A thud from downstairs wakes me. I lie in bed for a moment, trying to place the sound. It was just the cat jumping down from the kitchen counter, I realize, stretching my body and climbing out of bed reluctantly.
It isn’t even light yet. I hear Charlie stirring and then her fox-like face pokes out from under my bed, still half asleep and blinking her corgi eyeliner eyes. She follows me to the bathroom and waits for me to reach down and pet her.
“Good morning, girl,” I say, stroking the top of her head and feeling grateful for her company in my room every night.
I never thought I would be living alone at 53 years old. I never even imagined the possibility. I grew up in a house filled with three older brothers, some extended family members, and friends who lived with us periodically. That didn’t even count the constant stream of guests who came to stay, my parents collecting people like art over the years. When I left home for college, I lived with roommates in dorms or houses filled with other fellow students. After graduation, I lived with my boyfriend, who then became my husband, and the three children who followed, in a burgeoning family of my own. But one by one these children have grown and gone, the husband has become an ex-husband and I have found myself truly alone for the first time in my life ― save for the pets they left behind, the last breathing vestiges of an ecosystem I created.
As Charlie and I head for the stairs, Sugar comes stalking out of my daughter Maude’s empty room, her meow like a complaint. “She’ll be back in a few weeks,” I say to the cat reassuringly, but we both know that room, a room I had re-created for my youngest daughter in this rental house, is only a landing pad for her now that she’s away at college. Charlie and Sugar follow me down to the kitchen and I let them outside, calling for Hank, our aging black Labrador. Cocoa has his front feet propped up on the open door of his rabbit cage as we pass, his version of good morning.
I turn on the coffee machine and pull my favorite cup from the dish towel where I left it to dry. I am still evolving in this foreign habitat, where there aren’t enough dirty dishes to run the dishwasher anymore and I feel environmentally guilty doing such small loads of laundry. As I open the door of the fridge to grab the milk, the sight of the few items sitting almost sheepishly on the shelves hits me in the face. I close the door quickly.
The only shoes and coats to pick up by the back door now are mine. The backpacks that used to spill books and papers all over the kitchen table have disappeared, and nobody steals my phone charger anymore. I am cowed by the quiet. There is no music blaring when I walk into the house, no raised voices or peals of laughter, no cursing the dogs for farting. It was disorienting enough to be made redundant in a job I had done for 20 years, to have to reinvent my very reason for being. But each time one of my kids left home they took a piece of me with them, and it feels like my body hasn’t grown enough scar tissue to fill in the empty spaces.
“It was disorienting enough to be made redundant in a job I had done for 20 years, to have to reinvent my very reason for being. But each time one of my kids left home they took a piece of me with them, and it feels like my body hasn’t grown enough scar tissue to fill in the empty spaces.”
Gibson, my eldest, took his music. The sound of him practicing the piano used to soothe my jangled nerves. He also took his poetry, pages of it that he left littered around the house so I could know what was in his mind ― to see the passion and complexity of his thoughts.
Wendy, my middle child, took her extreme weather ― fierce storms that tested my strength and challenged me to hold her. She also took the brightest and sunniest days ― days she filled with such crackling energy that everything seems a bit duller without her around.
Maude took her old soul and wise spirit, the compassion the rest of us lacked. She took away the dry humor and cautious demeanor she developed watching her two older siblings crash through adolescence. I closed my eyes and pictured her, like a little blond Buddha, reclining with the cat in her lap.
Outside, Charlie barks, startling me from my thoughts. I let the animals back in and take my coffee into the dining room. As I sit down at the big farm table, I glance at the marks made by children no longer at their places ― drink rings and scratches, words imprinted from pencils pressed too hard on soft wood. I sip my coffee slowly, waiting for the caffeine to help dispel my feelings of loss.
Charlie licks my ankle and I reach down to pet her where she lies under my chair, patiently waiting for our daily walk through the woods. I don’t have a day job ― I had been a stay-at-home mom since Gibson was born ― but now that my brood has flown I am more actively pursuing a writing career. I spend a great deal of time outdoors, with Charlie, but also riding my horse, a passion of mine from childhood that I reignited in my 40s. The connection I share with my mare is not only that of a successful athletic partnership and joyful outlet for our competitive spirits, but also a healing one for me. Horses are like therapists, and her calming presence has soothed many of the heartaches and tumultuous emotions I have suffered over the past several years.
Although my days are active and I’m around enough people, I still don’t like living alone. The evenings are the hardest to face, without family dinners and the smell of cooking to bring everyone to the kitchen, my kids stepping over dogs to tell me about their days. Hank still lies down on the kitchen floor at dinnertime, waiting for me to chop vegetables so I can toss him the ends. The sorrowful look he seems to get in his eyes when he realizes there is no one to cook for makes me so sad that I reach into the fridge for a handful of Cocoa’s baby carrots to feed him.
Being alone at bedtime isn’t any easier. Despite the problems in my marriage, I miss the presence of another body ― one without fur ― in my bed at night. “No offense,” I say to Sugar, who has leaped up to the table as if on cue. She sidles into my arm, purring softly. It isn’t just physical intimacy that I crave, I think to myself, running my hand down Sugar’s back. I still can’t picture a future in which I am not part of someone else’s world. This unmoors me. I feel adrift, like I’m floating out to sea, and it frightens me to realize that nobody knows where I am.
I had been separated for almost a year and was midway through my divorce when I started dating, searching for what I knew: the familiarity of attachment. I had just turned 50 and had no idea how to date, or anything about casual liaisons, having married my high school sweetheart. So I became involved in several serious relationships, one after the other. I told myself I was searching for love, for comfort in my grief, but now I think it was the fear of being alone that had me running scared into other people’s lives.
I couldn’t recognize the truth during those relationships, however, because I had been grieving terribly for my empty nest and the loss of my marriage ― that fairy-tale happy ending. I was also grieving for the death of my father in the middle of it all, my safety net having disappeared like his body with cancer. I was lonely too. The slow death of my marriage had literally starved me of affection. We are herd animals after all, biologically programmed to mate, to live in groups for connection and safety.
“I can’t help feeling responsible for the hurt and pain my children have endured, but I’m angry too ― angry at myself for not valuing my own worth enough in our family dynamics. I fought harder for everyone else ― for our family unit ― for two and a half decades, but now here I am alone anyway.”
I want to feel protected and loved by another human being but in some ways I feel in conflict with modern culture, which values independence over emotional need. I am almost ashamed to admit that I don’t want to be alone, that I’m somehow lacking because I want to share my life with someone. It’s like my body has not evolved in time to current social mores and I’m lost in the gap between, like a Darwinian statistic.
Hank walks over and puts his chin on my thigh, gently reminding me that it is well past breakfast time. I fondle his ears and ruminate on how fear has actually sabotaged my ability to be with myself, how I don’t really know how to live without the context of another person. I am so used to sharing, to compromising and negotiating everything from physical space to emotions and dreams that I end up attaching too quickly in new relationships.
My warning system isn’t yet calibrated properly for dating, and I find myself trying to make things work even when I can’t picture the future that I want. I convinced myself that intimacy was the same thing as a promising long-term relationship, and it has taken me some time to realize that I don’t owe my whole self to those with whom I don’t have a history or children. It has taken me even longer to realize that I never owed my whole self to anyone.
Now I want to wipe off the cultural shame I feel around my divorce, the sense of failure and broken family that as a mother has me tangled up in the center of it all. I can’t help feeling responsible for the hurt and pain my children have endured, but I’m angry too ― angry at myself for not valuing my own worth enough in our family dynamics. I fought harder for everyone else ― for our family unit ― for two and a half decades, but now here I am alone anyway.
As I look around at the empty chairs, this house echoing with what I have lost, I realize it is time to create my own context. I have been paralyzed at times by fear and anxiety, even culture shock, at my new solitary status, but I have in fact survived. And perhaps there are advantages to being alone I hadn’t fully considered. I can choose where to live, how to live, who and what to love. I don’t need permission from anyone anymore, and I don’t have to sacrifice my dreams for someone else’s. I want to buy my own house with a garden for the animals. I want to keep riding and writing. I don’t want to be alone forever. I would like an intimate long-term relationship ― I think I’m hardwired for it ― but I won’t give all of me away ever again just for the sake of companionship.
A flood of hope surges through me at the possibilities of new dreams, of reviving old ones that never got realized and the freedom of my independence. As if punctuating that thought, Cocoa thumps loudly in his cage. “I’m coming!” I call to the rabbit. The dogs’ heads rise hopefully at the sound of my voice, and Sugar leaps down from the table. “OK, let’s go,” I say to them, pushing back my chair and heading into the kitchen, two dogs and a cat hot on my heels, the sound of their toenails clacking on the wood floor like music to my ears.
Ashley Collins is mother to three grown children and currently lives in Connecticut. She graduated from Stanford University in 1987 with a bachelor’s in anthropology. Her work has appeared online at Grown and Flown, Horse Network, the Roar Sessions, and Mothers Always Write, and has been published in the anthologies “Nothing but the Truth so Help Me God: 73 Women on Transitions” and “Here in the Middle: Stories of Love, Loss, and Connection From the Ones Sandwiched Between.” She currently writes a blog about her family and animals, and is working on a memoir about mothers, daughters and horses. You can read more about her at ashleycollinswriter.com and on social media on Facebook and Instagram.