What it’s like to live alone for the first time at 83

Af­ter nov­el­ist Anne Ber­nays lost her hus­band, she dis­cov­ered the plea­sure of never com­pro­mis­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Anne Ber­nays is a nov­el­ist. Her lat­est is “The Man on the Third Floor.” This es­say orig­i­nally ap­peared on Solo-ish, a Wash­ing­ton Post blog about un­mar­ried life. af­ber­nays@gmail.com

When my sweet hus­band, Joe, died af­ter a years-long as­sault by Parkin­son’s dis­ease, I found my­self, at the age of 83, living alone for the first time. Af­ter our wed­ding, I had gone straight from my fam­ily’s townhouse on the Up­per East Side to Joe’s tiny Mid­town apart­ment. We were mar­ried for al­most 60 years.

Af­ter Joe died I felt, al­ter­nately, numb and raw, as if the top layer of my skin had been peeled away, leav­ing me with ex­cru­ci­at­ing pain. I pre­fer the numb­ness. Af­ter thir­teen months of this an­guish, I’m slowly be­gin­ning to un­earth my old, cheer­ful, en­er­gized, opin­ion­ated self. I live in two dis­tinct uni­verses: The first is living with­out Joe (un­speak­able), and the sec­ond is living by my­self — which, I have to ad­mit, has its lib­er­at­ing mo­ments.

Imag­ine 22,000 break­fasts look­ing at the same face across the or­ange juice. Joe was al­ways good com­pany, funny, never te­dious or solip­sis­tic. Both of us spent hours a day writ­ing: he most of the time, I when the chil­dren were at school. He didn’t go to an of­fice like other fa­thers. We took all our meals to­gether; his idea of a break was to go with me to the su­per­mar­ket. We also wrote two non­fic­tion books to­gether, hardly a sim­ple un­der­tak­ing.

So his ab­sence has made this the most ter­ri­fy­ing pe­riod of my life. Some­times, when self-pity takes over, I cal­cu­late that my emo­tional dis­lo­ca­tion now is in di­rect pro­por­tion to how com­fort­able our mar­riage was. Over the months, the pain has eased a lit­tle. But I’m still con­fused: Who am I? Am I a widow, a dole­ful la­bel that, as far as I’m con­cerned, has noth­ing to rec­om­mend it? Or am I Anne, who grew up rich, hung out with many of the most no­table writ­ers of the 1950s, had a ca­reer in pub­lish­ing, wrote 10 nov­els, co-wrote three non­fic­tion books and now teaches Nie­man fel­lows at Har­vard how to ex­er­cise their imag­i­na­tions? I’ve had fun!

Of course, I miss my hus­band ter­ri­bly and can­not look at his shoes in the closet we shared with­out cry­ing. Still, there are times when I can see a fu­ture of new ex­pe­ri­ences. I can, for ex­am­ple, do things that used to be Joe’s jobs. No mat­ter how many times I asked him, he was re­luc­tant to let me share work that had to do with money. I kept say­ing: “What if you get hit by a bus?” But it didn’t seem to make any dif­fer­ence. He paid the bills, dealt with our ac­coun­tant, kept track of our mod­est in­vest­ments and, in gen­eral, was keeper of the purse.

He also did ev­ery­thing in­volv­ing our wheels: get­ting our park­ing per­mit, pay­ing the ex­cise tax, re­new­ing the reg­is­tra­tion, re­join­ing AAA and so on. I do th­ese things now, of­ten withmy pulse speed­ing up un­pleas­antly. But I do them, along with my old­est daugh­ter, Su­sanna, who’s help­ing me nav­i­gate the wilds of bills, record­keep­ing and tax­pay­ing. She claims to be hold­ing the feds at bay.

Her two younger sis­ters, Hester, who lives an hour away, and Polly, who lives in Dutchess County, N.Y., are also su­per-daugh­ters. They have my back. They keep an eye on me via phone and, more of­ten, text mes­sages, e-mail and cell­phone pic­tures. They take me out for lunch and to the movies. They give me ad­vice, recipes and gifts, but it’s their con­cern and love that count the most. Th­ese three women make it eas­ier formeto come to terms with the fact that I’ll never see Joe again.

I live in a light, airy apart­ment with a stunning view of the Charles River and the Bos­ton sky­line. We moved there from the other side of Cam­bridge a year and a half be­fore Joe died, sparing our chil­dren the task of emp­ty­ing a too-large house where we had lived since leav­ing New York in 1959. Still, be­ing alone is the empti­ness and sad­ness of clothes un­worn in more than a year, of a re­frig­er­a­tor stocked ac­cord­ing to the ap­petite and taste of only one, of the si­lent dark­ness of in­som­nia.

But here’s the lighter side of living alone: I can do any­thing I want, when I want, how I want. I can go to bed with­out wor­ry­ing about Joe, who was sicker than I rec­og­nized, mainly be­cause he never com­plained.

The first line of a poem I have yet to com­plete goes: “Who would ex­change worry for grief?” Well, ac­tu­ally, I would. But I no longer have to worry about whether or not he swal­lowed his daily ra­tion of 17 pills; about that funny rash on his head; about his next doc­tor’s ap­point­ment; about why he had fallen in the kitchen again. What’s taken the place of worry? Food. It’s amaz­ing how much food and its pur­chase fig­ure in my life. When I’m feel­ing es­pe­cially blue, I don’t light the stove at all. In­stead, I heat up half a bag of “Ori­en­tal-style” veg­eta­bles in the mi­crowave. When I’m okay, I’ll fry tofu cut into cubes or a lamb shoul­der chop or a Cor­nish game hen marinated in some­thing called Soy Vay. I buy four-ounce packages of smoked salmon and ra­tion each one to last a week of break­fasts.

I eat things Joe didn’t like: frozen yo­gurt, black bread, ched­dar-fla­vored pret­zels, ready­made chicken salad in a plas­tic con­tainer. And I avoid things he liked and I didn’t: Jell-O, oat­meal, Vi­enna sausages (yuck!), canned corned-beef hash, any kind of tomato, canned soup loaded with sodium, lemons.

I eat break­fast while read­ing the New York Times on pa­per and lunch while surf­ing my Mac­Book Pro. ( When Joe was alive, my com­puter stayed shut un­til the meal was over.)

The best part of the day is cock­tail hour. I sit onmy 1950s Scan­di­na­vian style couch with a vodka mar­tini in a fancy glass, read­ing the Times (of Lon­don) Lit­er­ary Sup­ple­ment. This hour melds with barely a rip­ple into supper, which I eat still fac­ing the tube; it may last an hour or so, some­times start­ing with half an av­o­cado eaten off the blade of a knife. When­ever I like to, I cook. Oth­er­wise it’s a bit of this, a bit of that — crack­ers and cheese, a small salad — what­ever catches my fancy. When Joe sat across from me at the ta­ble, how­ever, we al­ways had a proper 1950s-style meal: meat, a veg­etable and some­thing starchy. I gave up this an­ti­quated habit with­out the least re­gret.

I have friends to walk with, e-mail and text with — and an older sis­ter who lives nearby. I guess I’m still in mourn­ing be­cause I’m re­luc­tant to go out at night. Once a gen­uine party girl, I of­ten pre­fer to stay home alone, pro­tect­ing my­self from anx­i­ety, a state that has a nasty habit of ap­pear­ing just when I crave seren­ity.

Do I have a mes­sage for other women who find them­selves, at an ad­vanced age, living alone, maybe for the first time? Not re­ally. I could say that time heals all wounds— or time wounds all heels, as Joe would have it. I could talk about the restora­tive benefits of fam­ily and friends, and about the re­silience of the hu­man spirit. But that’s not my style.

I would tell them in­stead: Don’t let your woes swamp other peo­ple. Get plenty of ex­er­cise. And make sure you have enough ice on hand for that 6 o’clock cock­tail.


Anne Ber­nays, who re­cently lost her hus­band of 60 years, pic­tured in the apart­ment they shared. Her ad­vice to older women who find them­selves living alone: Ex­er­cise, and en­joy cock­tail hour.

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