Over the Labor Day weekend my Mom and Dad came down to visit Nashville for their twice yearly pilgrimage. One evening after Dad was long back at the hotel and asleep, my Mother and I were enjoying some quality time at a restaurant and as she tends to unintentionally do after a couple hours of fun, she decided to flip the conversation to doom, gloom and worry. (I don’t think my Mother is the only one who suffers from this affliction, but it’s a buzzkill nonetheless.) This particular point of contention that is keeping her up at night is the fear that I might “die alone” and how her and my Father are “praying I meet someone so they can die peacefully and know there’ll be someone to take care of me.” Apparently we’re all on the verge of death and I - the grown woman who has lived and cared solely for herself since the age of 18- am desperately in need of a caretaker. Sigh.
My Mother isn’t alone in her convoluted line of thinking; in fact, this very notion of “growing old and dying alone” is what drives millions of people around the world to compromise their values and remain prisoners to unhealthy and unsatisfying relationships every single day. And while the ideas of death and aging are daunting, to me the idea of spending my precious living moments in a miserable twosome are far scarier. This is a lesson I learned through experience, having let my fears of being an old spinster at the ripe age of 30 drive me into a short-lived marriage with someone totally incompatible and a subsequent divorce. Having already lived both sides of the coin and being forced to face my fears might be why I have such a realistic and unbothered disposition about the subject.
Let’s get something out of the way right now- no matter your circumstances, you’re probably going to die alone. Everyone has this fictitious and sentimental perception of the death process, a la Nicholas Sparks’ “The Notebook,” but in reality even if you’re married and both of you live to be 100, it’s not like you’re going to drift peacefully to sleep holding hands unless you make a suicide pact. One of you is going to croak first; ladies, you’re in luck as men statistically have a shorter lifespan (75 versus 80 for women.) And even if you have children, one quick waltz through your closest nursing home should be a rude awakening as to how much time they’re going to spend giving you round-the-clock care when you’re in your twilight years. So unless you’re part of a culture that reveres their elders and keeps you in the home, your closest confidant at death’s door will probably be a rotating team of doctors and nurses. Cancers, car wrecks, a sudden heart attack- these are all far more realistic outcomes for the majority of us and once again, kind of a solo activity. I apologize for my blunt approach, but I think it’s best to be practical and realistic so we can all conquer our fears of the inevitable.
But now that we got this bleak and disturbing news out of the way, let’s focus on the positive. First of all dying alone…sounds peaceful! I don’t know about you but I’m really not trying to take anybody with me when I go. When you hear about people dying as a group it’s never good news; mass shootings, 10-car-pileups, bombings…when you think about it that way, the alternative of dying alone sounds pretty danged preferable. Also, I’m really vain about my looks, so the last thing I want when I’m literally at my worst is the people I care most about seeing me in that shape. If I’m dead I can’t even suck in my gut! I’ll happily take the option of letting strangers change my bed-pan and retaining my deathbed dignity over a marriage certificate and a blip in the obituary that contains the words “survived by her loving husband.”
In all seriousness, I understand my Mother’s well-intentioned but ill-delivered sentiments. As my parents, of course they want to see me being protected and loved correctly by someone long after they’re gone. It would give them peace of mind to know I’m not out here doing it all by my lonesome. But what they don’t understand, as people who have been together for over 45 years, is that I’m not scared to do it on my own because I already know I can. What I’m petrified of is wasting more of my increasingly short time on this Earth on people who don’t love, value and respect me in return, and if the trade-off for that is paying my own bills and sleeping alone every night til I meet my maker, that’s perfectly fine with me.
The older I get, the more people I know who live every day in what I call “significant other induced stress.” They would rather spend their lives checking their spouse’s messages, re-tracing steps every time they’re apart, being emotionally and sometimes physically abused, all in the name of having someone to “grow old with.” Well that’s one way to shorten your days, I’ll tell you that much. Life is precious and brief; regardless of who you spend it with, it’s still yours and yours alone to live. It’s far more courageous to be a whole person on your own than to be a lost soul with a marriage certificate. I hope I do find that person who can love me correctly into my twilight years, but until then, I hope my parents can rest a little easier knowing they raised a strong woman who conquers her fears and respects herself enough not to settle for less than she deserves out of loneliness.