Loneliness: the gift of love

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I miss my husband John more than I had expected. The house is too quiet, the cats too cautious, the meals too boring. No, he hasn’t died. He’s off canoeing with friends in the wilds of northern Ontario.

Usually I love being on my own when John’s away, basking in the pleasure of having the house to myself. I savour the stillness, the quiet released by the absence of talking. Usually I sink into solitude as one lowers the body into a deliciously warm bath.

But something is different this year. I miss his physical presence, the space he inhabits when we’re together. I miss putting my arms around him, feeling his arms wrap me, feeling our solid bodies lean against one another. At night, returning from my midnight pee, I close the bedroom door quietly so as not to disturb him. As I head for my side of the bed I remember that he’s not here.

I keep thinking about my widowed friends, and imagine the bell of ‘not here, not here’ tolling for days, months, years. My mother, widowed at 65 years old, spending countless evenings of her long life alone, cooking solitary suppers when for years she delighted in setting food down in front of my father. My newly-widowed sister-in-law, who, in the midst of planning an extended holiday in Italy, repeatedly found herself in tears knowing that her sweetheart, my brother, would not be with her. My women friends who lost partners, each having to climb out of a groundless abyss to regain her footing.

Perhaps the combination of my own ageing and the deaths of people dear to me is finally pulverizing my heart with empathy. More and more I’m aware that staying alive is pure luck. Even though my beloved is still vibrantly alive, my loneliness for him teaches me that our love is a temporary gift. I want to hold that gift, as the poet Li-Young Lee conveys, in “the light of a joint and fragile keeping.”

To Hold

So we’re dust. In the meantime, my wife and I
make the bed. Holding opposite edges of the sheet,
we raise it, billowing, then pull it tight,
measuring by eye as it falls into alignment
between us. We tug, fold, tuck. And if I’m lucky,
she’ll remember a recent dream and tell me.

One day we’ll lie down and not get up.
One day, all we guard will be surrendered.

Until then, we’ll go on learning to recognize
what we love, and what it takes
to tend what isn’t for our having.
So often, fear has led me
to abandon what I know I must relinquish
in time. But for the moment,
I’ll listen to her dream,
and she to mine, our mutual hearing calling
more and more detail into the light
of a joint and fragile keeping.

~ Li-Young Lee



  1. Wendy Sarno

    May 30, 2018

    Ah, Mary Lou, this “joint and fragile keeping”. This balance between feeling “solid bodies lean against one another” and knowing “our love is a temporary gift”. To love, in Mary Oliver’s words,” knowing our whole life depends on it”, to feel our mortality in our loving. What brave space this is. And how lucky John is to come home to this woman who loves him with such a conscious and tender heart. It makes me think of this poem by Marge Piercy:

    To Have without Holding
    by Marge Piercy

    Learning to love differently is hard,
    love with the hands wide open, love
    with the doors banging on their hinges
    the cupboard unlocked, the wind
    roaring and whimpering in the rooms
    rustling the sheets and snapping the blinds
    that thwack like rubber bands
    in an open palm.

    It hurts to love wide open
    stretching the muscles that feel
    as if they are made of wet plaster,
    then of blunt knives, then
    of sharp knives.

    It hurts to thwart the reflexes
    of grab, of clutch, to love and let
    go again and again. It pesters to remember
    the lover who is not in the bed,
    to hold back what is owed to the work
    that gutters like a candle in a cave
    without air, to love consciously,
    conscientiously, concretely, constructively.

    I can’t do it, you say it’s killing
    me, but you thrive, you glow
    on the street like a neon raspberry,
    You float and sail, a helium balloon
    bright bachelor’s button blue and bobbing
    on the cold and hot winds of our breath,
    as we make and unmake in passionate
    diastole and systole the rhythm
    of our unbound bonding, to have
    and not to hold, to love
    with minimized malice, hunger
    and anger moment by moment balanced.

    • Mary Lou van Schaik

      May 31, 2018

      Dear Wendy – Thank you – and also for the Marge Piercy poem – what powerful imagery and messages! Loving wide open, wide awake. xoxo Mary Lou

  2. Janice Falls

    May 30, 2018

    Oh Mary Lou, What a tender, heart-expanding post. Your love for John and your compassion for all those whose partners have died is palpable. And this poem, though I have heard it before sounds different, sweeter in light of your naming loneliness as the gift of love. One day, all we guard will be surrendered – would that we each remember this and treasure the moments. Thank you dear heart, Jan

    • Mary Lou van Schaik

      May 31, 2018

      Dear Jan – Yes, yes, those reminders to treasure moments knowing surrender is around the corner at some point. Thank you dear friend! xoxo Mary Lou

  3. Maureen McGahey

    May 30, 2018

    Thankyou for this generous offering.
    I was just thinking to myself about the very fragile times we each are living especially with the illnessess and inconvenient aging of our bodies.
    I feel the lack of presence of my David when our lives get too full and each with their own direction. I am craving a road trip or a shared time that will somehow re-connect us with our own special relationship. Sometimes the dance gets awkward or the space between widens.
    Yet I know that we do carry each other’s heart with us in times like these. And I am reminded of this snippet from e.e Cummings:

    i carry your heart with me(i carry it in my heart)
    I am never without it(anywhere i go you go, my dear; and what we is done
    by only me is your doing, my darling….

    Mary Lou and Wendy— you both reminded me how very precious it is to love someone so much that our hearts are always woven together —- even when we are apart!

    • Mary Lou van Schaik

      May 31, 2018

      Dear Maureen – I so appreciate you bringing out the feeling of disconnection when lives get too full. Yes, I know that one too. I used to get panicky about it, and have come to learn that connection has its cycles of closeness and apartness. And that the centre does hold when, as you quote e.e. cummings, “i carry your heart with me….I am never without it…” Thank you! xoxo Mary Lou

  4. Sherry Galey

    June 3, 2018

    Oh, what profound, important and heart-melting insights you put into words, Mary Lou. I really resonated with this beautiful offering — and the additional lovely words of your readers. Thank you!

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