What I learned about living alone after losing my wife of 42 years

by Bruce Wexler

This year, at the age of 72, I started living alone for the first time in my life.

For 42 years before that, I lived with my wife, Diane, who passed away in December. In college and as a young man, I always had roommates.

When my wife was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, about a year ago, she tried to prepare me for living alone. She taught me how to do the laundry. She showed me where the contact information was for the various tradespeople who repair our 100-year-old house.

All this was necessary, practical information, but I told her I didn’t understand how I could live without her.

“We have a wonderful family and really good friends,” she said. “Depend on them.”

This has been good advice, but family and friends don’t live under the same roof as me. They’re not there when I want to complain about a McMansion going up down the block or when I wake from a bad dream in the middle of the night.

It’s also difficult to live alone in a house suited for four people. It was just right for me, my wife and our two children. Now, it feels vast (even though it’s not), and I wander its empty spaces at night like a character in a Gothic horror novel, startled by every floorboard creak.

It would be easier to live by myself if I were more outgoing. Diane was much more social than I am, and she drew a steady stream of people to our door and engaged in conversations with everyone — not just friends and neighbors but also the mailman and Amazon delivery employees.

Diane was what my mother referred to as a balabusta — Yiddish for a good homemaker. She was always vacuuming, dusting, straightening. I became accustomed to her literally sweeping through a room.

I miss her familiar motions.

To compensate for their absence, I fill the house with noise and light. I blast the stereo. I turn on lamps in every room as it grows dark. I watch television as I eat dinner with my new best friend, CNN’s Erin Burnett.

I didn’t need the U.S. Surgeon General’s recent report on loneliness to know that it’s dangerous to be alone for extended periods of time. But even on my best days, when it comes to groups I’m not much of a joiner. I tried an online site for people who have lost their spouses, but it felt like being locked in a virtual room saturated with grief. It made me want to be by myself.

Isolation is a slippery slope that can send you splashing down into depression’s depths. To avoid it, I do what my wife advised and see or at least talk to family and friends as much as possible.

None of this, though, teaches me how to live alone.

I suspect I just have to avoid being lonely — a neat trick if you can pull it off. I’ve made the effort to keep busy, to exercise, continue working full-time and meet friends for lunch. People tell me that eventually I’ll be ready for a relationship with someone else — the ultimate cure for living alone. I can’t imagine it. Just as I wouldn’t want to be the quarterback who takes over from Tom Brady, I wouldn’t want to be the woman who takes over from Diane. She was the one. For now, at least, I prefer not to date the equivalent of Mac Jones.

I resolve to go on alone and make the best of it, engaging in small talk with the delivery people and listening to sad songs (Linda Ronstadt’s “Long Long Time” is possibly the saddest song ever sung).

As I wander from room to room during my insomnia midnights, the house sometimes comes alive with memories. Diane’s piano still squats in the music room where she taught her students, and I can hear her patient voice correcting their mistakes. Upstairs are our children’s bedrooms where I read them “Green Eggs and Ham” and “Where the Wild Things Are.” The fireplace in the living room used to be our family gathering spot during holidays, the burning, crackling oak and birch punctuating our conversations.

William Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” I never understood this famous quote until I began to live alone. Diane may be gone and my kids may live more than 1,000 miles away, but the memories keep them close and me, not so much alone.

Bruce Wexler is a book ghostwriter and editor in the Chicago area.