Posted by: jhvn | 02/01/2013

Solitude and Aloneness

When I was born, I was an only child. My parents have told me that I had had a brother two years older. But he was stillborn. The doctors had warned my mother not to have any more children. Was her pregnancy with me intentional? Or was I an accident?

Except for one cousin whom I seldom saw, I found myself to be the only child in my whole family, doted on by parents, grandparents, and aged aunts . With no way of exploring how to relate to kids my own age, I had no clue about making friends with them. After 6 3/4 years my sister was born. (What do the doctors know?) What a thrill that was. Now I would no longer be alone in a world of adults. Little did I know then what a childhood pain she would become – stealing my parents’ attention from me, messing up my bike when I was fixing it, etc. (We now have a good relationship.)

Much later, when I was married and about 24 years old taking a graduate course in New York City, by chance I came upon Jack, who had lived next door before my sister was born when I was 3 or4 years old, and whom I had not seen for 20+ years. At dinner with him and his mother, she remarked how upset she had been that I would never fight back when Jack threatened me. I had considered Jack a good friend and had no memory of such incidents. So I was surprised that I had been so scared of a friend at such an early age. The fear I had felt as a child began to trickle back to my memory, and I was appalled. How grateful I am for that chance encounter. I have not seen Jack since.

I vividly remember preparing for bed the night before I was married, imagining how wonderful it would be going to bed with Pat alone, and together. She had amazed and delighted me by accepting my proposal of marriage only 6 months earlier, and now she would be my wife. Of course sex also occupied my mind, but with as much anxiety as anticipation, since I was a virgin – in the 1950’s you understand. But to be alone together with my love – finally – was the greatest joy I could imagine. My life-long empty pit of loneliness was about to be filled to overflowing.

Nearly 59 years later, on the night Pat died after 10 years of increasing dementia, I clearly recalled that night before our wedding. She had not been in our bed for 2 months, since she had needed hospitalization and then assisted living. But now the bed would remain empty – forever. My contentment that night amazed me. I no longer needed her physical presence to make me feel whole. She had radiated more peace and contentment during her last few weeks than I had ever seen in her, which filled me with joy. She needed nothing from me now; and I needed nothing more from her. Solitude, which I felt that night, to my great surprise became my joy. I remembered the words of David Winnecott, an English psychiatrist, who had written: “…(T)his capacity (to be alone) is one of the most important signs of maturity in emotional development.” To my amazement, I realized that I had matured!

It’s true. I now make friends easily, without fear, with men and women to whom I feel drawn; and my life feels full of satisfying relationships. I also enjoy my dinners alone, often listening to Performance Today on NPR. Going to bed alone is a joy, and sleep comes quickly as I reflect on my day and remind myself, as I did during the years of Pat’s dementia, that we all are held in God’s hands. Although I do miss the intimacy that Pat and I shared for 59 years, something has filled the emptiness I had felt as a lonely child. And I no longer need the intimate relationship with Pat to fill the void. This feels mysterious, and I marvel at it. I’ve concluded that this shift to enjoying solitude marks a true transition to my geezerhood from my adulthood need for a loving spouse, and from my childhood fear of any closeness that could cause pain.

How did this transition happen? I’m not sure. Pat’s dementia caused me much pain – gradually losing the relationship we had had, and watching her decreasing ability to communicate all that she was experiencing – except during her remarkable windows of lucidity. Paradoxically our relationship deepened during this time, as I was able to let go of my fear of what was happening and take it one day at a time. I found the help I needed; and I survived. The pain never destroyed me; it actually seemed to increase my strength.

So geezerhood must thrive on staying present to whatever happens,
letting go of fear and desire,
and relying on my Higher Power, as the folks in AA put it.

© John Van Ness 2/2013


  1. John – Thank you for your words of wisdom – it gives me strength to know that one has gone before me, and has found strength and insight..

  2. Love reading these John, thanks!

  3. John,
    This is moving in many ways…..I have taken the quote on solitude and being alone for my book -is that all right?

    I am so HAPPY for you! For you have found what the wisemen of all traditions look for and try to teach: the self-realization that within you is all you need. Call it the Divine One radiating love and peace through your Soul or simply Self-knowing, it is the gift of one who has asked, lived, and now is allowing all to be perfect. Nothing needs to be fixed, changed or healed….that life is flowing in balance and in perfect harmony.

    Thank you for this… I move towards Geezerhood
    but wait! what is a feminine Geezer? I bleeve it must be moving towards Goozerhood…..I will continue to read you – and allow things to be as they are.

    Blessings, Elizabeth Bunker (David Zucker is my Geezer…..

    • Thanks for your comment, Elizabeth. I’d be honored if you use a quote. If it is Winnicott’s quote, be sure to give him credit. Women are certainly geezers too – see my post, “Just what is a geezer”. In my book, geezerhood is the final stage of life — for all of us, even the chips and chumps. Peace, John

  4. John, I am just carving out the time to read your geezer comments! I am inspired by your words: “Paradoxically our relationship deepened during this time, as I was able to let go of my fear of what was happening and take it one day at a time. I found the help I needed; and I survived.”

    As I too venture down the path of a spouse with Alzheimer’s, I am finding this deepening of relationship as well. Thank you for reminding me to let go of my fear. A friend once told me that in retrospect, she wished that she was less fearful during her mother’s Alzheimer’s process. So this is my mantra for now. At each step, I find myself paralyzed; once I let go of the fear and take the step, it shifts. Your words inspire me to be in the present moment, forgive my impatience with self, and trust the journey. It is a transformative one – for all of us! Thanks for your thoughts, John! And for this Blog! Nancy

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