There is a kind of loneliness that relates not to immediate circumstances but to habits of life. At 56, I have learned to be present to myself and to enjoy my own company. I would not hesitate to eat at a restaurant or even take a vacation by myself; in fact, there is something marvelously seductive about the latter prospect. Right now I am savoring a Saturday evening at home while both kids are at work. I don’t mind being alone.
I felt great sadness, though, when I read a recent article in the New York Times: yet another in a seemingly endless series of examinations of my well-known cohort, the baby boomers. It seems that a lot of us are deciding to enter into old age more or less permanently single. The most frequent reason is divorce, and the prospect of a solitary old age apparently appeals more to many of us than that of one spent in an unhappy marriage, or in a marriage of any kind.
As I read this, I couldn’t help but feel the painful irony of my own situation. I had a wonderful marriage, and I had assumed (perhaps against reasonable expectation) that Barbara and I would continue together for a few more decades. Among the texts read at our wedding was one from chapter 8 of the Apocryphal book of Tobit. As Tobias prepares to take the repeatedly widowed Sarah as his wife, he prays “that I may find mercy and may grow old together with her.” We chose this text for an obvious reason: Barbara had been widowed once, and we were asking, as Tobias was, that she not be widowed again. In that sense, the prayer was fulfilled. I notice now that the entire text, which begins by calling for God’s name to be blessed throughout creation and ends with the couple saying “Amen” together, resonates with the familiar Hebrew prayer known as the Mourner’s Kaddish, and I prayerfully rejoice that I remained with Barbara until her death did us part.
But I also cherished the idea of growing old together with her. Nothing could seem like a more appropriate fulfillment of a life spent in mutual devotion. The bitterness of old age would be softened by the timely maturing of our long-held love. I have always wept at Richard Strauss’s song Im Abendrot, in which the octogenarian composer sets Eichendorff’s poem about an elderly couple facing the evening of life together. (O weiter, stiller Friede! So tief im Abendrot. Wie sind wir wandermüde—Ist dies etwa der Tod?) I wrote in my last post of the sense of purpose I receive from knowing that I helped Barbara to fulfill her dream of having a family and children. That doesn’t keep me from aching at the knowledge that I will miss that final chapter.
As Barbara and I were forced to work overtime to continue to share our most painful emotions, we became experts at intimacy. We had laid the groundwork for that expertise during our years as presenters for Lutheran Marriage Encounter, when we led weekend retreats to help married couples develop their communication skills. For us, though, it came to fruition during the years after Barbara’s deafness made it impossible for us to continue in that role. Without it, I doubt if we would have been prepared for the challenge of completely redefining the terms of our relationship. As it was, we continued to prioritize our marriage, even as it meant shunning more and more outside social contacts that her deafness had rendered increasingly futile.
Without her, I am lamenting the absence of something that I know many couples never achieve. I am used to sharing deeply, and I have no-one to share with. This is a permanent problem, just as it would be if my hands were crippled by arthritis and I could no longer play the piano. For a non-musician, the arthritis would be an inconvenience. For me, it would be a kind of death.
I have already been told, by quite a few people in various direct or indirect ways, that I am still young, that I am still attractive, that I will no doubt find love again. Since I have no desire to face old age alone, I will acknowledge that they may be right, although at present I can’t even imagine what that would be like. The hole in my life feels unfillable, the non-circumstantial loneliness like a permanent but unmeetable need. When that no longer seems true, I suppose I will have reached what grief counselors like to call my “new normal.” For now, any kind of normal still seems a long way off.