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.

On Punch Bowls and Other Totems

My parents inform me that my grandmother has agreed to give away her punch bowl, but only on the condition she does so after the holidays. Her reason is simple: she wants to make me happy.

Growing up, my Christmas days began with reveling in Santa’s generous bounty, followed by breakfast at my grandmother’s house, followed by an afternoon nap, followed by dinner at my grandmother’s house. Essentially, my job was to receive gifts and eat. Luckily, I am very, very talented at both tasks. A staple of Christmas dinner for many years has been a (non-alcholic) punch served on a structurally questionable card table used as the official “kids’ table.” My grandmother sets out an assortment of crackers, cheeses, and chocolates, as well as the punch. I love the punch; no Christmas would be complete without it. I’m pretty sure I’ve made myself ill on the punch a time or two. Again, I’m good at gluttony.

Now, relatives have, for unknown reasons, requested the punch bowl, and my grandmother — no longer at the height of her hosting powers — has agreed to gift the punch bowl, but only on the condition that she has it for the holidays this year. I’ll be home for Christmas, and my grandmother wants me to enjoy the punch out of the punch bowl one last time. Cue sweet memories, touching music, and warm hugs.

Sure, you can make the punch in any bowl, but as my grandmother and everyone else knows, over time, objects can become totems, taking out-sized importance in the course of our lives, infused with meaning beyond the superficial.  It’s not clear why the human animal engages in this behavior, but we do. It’s not just a punch bowl, it’s a representation of happy Christmas memories and family traditions.

Once we grant these special powers to objects, it can be difficult to part with them. As I spent my day off today cleaning out our garage, I was confronted, time and time again, with objects long-buried in plastic storage containers but still alive with connections to the past. My pre-teen comic books, the wooden Indian souvenir from my role in the Agatha Christie play ‘Ten Little Indians,” the t-shirt my junior high classmates signed for me at the mock United Nations when I was Secretary of the Security Council, the rubber bouncy ball I hid in my palm and passed to the college president as I received my diploma as part of an annual class prank. Paper, wood, cotton, and rubber, but then again so much more. If lost to me today, life would go on without issue, but, every now and again, it’s nice to take them out of the crates and take a spin down memory lane. For a few moments, these totems render the ephemeral present again.

My Christmas punch will almost certainly be accompanied by rolled bananas, baked beans, iced tea, and a long stretch on old green shag carpet. These are the things that are the chorus to the holiday song of my life. I don’t need the punch bowl to enjoy the holidays, but, knowing that my grandmother cares enough to hold in place that small detail for me for another holiday season, well, that’s what you call love.