You probably think you know about being lonely. Chances are good you don’t.
A special sort of loneliness unfolds when you wake up “old.” There isn’t a number to qualify it. It’s that inevitable moment when you suddenly realize you are. That stark realization seals it, there is no going back.
I never thought ‘old’ could happen to me.
Lord … my groaning is not hid from thee. [Psalm 38:9]
‘Old’ starts when your health fails and you can’t do what you used to do. It’s when you live on a limited income that no longer allows for frivolous spending on everyone else – or you. It’s when store clerks talk down to you because they need to prove their nit-witted keenness and you’re an easy mark; and when your children learned it’s easier to blame you for their life outcome rather than take any responsibility for it themselves. It’s when grandkids grow into busy lives with babies and gadgets you no longer find mesmerizing and ways-of-life and vocabulary you barely comprehend.
‘Old’ is when spouses turn cruel because you’re an unwanted reminder of their life’s limitations. It’s when the reflection in the mirror refuses to resemble the person you know is still in there or when you don’t hear the sound of a human voice, even your own, for days. It’s when taking a shower is as taxing as half a day’s work used to be; when you start counting paper towels, storing tablespoons of leftovers and you’ve finally mastered the art of cooking for one, which proves hardly worth the while. Old is when you weigh the cost of a telephone connection or WalMart jeans against paying for medications; or when you get on the scales to make sure you haven’t lost too much weight.
You’ve spent a lifetime depriving yourself to give to others only to realize somehow they missed the qualities you worked so hard to live by example – maybe you gave too much, too often? Somehow you’ve grossly failed. You don’t understand but you know the buck stops with you. You take the blame because that’s what you’ve always done best, blame yourself. Now they blame you, too. Should that really be surprising?
No one calls to see how you are or if you are. No special occasion gifts or cards arrive. At night you wonder if the next morning will be the one when you don’t wake up and how long it will take someone to notice if you don’t. You count weeks until the rent is due because your landlord will be the first to miss you. You keep things clean and orderly, not because you ever have company because you don’t. Order has become redundantly meaningless for the meager existence you live, but you do it so others aren’t left with clutter to pilfer, knowing chances are good they’re going to find the remnants of your life tedious anyway.
One day passes into the next and you rebel against empty boredom, hoping you still have cause to hope. You can’t imagine your life has a purpose, because it doesn’t, so every day you question why you are still here. You keep important papers accessible so when your time does come those will be easy to find … because that’s what you’ve always done, made your existence easy for others. That’s all you really know.
You stop looking through photographs because they no longer bring to life the echoing laughter and affections you believed were thriving in the moments of them. Now they’re little more than an aching reminder of how alone you are. You’re perplexed how so many good times could be so easily forgotten, so irrelevant, so meaningless, so painful. But this is today – and they are.
That is how lonely alone is.