On Being All Alone

Years ago, my husband’s elderly grandmother heard an annoying tapping in her apartment. Throughout the day, the tapping continued much to her chagrin, but she could not discern the source or how to stop it. At some point in the evening or during the night, the tapping stopped. The next day, she discovered her elderly next door neighbor had fallen and spent the day tapping on their shared wall with his cane in an attempt to gain her attention. The tapping stopped when he died, alone, on the floor.


We spend our lives searching for companionship, seeking another’s touch, and desiring the understanding of those around us. We need human connection. Those that surround us give meaning to our lives. We befriend, we date, we lust, we parent, we mentor, we inspire, we love. And we hate, we offend, we punish, we steal, we degrade, we hurt. In common is our connection with one another. But, despite all this, to crib Hunter S. Thompson, we all die alone. Even those lucky few surrounded by friends and family at a bedside, they most decidedly die alone.

The children of parents become parents of children. Students become teachers. Lovers become strangers. Friends become old friends and, then, strangers too. We drift or dart from one chapter of life to another, exchanging titles and responsibilities, passing memories from one hand to another until we pass them out of space and time. We play our role, and, from beginning to end, the rest of the cast changes. Indeed, we are the only constant; always alone in the middle of the story. Maybe lonely, maybe not, but, at a fundamental, irreducible level, always alone.


My grandmother fell in the middle of the night twice during the last week. Most likely, a new medication to help her sleep worked a little too well. She’s okay, but she was too weak to get up and spent hours on the floor. She now has a handy necklace to wear with a button she can push should she fall and need help again. She won’t need to tap a cane on a wall. And there will be someone to respond. And she is surrounded by love and those that care.

We can feel sorry for her, and we should. And we can entertain a macabre fascination with the man that died a few feet from my husband’s grandmother. But how we think about these things, how we react, is inevitably linked to the knowledge that one day we may be alone on that floor.

We cannot change our fundamental aloneness, our insoluble oneness. On some metaphysical plane, though, we can transcend our isolation by our love, ensuring something of our spirit lives on in those that we care about long after we are gone. And that knowledge provides some sort of solace. Still, in a world of unrelenting social connections, both real and virtual, the truth of our aloneness remains singularly horrible and singularly beautiful.  How we reconcile that may be the peace we seek, as we all tap against the wall.

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