This is the 65th anniversary of my graduation from high school. I came from a little town in western New York where my Dutch relatives happened to settle in the 19th century. They settled only a generation after other settlers - veterans of the Revolutionary war - were given land there by the government. The land was hilly, rocky and mostly poor for growing crops. But there were trees and water. And the settlers managed to make livings from both.
But this part of the US was more for growing up on than living on. So many of my classmates and me moved away. But we went to a small school and were grouped together for 12 years day in day out. By the end of those 12 years we knew each other very well.
So reunions are really that - another union of about 20 people that grew up together and their spouses. Mel didn’t graduate but his family began and still owns one of the largest dairy farms in western New York. So he always hosts a picnic. Marge was the youngest - and is an organizer. So she always has a whole weekend set aside for us to talk together again,
The group is so familiar that it takes about 5 minutes to discover what’s changed in the various individual’s lives - Harvey now has a cane; Roger is seriously bent over from too many years of heavy lifting; James, who moved away but always comes, had gained a lot of weight; Dale, the star athlete of the group is crippled and not taking even phone calls. And there’s been a lot of personal tragedy in the group - deaths of children from cancer; accidents; harrowing experiences.
But this year was different. First it is the year immediately after covid - everyone save one is vaccinated, and that one had the disease. So I didn’t have to leave Mel’s picnic out of fear of who was there. Second, it is the first year my wife, Suzanne, who also a ’56 graduate but from another school, was not there. Another of my classmates had a similar experience - he lost his wife about year earlier. He was a banterer - one that discussed the latest adventure as though it was all disaster and no victory. But before his complaints about the hotel and other foolish things on his recent path started, he sat next to me and I asked him how he was.
“About the same as you I suspect” — “I have never been through anything like this The requirements of loneliness are overwhelming,’
Another, a neighbor, lost her husband on the day of the feast of St. Barbara 2019. She was Sue’s mother’s friend and then Sue’s and now mine. (The club of those that have lost spouses is large, and all-welcoming.). She compares her situation to mine -
“I’m not lonely; I’m just deeply sad.” She’s not lonely because in some ways losing a spouse is easier for women than men - her daily routine hasn’t changed. Mine, like my friend Roger’s, was turned upside down.
One of Sue’s caregivers is helping me adjust - maybe accommodate - to my new life’s circumstances. We have become close friends over the last 8 years; that’s how long Sue needed home care. But in some ways my loneliness is exacerbated by knowing her so well. She comes to the house and stays every day for a time; we go out for lunch occasionally; she drives me to some appointments like those at the local oral surgeon. But after the time of her shift is over, she heads for home and her very stressful family life there. And I’m left again - alone.
And my neighbor and I have dinner together when I’m at our lakeside home - this is extraordinary and helpful too.
But loneliness means an absence of stability; an absence of one who’s maybe at your back. An absence of sharing - the good and the bad. Just the eternal absence is what its all about.
Sue was critically ill for many years. So in some ways my separation began years before she passed away. But it didn’t really. Only after I realized I would never again hear her sounds, or feel her forehead, or hold her hands, did it really hit home.
Will I extricate myself from the loneliness of separation? At this point I’m not certain. My neighbor, Sue’s neighbor, thinks I’m doing better than she is. But sadly her insights are superficial. I’m friendly by nature and happy by appearance. The real me says the requirements of loneliness are overwhelming.