Surviving the Lockdown

§   Despite the pressures I am privileged to avoid, my personal lockdown is not without penalty.  I marvel at the truth of that saying about the greener grass.  §

Like a good portion of the nation right now, I am living in a State that is “on lockdown”. Those who work in essential fields – hospitals, groceries, pharmacies, that sort of thing—are permitted to go to their jobs; others who can work from home are doing so. Schools are closed (and a friend who has taught for many years tells me that preparing the e-learning lessons and homeschooling packets is much more difficult and time consuming than just showing up in the classroom and teaching). The children without internet access struggle through trying to complete instruction without a teacher, while far too many children who are much too young to be doing so are dealing with minimal supervision. Others who depend upon school meals for their nutrition make due with sack lunches cobbled together at school cafeterias, picked up and then ferried home.

I, who am retired and living alone, am blessedly exempt from many of the stresses endured by those around me as all of us seclude ourselves from an invisible enemy. I am aware of and grateful for my good fortune. I do not have small children for whom I must find nearly-nonexistent childcare; I do not have to supervise homeschooling. I do not have to endanger myself by working in public venue, constantly at risk of viral exposure. I venture out only on the most necessary of trips for groceries or medicine—or, recently, for the materials to sew masks for my family members. Retirement assures me that I do not have to puzzle out how to complete my daily work from home,  fulfilling assignments without coworker or supervisor input. Instead, I’ve been filling my days, or trying to, by spring cleaning and catching up on chores too long neglected.

But, despite the pressures I am privileged to avoid, my personal lockdown is not without penalty. Never  one to watch much TV, Netflix is just a pipe-dream for me anyway, since my internet provider severely limits my data streaming.  And so I read—books, news sites, magazines, other blogs and personal essays ad nauseam. I had never realized, would never have believed, that I could grow weary of reading. More importantly, though, since I live alone, the days have begun to feel torturously like solitary confinement. The only human voices I hear beyond those on videos are caught from people in the street as they walk for exercise, passing by my windows. I find myself quite literally aching—a genuine, physical ache, a hurt–for the touch of a human hand. I imagine with longing just a pat on the shoulder, a touch in passing, a hug. Families trapped in the confinement of their homes with one another hour after hour, day after day, would probably sell their souls, and cheaply at that, for a half-hour of alone time; I would gladly give a pint of blood and my right arm just to rest my head on another’s shoulder; to be wrapped in someone’s arms.

I call to check on others whom I know to be alone,  while waiting vainly for phone calls from acquaintances, desperate for conversation. Video calls, like Netflix, are a pipe dream, also; the cell phone provider which I can afford is just as ungenerous with data allowances as my internet company. And so I shiver to discover that I am holding full-blown discussions out loud with myself. My cats look on as if I’ve gone mad—who the devil is Mom talking to? But they glory in the fact that they’ve never been petted so much in their lives.

I pelt friends and family with too many texts and emails, again often waiting vainly for replies; most of them, after all, have other people in their homes with whom to hold face-to-face conversations. When they do connect with me, they tell me of irritations and disagreements and quarrels brought on by too much togetherness, and, envying them, I marvel at the truth of that saying about the greener grass.

Introverted and inadvertently solitary for much of my life, I plumbed the depths of loneliness for years, suffering  friendlessness and bitter solitude.  But I have never endured so piercing an aloneness as this I’ve experienced during lockdown. Stealing out for a legally-permissible few hours to provide necessary childcare for my granddaughter was like encountering a wellspring of rising joy that rushed torrentially upward,  then cascaded down in sparkling droplets upon my soul. As I clasped her small body close to mine, all the while praying to any available deity that I was not bringing her danger along with my love, I felt as if I had been re-humanized.

We—all of us who survive this plague, that is—will somehow get through these days and hours of social isolation, eventually returning to some form of normality. But for all of us, I hope, our eyes will have been opened, and we will never again take for granted so much of the simple fabric of daily life.

A Candle in the Darkness

A few days before I was to have surgery, a close friend asked me to confirm the time that my operation would be starting. She would, she explained, be lighting a candle for me at that moment, and sending me her prayers and love.

I’ve always found that the most terrible moment of any surgery is that short, frightening journey as one is wheeled down corridors into the operating room.   The unutterable sense of loneliness cannot be described to anyone who has not had this experience.  I liken it to the final journey of death.  Friends and family in the pre-op room have hugged and kissed one goodbye, and then one is completely alone, facing an unknown.  No matter how simple the surgery, everyone experiences that nagging dread that they might not awaken from the anesthetic.  Everyone wonders if hands, feet, arms, legs, fingers, toes, will all function afterwards, or be forever paralyzed.  Everyone is aware that sometimes, in surgery, things go wrong.

Only once, as I was being taken to surgery, did the orderly pushing the gurney seek to lighten my sense of trepidation. Had I ever had surgery before, she asked, and when I answered in the affirmative, she patted my shoulder and said, “But it’s always a little scary, isn’t it?”  There are no words to describe how comforting I found her empathetic remark.

Being wheeled to this most recent surgery, I received no such comforting question or concern. I was taken a short distance to the operating room and helped onto the table.  In a surgery just two months prior, a nurse had introduced me quickly to everyone in the operating room, giving me their first names and their function in the surgery, leaving me to wonder fearfully if there would be a quiz afterwards!  This time, however, there was only the quick press of the oxygen mask over my face and the staccato instructions of the anesthesiologist to, “Breathe!  Breathe deeply!”  (Of course, since I am horribly claustrophobic, just having the darned mask pressed onto my face made me do nothing but instinctively hold my breath in complete terror, followed by the rapid-fire, quick, short breaths of a full-blown panic attack.  Perhaps this is a reaction for which anesthesiologists should be schooled in their method of approach.)

But, despite my claustrophobia, my lonely distress and anxiety, the image of my friend’s candle, burning brightly for me, shone in my consciousness. I found myself focusing on it during that brief journey to the operating room.  The image calmed me, reassuring me that I was not truly alone; that the prayers and concern of others were surrounding me.  A memory swam up into my consciousness, a poem I had written years earlier, and I found myself reciting the lines like a mantra as I was carried into the coma-like sleep of anesthesia:

Just a light left burning for me
in my window of darkest pain;
just safe harbor, refuge, retreat
sheltered sanctuary from rain.

Just a kind hand, steadying me
when I stumble a rocky path;
just a heart’s strong, balancing beat
when I settle my face at last

to the shoulder, stable and sure
of a long-cherished friend who shares
light embrace, encircling me
in the knowledge that one soul cares.

Weeks afterwards, my friend told me that the candle she lit had burned throughout my three-hour operation (which had, of course, begun later than actually scheduled). Despite guttering a few times, the candle had continued burning until a call from the phone tree assured her that I was out of surgery and doing well.

But, in my mind, that candle is still burning, guiding me through the darkness, lighting my path with the beacon of caring and friendship.

When I Retired

When I decided to take early retirement, it was not a choice that I made lightly. Actually, not to put too fine a face on matters, I waffled about the whole decision until my very last day – hours! – of employment.  A staff person at the pension office had sat down to a one-on-one with me, showed me charts, and explained my options.  But I was absolutely terrified.  I am the sort of person who can agonize for ten minutes over which of two tea towels to buy; how could I possibly make a decision of this magnitude, one that would affect the rest of my life?

The pleasant and efficient woman whom I saw at the pension office was succinct; displaying financial charts that demonstrated how much money I would lose by continuing my employment past a specific date, she said, “I really can’t advise you to wait.”  Yet still I equivocated.  I asked advice from everyone I knew, even people I really didn’t like.  With one exception, I was instructed, “Take the money and run.”

In the end, that was the advice I took – but not without serious preparation. Knowing that my finances were about to plunge for a long, stringent eight months before I could begin collecting Social Security – if I even decided on that option – I stockpiled.  I hoarded pet food and paper towels, toilet paper and tissues, shampoo and deodorant and toothpaste.  I stockpiled dish and laundry detergent, cat litter and coffee and canned goods.  If Armageddon had struck just prior to my retirement, I would have been prepared. I took my car into the shop and had mechanics repair everything that could be repaired. I bought new tires.  I ditched my outdated cell phone and bought a better one before initiating a much cheaper carrier.  I haggled with my internet service provider for a better rate.  I got rid of my overpriced landline and installed a service that carried a home phone over my wireless at half the price.

I prepared at the office, too. I was an Administrative Assistant for a large office, a job I frequently referred to as “Caretaker Personality for the Asylum”.  My coworkers had come to take for granted any number of tasks that I regularly performed that fell far outside the normal responsibilities for an AA.  And since I had inherited messes at several jobs throughout my career, I was determined to leave my own work in the best possible order for my successor.  So I wrote detailed job manuals, updated multiple databases, and cleaned out files.

And finally I partied, accepted cards and congratulations, and left.

Dickens already has a monopoly on that “best of times, worst of times” phrase. But it pretty much applied to retirement, I discovered.  I missed the camaraderie of my coworkers, but not the stresses of my job, nor the unreasonable demands of petty power despots.  For the first time in living memory, I felt rested. Personal errands no longer piled up like welfare babies.  And when family needed me, I was available.  I could help relatives pack to move and prepare their new home and walk their dog.  When someone was rushed to the hospital, I could be there quickly.  Retirement gave me the ineffably precious gift of time.

But, living alone, I was often agonizingly lonely. It took me months to become accustomed to the long stretch of evening hours spent solitary, and there are times still when my loneliness is almost unbearable.

A decade before my retirement, I’d ridden the morning bus to work on an absolutely horrendous winter morning, riding through plummeting temperatures and thigh-high snow, while a bus buddy spoke of her upcoming retirement. It would be marvelous, she said, to not ever again drag herself out to slog through a snowstorm to the office. The envy I felt for her was so strong I was surprised when no one asked me where I got the green face paint!  So now, taking retirement myself, I anticipated others’ envy.  Envy, but not resentment.

Resentment was the one reaction I hadn’t expected from my circle of acquaintances. The snide remark, the veiled insult – those came as a shock to me.  I’d worked full-time since I was 18, yet I was given to understand by some (not many) that retiring early on the pension I had earned over 37 long, weary years at just one of the jobs I’d held essentially made me a leech on the neck of society – an indolent and disgusting slug.

It’s hard to shrug off that sort of remark; guilt and shame are always my go-to emotions. Yet this time, just this once, I managed to dismiss the nasty remarks.

After all, I consoled myself, tomorrow morning those same acquaintances would be struggling through rush hour traffic to deal with unsympathetic supervisors and backstabbing coworkers…while I would be sipping my morning coffee on my patio, lazily penning words for my blog.