists of love songs intended to be CD’s he never made. He had made me three which he gave me before he died but he had more on his mind.

He had a file which was photos of us over the years.

Files in my kids’ names with photos and notes are sitting in there. Lists of his projects, some within reason and others outrageous. Instructions and ideas about the scholarship in his name for students who excel in social sciences. I was so overwhelmed by the quantity of material that I finally had to stop looking. His whole persona filled the living room, creative, vibrant, quirky, funny and so loving. I live alone. Yet I remain so accompanied. If I could I’d sink into his arms and never budge. That is impossible. So I’m choosing to live as richly as I can wondering when the next infusion of inspiration and comfort will emerge from a corner. Alone may not be for you. But it’s working for me.

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