Life, alone

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By Caitlin Kelly

There’s a lot to unpack in this poignant personal essay,  written by a 36-year-old woman living alone in Brooklyn, NY.

An excerpt:

There are the big things, the Christmases, the New Year’s Eves, the motherfucking Valentine’s Days. We won’t be participating in cultural norms on these holidays, we’ll be MacGyvering the single woman’s version of all of them. And we’re good at it, too! Have you noticed the “Galentine’s” cards section at Target this year? The name is repulsive, but the message is great. We’ve versioned a holiday, you guys — they see us!

Birthdays are another fun one. With the exception of my 30th, I’ve been planning my own birthday celebrations for a decade. Nobody’s ever like, “What should I do for Shani for her birthday? I’ve got it, Kitten Party!!” It doesn’t happen. What typically happens instead is I email 10 people, five of them are available, I make a dinner reservation, the end.

If I’m honest, the big things don’t bother me half as much as the tiny ones…For example, who’s your In Case Of Emergency person? Mine is my mum. She lives 1800 MILES AWAY. And yes, I could list a friend, but I don’t like how that makes me feel. Have you ever really been in an “emergency?” It’s terrifying, and I don’t like assigning that potential imposition to a friend.

And I’m a lucky one, I have my mum. Not everyone does. But at a certain point in life, I developed a need to be number one to someone other than a parent. And I’m not.

This essay hit me hard for a few reasons….mostly what she sees as the high cost of independence — a loss of feeling valued and nurtured.

Like this sentence of hers:

I could list a friend, but I don’t like how that makes me feel. Have you ever really been in an “emergency?” It’s terrifying, and I don’t like assigning that potential imposition to a friend.

But how else can we function, those of us who live alone and may do so for decades, by choice or not?

Many of us now live equally far away from our parents or siblings; I haven’t lived in the same country as my parents for decades and my three half-siblings are not people I rely on for anything. I barely know them.

I lived alone ages 19 to 23, ages 26 to 30, ages 37 to 43, (after my divorce and when I met my second husband), a total of 14 years.

So I’ve had a lot of time alone, solo, single, reliant only on myself and whoever stepped up for me.

 

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In those times, like the essayist, I’ve been really ill — I remember finally sleeping in flu-ish exhaustion at the foot of the stairs in my two-story Toronto apartment, the top two floors of a house, with no room-mates to notice or care. I couldn’t face climbing the stairs up to my bedroom again after one more trip to the second-floor bathroom.

Later, with a bad injury to my left ankle, I had to manage stairs into the apartment on  crutches as well, plus walking my dog. There really wasn’t anyone to call.

But I was also, then, in my mid-20s, and ferociously independent, unwilling or unable to ask others for help; when you come from a family uninterested in your welfare, you make the sad — and erroneous — assumption that since they (your own parents!) don’t care, why on earth would a non-relative?

But in my late 30s, with two knee surgeries to recover from, I had to literally open the door — and my suburban New York church brought me meals on wheels for a few days. I still remember who made soup and who delivered it, one now a very good friend all these years later.

 

Love is action!

 

North American life and culture, whether the shiny faux perfection of social media, the relentless work hours and long commutes that wear us out and steal our time, the competing demands of our own work, studies and/or family, can make it difficult to really be a good friend.

 

To summon the energy and make an effort.

To take the subway or bus crosstown or drive 20 minutes and find parking

To visit the hospital on a bitterly cold winter day.

To pick up a few bags of groceries or some fresh flowers and bring them to a friend.

To plan a party.

To remember a birthday.

Do you live alone?

Do you have people other than family to turn to and rely on?

Is “Help!” a four-letter word for you?

English: "A Helping Hand". 1881 pain...
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I’ve just experienced the most dependent month of my adult life.

Having had full hip replacement, returning home bruised, swollen and sore, I needed daily — even multiple times a day — help to do the simplest of things: eat, dress, pull socks, stocking and shoes on and off, get in and out of bed, bathe.

I left my parents’ home at 19 and lived much of my life after that alone. I’d been sick as hell alone in my apartment or traveling far away where I knew no one and didn’t speak the language, in places like Venice or Istanbul. My family has never been close emotionally or physically — it was made very clear to me what, pretty much whatever happened to me, physically, financially, emotionally, it was up to me to figure out, and cope with it.

I hated being weak, needy and vulnerable. Surprise!

I finally drove this week — and showered (alone!) and tied my sneakers (unaided!) — for the first time in a month. I went by train into Manhattan, our nearest city, and saw a movie with a friend and did some clothes shopping. It was all deliciously new and deeply pleasant.

But I didn’t, as everyone expected, sigh with relief at finally regaining my cherished independence.

I loved having Jose home, to chat with and bring me breakfast in bed. Friends drove an hour to visit, bringing home-cooked meals and fresh cheer. Two close friends were kind enough to chauffeur me to physical therapy a few times, otherwise a $20 cab ride each way.

I’d never been so fussed over or cared for, and it was lovely. Our front door is covered in get-well cards. We ate dinners for three weeks cooked and delivered by members of our church.

As I’ve been walking our apartment property in spring sunshine, I’ve run into a neighbor, a single woman my age who is fighting cancer for the third time. She’s reluctant to ask for help, but she needs it from time to time.

We all do.

We are, even in our vigorous 20s or 30s, as likely to be felled by a vicious flu or a broken arm or a sprained ankle.

We need help, whether writing a better resume or finding the perfect wedding dress or learning how to refinish furniture or bathe a baby. But, for some reason, we’re supposed to shoo away a helping hand.

No, I’m, fine, really, we insist. Even when we’re really not at all fine and would kill for a helping hand or two.

Maybe we’re afraid no one will step up and be reliable and do the hard work, even for a while. As someone who took decades here in New York to make lasting friendships, this offered a huge and powerful lesson for me. We’re loved!

Do you find it difficult to ask others for help?

When you ask, do you receive it?