Epiphany ~a(1): a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something (2): an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking (3): an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure. Merriam-Webster
“Who are you looking for?” the waiter asked. Presumably my hesitancy at the entrance to the restaurant gave me away. But I resisted his help, knowing full well he didn’t know my friend and couldn’t tell me if she was there or not. In a perverse mood, I answered, ‘no one…someone…myself!’ I smiled at him.
No surprise that he didn’t smile back. Looking like a deer in headlights, he must have thought me yet another lunatic to deal with at the end of a long, hard day. Ordinarily I would have felt remorse for my seemingly flippant response, but for some reason I felt absolutely inspired instead. My moment of epiphany occurred at the entrance to the bar door, thanks to the waiter’s query. Who was I looking for? Who indeed.
That’s been the question all along since my husband died over a year-and-a-half ago. There is a certain kind of man, physically strong, lovely to look at, charismatic and hugely energetic, who convinces us he’ll outlast everyone around him—take care of everyone else; but he doesn’t. That kind of man is often struck down suddenly, inexplicably, without warning or recourse, leaving all of us behind to fend for ourselves. It seems such a cruel trick, we feel so let down, almost cheated, when that kind of person loses their life seemingly ‘too soon’; snatched by a higher power when we’d accepted the idea that there wasn’t one where he was concerned. But just like the political systems that promise us perpetual care, that kind of man can take away our ‘selves’ with his own, cleverly disguised need. Once gone, there are a lot of foundering souls struggling to find their footing without him, and none so desperately as those who were closest to the flame when it burned.
But there’s something more insidious at work for the widow of ‘that kind of man’. The loss of a dominant personality with all it’s intricate interdependencies is challenging, yet not the ultimate test. All manner of friends and medical professionals have been working to teach me the difference between being ‘alone’ and ‘on your own’; a distinction I understood intellectually right from the start, but found less than helpful hair-splitting, obviously designed to make the newly widowed or divorced feel less lonely. That’s an admirable goal, and yet the sense of abandonment is there anyway, no matter how much emotional muscle you have. Why? Is it all about feeling ostracized for being ‘one’ instead of ‘two’ in a culture and society championing pairs?
How uncomfortable it can be when you’re the only one in your group of acquaintances bucking the trend. Even if you’re a non-conformist, certainly a label championed in this country where we support individualism, you can still feel the burn if…you decide to have two children instead of three; or none…you choose not to wed…aren’t motivated by earning more money than you need to live on…or suddenly, unexpectedly, find yourself alone. A powerful psychological trick plays on you. As I’ve sought to conquer the overwhelming terror visiting me over the past year, especially in the morning when I first wake up, I’ve wondered at the power of the assault ‘now’ vs. the way I lived ‘before’, meaning before my husband’s death. I often lie staring at the ceiling counting my blessings in the hope they’ll carry away the futility of railing against my aloneness.
All the nasty events of my life these days fall into the same category: how hard to be alone; when illness strikes; dealing with an emergency alone; struggling for a whole day to shoehorn the Christmas tree into a box it came in but doesn’t want to return to. Funny, I’ve always done all those things alone. It just feels different when you know there’s no ‘other’ who could be helping you. It’s a trick of the mind, but the imagined support seems essential even though we know it’s not. Why? Because our culture has sold us on that principal for obvious reasons dating back to the survival of the species, and our DNA now resonates with the power of the prime directive. And let’s not forget the added pull of the patriarch who promises to take care of ‘everything forever’. So then, does that mean the only way to conquer the aloneness is to find someone to be with to satisfy both culture and historical memory?
“Who are you looking for?” the waiter asked. I suddenly realized I was the person I should have been looking for all along, and thankfully have finally found. You may think you know who you are, always accomplished things on your own, chosen your own way. But when the psychological crutch of being part of two props you up, you can’t possibly know the complexity of the person living inside. When you do, it becomes so clear that the solution to loneliness isn’t to be found in the distinction between being alone or on your own, but in the discovery of who you were so long ago when there was only you.