Splendid Isolation And A Bit of Empathy

Our family -Spring – 1989 -Photo for Michael’s campaign brochure – Credit – Carol E.
Me, my mom and my sister – May, 1989 after mom’s mastectomy
My dad, my daughter and me -August 1st, 1989 – dad’s 67th and last birthday – Gone September 25th, 1989
Mid-August 1989 – Electrical storm sends a huge tree through our new roof – the day after Michael’s back surgery.
Michael, at that time, the earliest patient released after a laminectomy at that time – one and a half days post-surgery.

Back in 1989, I was really busy. I was juggling a lot, from cancers and death, to election campaigns and a husband who couldn’t get out of his bed for weeks at a time, to a couple of kids, pets, and a job. I don’t think it’s a big surprise that I missed a few musical releases, one of which was Warren Zevon’s Splendid Isolation. I didn’t actually know he was the creative force behind this song until a few years ago when I discovered Pete Yorn’s music, and as is typical of me, went for his whole catalog. Splendid Isolation resonated with me, as I’ve had more than my share of its message in my head throughout my life, with a few rare exceptions, most particularly Michael. Have a look at the lyrics.

I want to live alone in the desert
I want to be like Georgia O’Keefe
I want to live on the Upper East Side
And never go down in the street
Michael Jackson in Disneyland
Don’t have to share it with nobody else
Lock the gates, Goofy, take my hand
And lead me through the world of self
Splendid isolation
I don’t need no one
Splendid isolation

Don’t want to wake up with on one beside me
Don’t want to take up with nobody new
Don’t want nobody coming by without calling first
Don’t want nothing to do with you

I’m putting tinfoil up on the windows
Lying down in the dark to dream
I don’t want to see their faces
I don’t want to hear them scream
Splendid isolation
I don’t need no one
Splendid isolation
Splendid isolation
I don’t need no one
Splendid isolation

Don’t want to wake up with no one beside me
Don’t want to take up with nobody new
Don’t want nobody coming by without calling first
Don’t want nothing to do with you

Warren Zevon – photo – Rolling Stone
Pete Yorn – Photo by me, taken during Instagram live feed in 2020

I think that except for my younger sister and my friend Joanne, who met me in college and with whom I worked for most of my adult life, there are few people left alive who would recognize the truth of me in those words. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was dying to get away from the social expectations of my young life. I was very good at negotiating the ins and outs of all the unwritten rules of being accepted. But I made sure that I was still me, granted with an acceptable social presence, but one I intended to dump as soon as I went to college. I was on the young side, after having skipped a year of elementary school, turning 17 in May of 1968 and heading to the university that September. And I immediately went my own way. Virtually all my high school friends went through sorority rush that fall, even Fern, my oldest and oddest life companion. I stood on the street corner, watching the girls march by, from big house to big house, waiting to see who would send them a bid so they could join this club which would provide a foundation for their college years. I wanted nothing to do with clubs. I did all that stuff in high school and wanted to be free from groups. I always had an aversion to running with a pack.

My senior year in high school

Maybe it seems strange that a person with significant social skills can have such hermit tendencies. But I always did. I thought of myself as an extroverted introvert. I could always do what so many shy, anxious people find daunting or even terrifying. But that doesn’t mean I always liked my particular talent. A lot of it was like performance art. I was usually deep in thought, elsewhere in my mind, and somewhat separate from the people with whom I was currently interacting. I thought that a lot of people seemed perfectly content to skim the surface of life. I wasn’t. I kept wanting to go deeper which was often a solitary journey. I wore people out and didn’t much care, although I was often lonely. I didn’t want to meet their expectations, only my own. The other dissonant piece of this picture was my empathy. I’ve done a lot of reading about this ability to really feel another person’s feelings, rather than simply having sympathy for them. I think empathy is in my genetic makeup. Growing up, I felt like I spent as much time in other people’s shoes as I did in my own. Michael used to say that the worst part of being married to me was that as long as I knew that someone, somewhere, was having a problem, I would be unhappy. I never quite experienced what I thought was an even exchange of this type of understanding. I always seemed to be just on the edge of a real meeting of the minds, only to be disappointed when the other person veered off in a direction that was quite different than where I thought we were going. By the time I was eighteen, I felt jaded and had low expectations for true partnership. Real empathy isn’t about trying to steer someone away from their feelings. It’s about hanging in there with them until they choose their next steps. When they’re ready, you can help. But you can’t push them into places that are more convenient to your way of thinking than theirs. I have journals filled with disappointments and despair about being misunderstood forever. I appeared connected but I was more like an observer, watching myself participate in an unsatisfactory life. Would anyone ever truly “get” me? I was only authentic in a few places, unwilling to trust even the people who ostensibly were my friends. Mostly I was globally empathetic but getting shut down in the up close and personal relationships.

All that changed when I met Michael. To this day, I am baffled by our immediate connection and tremendous similarities. Oddly, we operated quite differently. As I often said, by that tender age of 20, I was leading my life from the inside out, not looking for validation from others. Michael, whose childhood was colder and less loving than mine, was out there proving himself to the world. But our private life together was what I’d always wished for, an absolutely unconditional acceptance of all of me, not just the convenient parts. And I returned that to him. In fact, he filled the most significant desire I had, to be authentic and whole with another person. As a result, I adapted to his need for more external connections than I wanted, a houseful of people with our kids’ friends always welcome and a social life for us, much of which I could do without. In our years together, I walked away from some people with whom he shared time, ultimately preferring to do my own thing. My friend Joanne would stroll into my office and say, “are you eliminating anyone today?” For Michael, I hung on to some relationships that he wanted more than I did. He was the most important person in my life and you do things for that person. My kids said that when he died, he took all my filters with him. There’s some truth to that but more accurately, without him to worry over and to love, I reverted back to my younger, loner self. Someone knocking on my door, uninvited? I couldn’t stand those intrusions. Shallow, phony conversations? I’d rather read a book. Of the people I let fall away, I can’t say that I miss one of them.

Michael’s part of the closet

When a spouse dies, even after years of knowing death is basically inevitable, there are huge adjustments to be made. Most of my friends are still married. I’ve read about the health risks, both physical and mental to a widow like me, especially one who has zero interest in new companionship. So I addressed those concerns. I set up regular massages for myself, usually on the same day as a haircut to get enough physical contact. I swim five days a week and have acquaintances and a few friends I speak with regularly. I’ve taken lots of interesting classes. I got appointed to a city commission on historic buildings and joined a book club. But I’m still not a group person so those experiments ended. I’ve traveled, alone and with my family. Then the pandemic came along. I found that I adapted pretty well to the isolation. I still saw my family who live close, and eventually found the way to see a few people in a safe setting. But ironically, during this odd time, my blood pressure dropped significantly, to the point where I was able to reduce my medication by 75%. I spent a lot of time in my garden as weather permitted and began doing some serious backyard science and photography. I have lots of hobbies. In general, as I go through my last years, I feel fairly lucky that so far my health is decent and that I’m completely independent. I miss Michael every day and night. He’s the undercurrent humming inside me. When any of that changes, I don’t know how I’ll react. But for now, except for endless Covid and a bit more money for travel, I’m ok.

I’ve got these two great kids. I think that my transition to the self I was before they existed has been a challenge for them. They’re in the midst of their young lives, busy with work, partners, kids and friends. And me, although I try not to be a load as my mother was for me, for a long 25 years that were tough and burdensome. I think that maybe one of life’s hardest tasks for kids is recognizing their parents for who they are as individuals rather than the people who raised them. My parents always acted like kids with me so I never had a big transition with them. What I think is my best life doesn’t always look that way to my children. I’d like the empathy that I described above, in which they just hang with me where I am and stop trying to suggest what they think would be better for me. Progress on this is fits and starts. My pragmatic daughter is seeing me a bit more clearly these days and I’m trying to help my son get used to this “me.” For myself, I am “me,” but it’s harder for them to accept. After all, they’re still coping with missing their dad who we all thought would be alive as long as his parents, well into their 90’s.

Life is so unpredictable. Michael used to say that the first person he’d mourn was himself. He didn’t have anyone close to him die and he never had the role of caregiver. I’ve thought often of what would’ve happened if our roles had been reversed, if I’d been the one with the lethal cancer who died before my time. We always used to tell each other that if we lived to be 100, it still wouldn’t have been enough time to share between us. But in truth, would he have had the endurance to take care of me to the end of my life? Caregiving is really rugged. Would he have opted for staying single after I died or would it have been too hard for him? He told me he thought I should be partnered again. But we were, after all, so different in a few key ways. I do know that he would have done his best and that he made remarkable efforts and so many comforting gestures that sustain me in his absence. Maybe things worked out the way that was the easiest for all of us, although that will forever be hard to swallow.

So here I am, in my splendid isolation, with my few real friends and my family, looking for some genuine empathy. Not too big an ask. I don’t think.

2 thoughts on “Splendid Isolation And A Bit of Empathy”

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