After Christmas when Russ said he was thinking of going to Palm Springs where his brother/summer golfing buddy had rented a house, I encouraged him to book the trip. After all, I have gone away to visit our daughter Leigh when she lived in Montreal, Quebec City and now Ottawa, and since I’m not interested in golf (even though I am interested in sunshine), it seemed a good opportunity for him to have a relaxing break.
Russ and I have been married nearly 36 years and it is sometimes the case that I have taken his presence for granted. In my own defence, he’s always here. As the date of his departure grew nearer, I became increasingly ill at ease at the thought of being alone for seven days, and my kids were worried about what I would eat. I told them if my university years had taught me anything, it was that one could live very well on toast and cereal. The one thing I wasn’t worried about was food.
After I dropped Russ off at the airport I went shopping to avoid returning home, but was still back in time to track the longer leg of his flight on my iPhone app. It’s the kind of thing where you can actually see the plane’s shadow on the ground below as it crosses over mountains and plains. OK it’s a digital shadow but it gave me the sense of losing the last of my kite string as the massive object in the sky drifted further and further from my world. I felt I might unravel like that imaginary ball of string.
What was it about being alone (with my cats) that had me fearful? It wasn’t loneliness: I’m one of the most solitary people I know.
That first night, the TV was on, the radio was on (CBC), the lights were on, and I went to bed early just to get it over with. The cats lost no time moving from the foot of the bed to my head where they still think they belong even though Russ has been back for several weeks now.
Being alone seemed to free up the anxiety that I usually have an easier time keeping contained, and unreasonable worries about everything in general floated to the surface as easily as oil does on vinegar (I was having a side salad with my toast). However, after that first night at least I was no longer leaving the lights on.
Ours is not a dramatic story. We did not have a whirlwind romance when we were young, or sweep each other off our feet with declarations of undying love. It was more like a simmering awareness followed by an intensifying burn over these many years. In some ways the thought of it almost makes me feel sorry for young couples — they don’t yet know how many ways their love will be tested, and how hard it can be to choose to make sure it doesn’t grow cold.
Over time the way absence is felt changes — it isn’t the heat of longing as it is when you’re young. It’s more that your compass is off. Without Russ, I didn’t know which end was up.
After a few nights of telephone calls, we tried Face Time instead. I know the geography of that face — every deeply etched line, the many shades of green in his eyes. The face that filled my iPhone screen is a map travelled only by me. To others it might be pleasing, handsome even, or merely ordinary. But it is my earth, my holy ground. When I saw it, the compass was righted.
It’s good for couples to spend time apart to explore regions of the self that get lost in the shadows of togetherness. The anxiety I felt finally dissipated and the time on my own felt full and satisfying, even if my meals were not. Thank goodness it was only a week.