A Life of Loneliness

After I was born, my next sister was born three years later, followed by my youngest sister 18 months after that. Because they were so close together in age, it always felt, when I was growing up, that it was them against me. They shared a room. My mother often dressed them alike. And, until the elder started school, they shared a pool of friends roughly their own age. They played together. I – pushed into school prematurely by a parent who was unable to cope with two toddlers on her own – was always a little removed, a little alone.

After they started school, their social lives diverged. They had different groups of friends and the age difference seemed larger because they were two years apart in school. The difference between a first grader and a third grader, or a freshman and a junior, are an enormous, unbridgeable gulf.

In the spring of my senior year of high school, my parents divorced. After I graduated, I left home. The next year, my middle sister moved up to high school, my youngest sister moved up to junior high, and my mom took a job 30 miles away from home, which meant she was often gone before my sisters got up and home after they had dinner. An aunt who visited them during this period described opening the refrigerator, leaving the house, getting in her car, driving 5 miles to the nearest grocery store, and refilling the refrigerator. Not because my mother couldn’t afford groceries but because her parenting policy of benign neglect manifested itself as “the kids will figure it out.”

After the middle sister graduated and made a life for herself in SoCal, it was just my youngest sister and my mom. That sister tells of getting up in an empty house and finding breakfast, getting herself on the bus – because if she missed the bus, she wouldn’t go to school that day, the walk was too far. After school, she had to take the bus straight home since she wouldn’t have a ride, which prevented her from participating in extracurricular activities or even hanging out with her friends. She made dinner for herself and kept it warm so mom would have something nice to come home to after work.

When people talk about Gen X, this is what they are talking about.

When she was in high school, she went to Germany as a foreign exchange student, I think because she was craving community, family… But when you have been lonely for so long, it is hard to connect, to break out of your shell. And it’s even harder when the couple who takes you into their home are young, not yet parents on their own, and don’t know how to parent a teen, a challenge many parents never become expert at.

After she graduated, she picked an ivy-covered college where, again, I think she was seeking community. And she found it, although I remember some lonely letters at first. One summer, she went to DC, where my mother had moved after her house was empty, and stayed with mom in a huge house with a man my mother had fallen in love with, who didn’t love her, a third wheel. Then mom went abroad and my sister took a summer job at a dude ranch in the middle of Idaho? Montana? Again, very lonely.

After graduation, she moved with her Costa Rican boyfriend to Florida, where he went to cooking school. My parents were both from Florida, and she was delighted to be closer to family. The family had always seemed so “together” when we had flown in for the holidays. But, when it wasn’t a big holiday reunion – and especially since my grandmother had died – they had their own lives which did not include her.

Then her boyfriend moved back to Costa Rica and she was alone again. Finally she followed him but, now in a country where she didn’t speak the language, she felt alienated again.

After a few years, they moved back to the states, got married, and moved to San Diego, where she worked for my sister, then to LA, the loneliest town of all where she didn’t fit in with the lifestyle of overconfidence and perfection. When she got pregnant, they decided to leave LA and move to a small town, again seeking community.

Sometimes, big-sistering her, I have suggested that she take a job where she can be around people, or volunteer, or join a Unitarian church or something where she can find a community.

“I don’t like being around people,” she tells me. “It stresses me out.”

When you have lived a life of isolation and loneliness, you lose the skills that enable you to learn how to make and keep friends. When you have felt rejected because people move on and focus on their own lives, it’s hard to reach out. It takes a lot of work to move past this, to maintain it, and to keep moving past it. I feel as if it’s a lesson I re-learn every time I leave a job or when a friend or yoga teacher moves to a more affordable location, someplace green where, even if you’re social distancing, you have a yard.

But for a while, she was happy, working in a school where she learned about and spent time with the kids, who liked hanging out in her office and chatting. Even as her nights and weekends became dedicated to caring for my mother – a labor of love and patience, for the woman is so old and bitter that she often sits in silence, refusing to talk, or disappears into TV or another nap – she still had her work community, her role as Union Rep, breakfast with her kids and her husband.

But now, with the pandemic, all the coping mechanisms we’ve all used for so long to paper over the gaps in our lives, are coming to the fore. Her work has moved to P/T, and even that is just sitting in an empty office manning a phone that doesn’t ring. Her kids are coping with their anxiety by sleeping through breakfast, or throwing themselves into their devices and refusing to come up for lunch or dinner. And mom’s assistants, unreliable at the best of times, have become even more so, requiring her presence at mom’s even more. Often she is forced into loneliness, as so many of us are now, without even the unification of the 7pm clap.

I told someone the other day that one of the opportunities that this crisis has given us is the opportunity to recognize what is not working in our lives and do something different. It’s great to say that but harder to do it.

Of all the things we could lose now, I put loneliness at the top.

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