In a place that’s far away from everything and also at the center of the universe, a shaft of light streams through the pines and maples overhead. The maple leaves are finally turning, starting at the tips furthest from the stems, glowing autumn fire bleeding into still summer green. The beam spills through to the forest floor, where a woman stands in the ferns and the moss. She is gazing up, arms outstretched, a silhouette against brindle light and shade, her shadow long in the morning sun, her faithful dog (her other shadow) at her feet.
The smile on her face is visible.
The woman has been here before, has been in this very spot before, but it’s the first time she’s been whole here.
At quarter past nine last Saturday night, there was a knock on my front door.
There’s a vanishingly short list of people who could call me after 8 p.m. any day of the week and not get my voicemail, whether I’m there or not (I probably am), whether I’m busy or not (I’m probably not). I’m a by-appointment-only sort of introvert.
But an unannounced physical being summoning me to my door, in the flesh, with midnight less than three hours away… my God, what fresh hell was this?
I was seventeen, back in that long ago when you could stand with your whole family at the terminal gate as you waited to board your flight. So there the four of us were, shifting uncomfortably on our feet, staying together until the last available moment. A group of Canadians walked by, speaking their specialized version of French. Breakfast, eaten with an unfamiliar dread in the metallic airport café mere minutes before, lurched dangerously in my stomach.
I looked at Dad in despair. “I can’t understand a word they’re saying.”
He looked back at me, and a flash of acute empathy briefly fractured his stoic Downeast faҫade. “You’ll do fine,” he said, quickly collecting himself.
There were few worse sentences John could have slurred into the phone, his voice broken down into bits and pinging across six hundred miles worth of cell towers before reassembling itself in my horrified ear.
“No, you’re not.”
There were few sure things in that moment, with the physical miles separating us suddenly the shortest distance between us, but that was one thing. My previously calm Maine evening had been taken hostage by unbidden images of piles of unfortunate, unsuspecting, and quite dead delivery people at our doorstep, not to mention the thought of my own bespattered demise on attempting to rouse him from a signature catatonic state at just the wrong time.
He absolutely was not going to bring a gun into our house.
I’m not exactly sure when my husband died, and neither is he.
He thinks it might have been during the surgery. “Sometimes I feel like I died on that table, and I woke up a brand-new baby. I had no idea who I even was.” I’m standing in his room, while he lies there, addressing the room at large, not really looking at me, the TV reluctantly paused. (I suspect this is the most honest he’s ever been with me.)
I chalk it up, his sense of having died while being decidedly not dead, to emerging from an encephalopathic fog. He’d been missing for so long.
He did pull through, but something got left behind.
But I never initiate, unless a misaddressed package or piece of mail has come for him. I let him know I’ve got it, and ask what good times are to bring it over, because I don’t want him to come here, and I won’t show up there unannounced.
When you need help, really need help, you’ll take it wherever you can get it.
It had been almost two months since our initial visit with the transplant team, when they’d unexpectedly advised us that a liver transplant was not just the next step, but the only remaining step available. John had subsequently, spectacularly, failed tox screens for both alcohol and pot. And instead of being fast-tracked for the transplant list, so I could be reviewed for donation, the team told us they wouldn’t do anything until he was seeing a substance abuse counselor. Steps vital to survival were suddenly, maddeningly, on hold.
He didn’t want to do it, to go to a counselor. He told me, standing there in our kitchen, that it would be easier to just let him die. He’d prefer it.
We were talking about parts of my childhood when my therapist said, almost wistfully, “It sounds very lonely.”
There was a long quiet spot in the conversation while I thought about that.
Lonely? Me? Surely she was mistaken. I had a family. I had friends. I liked being alone, even as a kid. And as an adult … man, I was born to quarantine. I’ve joked before about the moat I’m building. This feels especially conspicuous right now, with so many so excited that they’ll be getting back out there, seeing people, seeing friends, going to school, going to parties, laughing.
I’m dreading that I’m so out of practice making up excuses as to why I can’t make it.
Maybe I don’t understand what loneliness is. And not understanding it, how would I even recognize it?
But I was lucky, at the start. I’d found the perfect partner: someone who felt as good to be with as it felt to be alone.