From my recliner, I looked across the room at the Bird Chair. The last of my belongings from our Brooklyn apartment had arrived at my Connecticut condo. Although this was a temporary home, a rented condo while I looked for a more permanent one, I was glad to have my furniture with me. I had lived with borrowed items, card tables, and boxes for the past several months while the sale of our Brooklyn coop apartment was completed.
There were still boxes to unpack, pictures to hang, and bags to go to Goodwill and the Foodbank, but I felt relief at no longer having to travel back and forth to the City to bring back carloads of personal possessions, as I had done for the last several months. I breathed out a long sigh as I let go of the burden of the driving, and of the wearying packing and moving, but I also felt sadness at the end of an era, and, I confess, at the loss of our old life.
I have never lived alone. Over the years, inspired perhaps by writers like Henry David Thoreau and Annie Dillard, I imagined how happy I would be to live by myself in a cabin in the woods. I had married two men who, after we were no longer together, ended up living solitary lives, one in a ranch house in Florida, the other in a log cabin he built in the woods of northern Georgia. I’ve always thought of myself as independent, a loner, a hermit, and a recluse. But the facts of my life say otherwise, although I might argue that I am those things by nature, even if life events have taken me in a different direction.
Growing up, I lived in a big brick duplex with my parents, my sister, a grandmother, three cousins, an aunt, an uncle, a great aunt, a dog, and two cats. When I left home, my bedroom was in college dormitories, in British digs, and with roommates in apartments. I spent parts of my life in homes with various lovers and husbands. I lived with my first husband and two of his friends the year we were building boats to sail to Belize. For some years, my belongings and I resided in a house in the north end of Hartford with an ever-changing succession of young radical women on their way somewhere. I joined a commune in the country with ten other adults and as many children. And for the past 30 years, home meant being with Rosemary, at first with our children, and then, when they grew up and left, it was just the two of us. I clearly was used to sharing my life with others.
Rosemary had not chosen to live her everyday life in a solitary manner. She loved climbing the dunes of Cape Cod and walking the long stretches of Hawaiian beaches. But mostly, she wanted to be with people—people in the many ways they presented themselves; she had a special talent for bringing folks together. Her work focused on dialogue. For years, she led dialogue groups in Connecticut and New York around race, religion, and many other difficult topics, and she was the one on her college campus whom others turned to when they wanted people to engage with each other in groups. And so, rather than pursuing a contemplative life in the woods of Maine, I followed her work to New York for a year, and ended up staying for twenty. We resolved our different proclivities by incorporating both into our lives. We were fortunate to have a small apartment in New York City and a cottage on a Maine lake.
In thinking back over the living circumstances of my many years, the closest I have come to living alone is the winter I spent at that cottage in Maine with the dog and the cat. As much as I disliked being apart from Rosemary, who flew north from New York City on long weekends and holidays, I loved my time at the lake alone. I looked forward to our evening calls and treasured her visits. I suppose because of those, I can’t say I was totally alone in the wilderness, but, Thoreau and Dillard didn’t live as solitary a life as they portrayed in their writing either. At my desk in the new office I had built, I looked out over the frozen lake and wrote about being a hermit and a recluse, and the joy I took in each day.
But at this point, many years later, in the seclusion of my rented condo, I considered this question of living alone for a different reason. Now, my living alone wasn’t by choice. In addition to being without my partner, I faced the isolation presented by COVID. My own lung disease made it unlikely that I would survive if I contracted COVID, and, though I had had five vaccines, because of my immunocompromised state, none of the vaccines had been effective. In my new single life, I lived as we had in the early days of the pandemic in Brooklyn, barely venturing into the world. If I saw people, it was outside. And, before I agreed to get together with anyone, I had to ask questions that seemed rather impolite,
“How many vaccines have you had?”
“Where have you been this week?”
“Would you be willing to get tested?”
It was now November, making outside meetings strategically challenging. The grief of the larger world reverberated around me; the loss of over 5 million people to COVID penetrated my walls and windows. On my way to meetings in lower Manhattan in the days after 9/11, I had sensed those nearly 3,000 deaths hanging in the air among the tall buildings. The pandemic deaths weighed with a similar heaviness on the planet.
In the early days when the virus had first arrived, we had had the feeling that we were in this together with the people of our city. We cheered with them from our balconies every evening at 7:00. Now the world was cheering without me. People were celebrating the ability to rejoin a common world. Mask mandates fell. Friends traveled, went to the theater, visited each other’s homes. I was happy for them, but I was still living with isolation and heartbreak.
I wasn’t sure how to live alone. I hid behind my condo doors. Things stayed where I put them. Delivery people left groceries outside my door. I ordered things from Amazon, and tried, unsuccessfully, to write. In the evening, I ate dinner on my tv tray and watched Rizzoli and Isles, a modern-day version of Cagney and Lacey. Nights, I listened to books on tape and tried to sleep. In the morning, I got up and did it again. I sank into the sameness of my days.
Even reading and writing, my solaces since childhood, deserted me. Since Rosemary’s death, I had found it difficult to read. Reading and writing meant thinking, and I tried to stay away from that dismal activity. My bereavement counselor told me that this is very common among those grieving. She said, in order to read, you need space in your mind, and that is often unavailable when one is facing the loss of someone close and the loss crowds out all other thoughts.
Besides, it occurred to me that all stories have unhappy endings. If you read on in any story, past the written word, there is inevitable loss in the end. No good time endures; no one lives forever.
I organized my life around online meetings: Facetime sessions, Qigong classes, writing groups, Sunday services, a bereavement group, a class I enrolled in about aging alone. I spent hours on the phone with friends. Although I was grateful for technology, sometimes I tired of meeting with little pictures and longed for in-person time.
I was indebted to friends who were willing to go to great lengths to be with me. My life was an ongoing risk assessment of what it was safe for me to do. I hated it. It was not an ideal way to grieve the loss of one I loved so deeply.
The plants that lined the window sills became my companions.
“Look at you this morning! Those new leaves are so shiny and healthy-looking. Good for you!”
“I’m going to Brooklyn for a couple of days. You will be fine. I’ll leave the A/C on low. I promise you I will return on Thursday.”
And, to the tiny spider who lived in a corner of the doorway to the bathroom:
“The cleaning person is coming this afternoon. You might want to hide down in your corner.” (Fortunately, my cleaning person wasn’t overly thorough.)
When the furniture that Rosemary and I had shared arrived from Brooklyn, it seemed as if Rosemary came too. For these nine months since her death, I had had difficulty remembering her when she had been healthy. My mind was crowded with images of the last days –of her short, white hair, just beginning to grow back, her hollowed cheeks, the dark circles around her eyes, of hospital beds, cancer wounds, and bandages. But now, surrounded by the belongings that we had shared in better days, I began to be able to hold her in my mind without having the images of that hard year before her death take over. I still did not have memories of our more positive past, but I felt her with me in the present. I looked for meaning in my now solitary life, a life that I had once so longed to have and now was struggling to survive.
Rosemary had been unfailingly positive, reframing the dark side into a more acceptable vision. “Do you always have to see what might go wrong?” she would reprimand me. “Believe that it is going to work out, and it will be much more likely to.” During her five-year battle with cancer, she refused to give into the idea that she was going to die. She would leave the hospital after chemo sessions and take the car service across the 59th Street Bridge to her college campus to participate in meetings of a social justice group she had helped organize. The week before she died, she was still faithfully doing the arm and leg exercises that the occupational therapist had given her to maintain use of her limbs.
I looked to Rosemary for guidance. I could do no less than what she had done, I thought. She would want me to be curious about what each day would bring, not to give in to resignation. I told a story at her memorial service about a time when we were beginning a new venture, and she had left on my office desk a clipping from one of the educational programs we were sponsoring, a program that helped women receiving welfare benefits to get college degrees. It quoted Thomas Paine, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” That inspiration came to me now, a gift reprised.
I needed to find the words that came out of the miasma that I lived in after her death. “In the beginning, was the word,” I remembered. And the narrative that came to me was different because of knowing Rosemary; she had left her imprint on my story.
I wish I could say I faced only happy days once I turned to Rosemary for inspiration about how to live alone, but, of course, I still feel lonely, I still miss her. And I still grieve. I do, however, remember how she loved to be in my stories, how the life story she told herself, the picture she created of her world, was more real to her than anything that others might have considered reality. I begin to write. Stories are pieces of reality, after all, and they can end whenever you want. I think maybe she left me behind to tell our story, and to tell it true and everlasting.