Back in high school, when I was a lot younger, and a hell of a lot more stupid; I used to go out with my friends in groups. We would go to the mall, the movie theater, out for drinks, or multiple other public places. We were cocky and a little bit mean with our nonchalant, seemingly innocent comments about other people’s lives and things we observed along our teenage travels. We weren’t really trying to be mean or awful – it’s just that we were truly selfish, stupid kids who knew absolutely nothing about anything, so we said lots of things without ever thinking for one second how that thing might affect the person we were talking about. Or, in our case, usually whispering and pointing and carrying on about.
I remember that we enjoyed making fun of people who were out somewhere alone. We used to find it funny to repeat the phrase: “no friends”, as in: “That lady has no friends. Her and her no friends are shopping today.” Again, not once did it go through our little pea-brain heads that perhaps this person was alone for a reason, and that maybe this person was, in fact, hurting and in pain. Maybe it also was the first time this person made the decision to go out somewhere alone since their divorce, or the death of their partner, or since their son or daughter died, or since whatever awful and horrible thing happened that turned their world upside down. I remember being at a movie theater with my friends this one night, and a man who was somewhere around my age now, walked in with his popcorn and drink, and sat down two rows in front of us. He was alone. We giggled under our breath as the previews started, and we made jokes to each other about how he had “no friends.”
As I sit here today, right this minute, knowing what I now know about life and death and loneliness, I cringe at the memory I have of me saying out loud to my group of friends: “Who goes to the movies alone? What a loser.” Yeah. Not my proudest moment. But as I said, we were typical teenagers, and typical teenagers don’t normally think about anything, other than themselves.
As my friends and I watched the movie that night, laughing and giggling and making light of this man and his pain, little did I know where my own life would end up, just 21 short years later. Boy, do I wish I could take those words back. I wish I could go back in time to that movie theater, sit down next to that man, and just let him know that I get it. And instead of calling him a loser, I would congratulate him for leaving his house that day and taking a risk. It actually hurts me inside to think about that memory, and the memories of all the other times my friends and I judged people for no reason other than to entertain ourselves. When I think about that man sitting there with his popcorn and his face with his eyes that looked dead inside, it makes me very emotional. If there is one thing that this grief walk has changed in me, it would be that I am far more compassionate of a person than I ever used to be in that other life. And honestly, sometimes I am a bit ashamed of that younger, naive version of me who mocked others with no thought or empathy. If only I knew then, what I know now. That one day, I would become that man.
Yesterday, I officially became that man. Well, truthfully, I became that man on July 13, 2011, the day I became a widow. But yesterday was the first time in over 4 years of going places by myself, where I truly felt like that man. I truly felt every ounce of the loneliness, in all it’s delight and wonder. After my husband’s sudden death, it didn’t take me long to begin going places by myself. Actually, I had always been quite independent, even while married, and so I never thought twice about sitting in a movie by myself, or even grabbing lunch alone, going to the park, and whatever else. There were times when Don didn’t want to see a movie and I did, so I would go and he would stay home and strum his guitar. And then we would hang out later that day. We were two independent souls who absolutely loved each other’s company, but who were also totally fine spending time alone. So, at first, when he died, and once the parade of friends and family taking me out for lunch and dinner stopped around month 3 or 4, I would go out alone often. The hardest part of doing that was always seeing other couples, out together enjoying each other, the way Don and I used to do. Seeing families together, or dad’s giving their little boy a piggyback ride, or teaching him how to play catch in Central Park. Many times, I would end up cutting my plans short and running home in tears. But in those early days, I had to get the hell out of that apartment – that place where we lived together that was now just walls slowly collapsing in on me and suffocating me with memories and “stuff” from a life that no longer existed. It was pure hell being there, so I went out as often as I could. When I would come home, I would cry myself to sleep most nights, if I could sleep at all.
Somewhere around year 2 or 3 of this “life after loss” madness, I started to get more used to being places by myself, in the sense that I no longer ran out of the room in tears. It still hurt, but I learned to ignore it or just became numb to it, or something. I started bringing books or playing on my phone when alone in a restaurant. Or I would bring my laptop to the park and write something, with a cocktail, on a lovely spring day. I got into the habit of lying to waiters and servers and movie ticket people, as if I had to justify my aloneness to everyone. “Oh, Im back at work a few blocks away in a couple hours, so I’m just trying to kill some time”, I would find myself saying. I had all kinds of stories at the ready. “Yeah, Im directing a show nearby and I needed somewhere to come and do some paperwork.” I’m not really sure why I felt the need to explain. Maybe somewhere inside, I was hoping like hell that these servers weren’t going back to the kitchen and saying to the cooks: “That woman at table 3 is eating lunch alone. What a loser.” I would always be extra nice and leave a great tip, so that they wouldn’t say bad things about me, but instead might say that I was really friendly or left more than they thought I would have. Sometimes I would leave my business card, which has this blog on it, so they may read it and know my story, and then know that I’m not a loser with no friends, but someone whose husband was dead and who was sometimes extremely lonely but still wanted a nice steak dinner. In any case, I got to the point where being alone and going places alone just became my normal. If my friends were busy or people were with their own families or doing their own couple-things or singles-nights or date-nights or whatever, I wasn’t letting that stop me from going out anyway and doing what I wanted to do. It wasn’t always joyful or even pleasant, but it was just the reality of my life. And for a long time, it stopped bothering me.
Easter Sunday. It’s one of those holidays that always makes me extra sad for some reason. In our early days of dating, Don would call me “Cuddlebunny” or “BunnyBoo”, and I would call him “CuddleBear” or “BooBear.” I know. Pathetic. Anyway, when I was 3 years old, my parent’s hid a stuffed Bunny underneath the sewing machine for me to find on my Egg and candy hunt, and I loved him like crazy and named him “Bunny.” (“How original”, noted my husband.) I kept him (still have him), and Don got such a kick out of that thing. He thought it was adorable that I slept with a stuffed rabbit. So each year, on Easter, he would buy me a new stuffed Bunny so that Bunny could have friends, and he would get me my favorite chocolate truffles and marshmallow-filled chocolate eggs. After we were married, we would usually drive to my parents house in Massachusetts over most holidays, and Easter was one of those days. It was filled with laughter, sarcasm, family-banter, the homemade cooking from my mom and my Nana, and all the comforts of being with the people you love most. On the years where Don would have to work and we couldnt make it home, we had each other. We were our own little family, and if we didnt have plans with friends, we would make it special somehow for just the two of us. It never really matters what you are doing when you are with the person you love most. As long as you are together, you are happy just doing nothing at all.
And then he died. And then I had to sell his car. And leave our apartment. Get a roommate. Change my whole life around. Make sacrifices. Work more jobs. Make more income. Survive, survive, survive. I couldnt afford to get home for Easter anymore, not with mine being the only paycheck coming in. I couldnt get time off on the days surrounding Easter, so no time to go home anyway. Most holidays I would end up staying local in NYC, so that I could afford to be home with mom and dad and everyone else for an extended time over my Christmas break. When the only family you had in NY was your beautiful husband, and your beautiful husband is now dead, holidays can be rough. My dear friends started inviting me for Thanksgiving at their house in upstate NY, and so that has become a tradition of sorts. Last year, on Easter, another friend invited me to go to her family’s house, and I did. It was nice. But I don’t know. Something about this year felt very different. I was invited by two seperate widow friends to spend the day with their families, and my roommate also had suggested that the two of us maybe make dinner or do something together. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t feel like cooking, and I didnt feel like being with other people’s families, if I couldnt be with my own. Right now, today, something about that idea made me way too sad, so I decided in my head to do something very different and random. I went to see a Broadway show. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. It is a show I have been wanting to see forever. Multiple Tony-award winner, and an old college friend of mine happens to work tech for the show, and she was able to get me a single seat at a highly discounted cost, due to the holiday matinee and the fact that I only needed one ticket. So off I went to the theatre.
On the subway ride into the city, families were everywhere. Everyone had bouquets of spring flowers, casserole dishes, and Easter dresses. Children were dressed with ribbons in their hair, and the boys with little bowties and adorable-looking tiny shoes. Dads were laughing with sons and daughters, while holding their wives hands. People were coming from church or going to church, or getting ready for family dinners. My stomach started knotting up immediately, and I tried like hell to ignore it. I get off the train, and walk through Times Square, which any true New Yorker will tell you is nightmarish and a place to avoid at all costs. New Yorkers generally hate Times Square. Its filled with screaming tourists, and an ungodly amount of people. The amount of people in those few designated blocks of the city would make anyone want to commit homicide. But that is where the theater was, so I had no choice to angrily pace through the chaos. A church choir was singing a song about family, and a block away, an Easter wedding couple was taking their pictures against the backdrop of the crazy city. Of course. I kept walking.
Once at the theatre, I got a backstage tour with my friend, and then she sent me off with my ticket. I was led to my seats, which were Box seats. For those who don’t know what Box seats are in a theatre, they are private boxes, usually 4 seats in one designated area. They are usually reserved for VIP people, as they are seperated from the rest of the audience and up in a balcony. Think Abraham Lincoln on that fateful night. Well, maybe that’s not the best example. Anyway, I had an amazing seat next to the railing, where I could lean over and look down right at the stage. A couple was seated in back of me, and they argued about their seats and then she got really annoyed with him and then they got up and left. Another woman was seated next to me, and then ten minutes into the production, SHE got up and left. So I had the entire Box to myself. Although it was actually nice having the entire section to myself, I began to feel very alone as I sat there reacting emotionally to this amazing production. Nobody to bounce my thoughts off of, nobody to run and get us a glass of wine during intermission, nobody to talk about how incredible the leading actor is in the complex role he plays. Nobody for anything. Just me.
After the show was over, I headed across the street to this really nice restaurant that was recommended to me by my friend, and that had a theater matinee special on some entrees. Originally, I had thought she was going to come with me for dinner, but I must have misunderstood, because she said she had to head home to spend Easter dinner with her kids. So off I went to have dinner alone, on Easter Sunday. And yes, it was just as depressing as it sounds. I honestly dont know what the hell I was thinking, doing that, on a major holiday where families are all together, eating, publicly. But dammit, I wanted a nice dinner, and just because I’m alone and don’t have my person here with me anymore, does that mean I shouldn’t be allowed to enjoy some delicious food on Easter? So I walk in, and the hostess looks at me and says: “Just one?” “Yes.” I say. “Just me.” She takes me to a small booth in the corner upstairs. The server comes by, pours me some water, and says: “Will anyone be dining with you today?” “No. Just me,” I say again, beginning to feel like I should just wear a giant sign that says: WIDOW: PARTY OF ONE. EATING ALONE AGAIN. NEXT SHOWING AT 7 PM. She goes away for a few seconds, then comes back with a head tilt and a slightly condescending tone: “Can I just remove this place setting here, if nobody is joining you? Great!” “Sure, no problem!”, I say cheerily, finding that today, I just don’t have the energy to make up some story about why I’m sitting here alone eating a meal on Easter.
And then I sat there. The food was delicious, but my insides were being ripped out every moment I was in that tiny booth. I wanted to cry. I wanted to run. I wanted to fade into nothing from the shame of my own existence. For 4 years, I had talked myself into the idea that I was okay being alone, that I was fine spending time by myself in restaurants, in theatres, at the park. And then, suddenly, right in that exact moment, it just didnt feel okay to me anymore. Yes, I can spend time alone. Yes, Im capable of doing that. Yes, Im an independent woman who can take care of herself. But I don’t want to anymore. Or, at least, not as often as I have been forced to, and definitely not on a major holiday. I want a “person” in my life again, that I can create new traditions with, and that I can miss my old life with, and that I can live THIS life with. I want to cook our food together and have our friends over and hang out with our families instead of someone else’s family. I want to make a life with someone while Im still here to be alive. I dont want to sit here anymore, or sit anywhere, by myself, and feel like a loser.
And the thing is, I know I’m not a loser. I know that. But that is how it felt, and that is how it feels. And my mind went to that poor man in that movie theater that night, all those years ago, and how I called him a loser out loud and laughed a little too loudly. I thought once again about compassion, and empathy, and about how none of us ever really know someone else’s story or what someone else is going through, and how sometimes people are grumpy or bitchy or stand-off-ish or aloof, because they are right in the middle of going through their own personal hell, and how nobody should ever judge anybody else because they are sitting in a restaurant alone on Easter Sunday.
The thing is, at any time, on any day, probably when you least expect it – you could be that person that other people are laughing and pointing at, and calling you a loser. I never thought that could be me. Until it was me.
It was a rough holiday. And I’m tired of being alone.
ps. Comments are welcome always!!! I love comments!!!