I keep hearing my mother say that: “I’m just so lonely.”
She only said it to me once, many years ago, but I hear it over and over in my mind. It’s a mark of how oblivious I was to her emotional needs at the time that I don’t even remember what year it was. Was I living in L.A.? Baltimore?
I suppose I didn’t think there was anything I could do about it. She came out to visit once in a while. I went to see her now and then. That’s just the way it is with parents and kids living in different cities.
My father died when he and she were fifty. She lived alone after that, for 34 years.
Late in her life we were in the same cities again for a dozen years. I saw her often. I hope she wasn’t lonely in those years, but to tell the truth, maybe she was.
Loneliness is a funny thing. It’s a kind of desperate longing. You can be in a crowd and be lonely. You can have casual friends and be lonely. Close family is usually a pretty good antidote for loneliness, but that cure can sometimes be worse than the disease. Old thoughtless habits, old grievances. Sometimes you may want a stressful family member, or even a well-meaning one who is pushing you to do things you don’t want to do, to be things you are not, or are no longer, to just go away so you can be lonely again.
Loneliness has to do with living alone, of course. It also has to do with having too much time on your hands. Too much time to look back, to reflect, to regret.
There is no cure, I think. There are moments of respite—of remission, one might say—but once it has crept into your life, loneliness seems to persist despite everyone's best efforts to chase it away.
It’s a form of getting ready for death, I suppose. A gradual release of one’s hold on the world, and of it on you.
Mom died in a nursing home in another city, two thousand miles away. I’ve been thinking about her lately because it was about this time of year eight years ago that I flew with her to my brother’s hometown and had her furniture sent to the nice private room we had arranged for her there. She needed 24-hour care, and all she could have afforded in my town was something like a cubicle with a sheet between her and her roommate, in a place that said for her not to bring any of her lovely clothes, only a few sets of sweatpants and comfortable tops they recommended I buy at Target.
I missed her and felt guilty about not being with her. I visited as often as I could those last few months of her life, but it wasn’t that often. When I saw her she always asked me to wheel her around to a cage of parakeets in a hallway. She loved their happy chatter and companionship.
A hospice nurse called me not long after my last visit to say Mom had died. Not from anything in particular, the nurse said. Failure to thrive, she called it.