Paperwork: There’s a difference between feeling lonely and being alone

“He was better during the day ... when the routines took over.

“Shower. Dress. Coffee. Breakfast eventually. Get on with the day – planned or not.

“Something about the daylight made everything easier. Curtains were open and it was easy to see the business of day-to-day life all around. Traffic on the nearby highway was zipping by and he heard the growl and thud from the parade of heavy semis.

“It was later in the day when the mood would change. The sun was going down and shadows began to fill the corners of his house and slowly spread across the rooms. The world outside began to shut down.

“The neighbors’ porch lights and the hum of traffic were reminders that he still was surrounded by others. But they, too, were shut out as curtains were drawn.

“He felt regret, even a bit of sadness, when the sun rotated away. The dark shut him off from the world and left him with an ugly reminder, a simple truth. He was sitting in an empty room. Alone.

“He turned on the lamps and shadows retreated but also lingered. The TV added voices and presence to the room. And filled the time. But noise does not push out empty.

“He caught himself a few times looking for the dog, but quickly realized he, too, was gone.

“It was not that he was lonely. There were people out there. Reachable, from within the walls around him where he sat, ate and slept. Where he lived and was very much alone. That’s worse than being lonely.

“And he had no hope that tomorrow would be any different.”

And so this story goes. And that’s all it is. The start of a story I made up, yet it seems very real to me these days.

I wrote this to express some feelings and concerns I have. They have been building slowly but then were triggered recently by a simple thing.

You will think I am overreacting when I explain. Perhaps I am, but wait for the whole story.

Some days ago my wife went to help her sister who was recovering from surgery. She spent the night there. She took our dog also so he could play with her dog.

So, I was in an empty house.

This was not a major turn of events. Very normal.

Yeah, I know, I can hear the married voices out there joking, “Enjoy it while you can!”

But here’s the deal. And I can say this happens every time she’s gone overnight. I tend to stay up later. I put off going into the empty bedroom. I even consider falling asleep on the couch. The house feels empty. And I feel truly alone.

I go to bed, of course, and sleep fine and wake up to that beautiful sun that somehow makes everything normal again.

Weird, right? (Maybe the kid inside of me is still afraid of the dark?)

But there’s a bigger picture I am beginning to see. Part of aging, I suppose. I find myself wondering what it would be like to be alone ... every day and week. Every year.

My wife doesn’t help. Countless times she asks me to make a mental note. It always begins this way, “If I go before you, make sure ... ”

She fears I would never clean a toilet or vacuum the rug or dust. Her major concerns involve cleaning, which apparently will remain important to her in the afterlife.

She does make me wonder what I would do if she were gone. Then I picture that scenario I shared with you earlier. (Note I did not mention dust.)

My reply tends to be, “Please don’t do that.” She is a lot younger, so odds are she will outlive me. And that means she would face being alone.

I think this is a dilemma that many face – especially women.

Part of that bigger picture I mentioned are two friends who are dealing with this. Both have told us how empty life can be as you get older without a partner. And the kids (and grandkids) are busy with their lives.

And they admit, “I feel so alone.”

I know people adapt. And some prefer living alone. But I think there are many who nurse that brutal bruise that life can leave.

And I bet the ache is most intense at the end of each day. When the growing darkness forces you to switch on a nearby lamp, which provides the perfect reveal and reminder that you live in an empty house.


• Lonny Cain, retired managing editor of The Times in Ottawa, also was a reporter for The Herald-News in Joliet in the 1970s. Email or mail The Times, 110 W. Jefferson St., Ottawa, IL 61350.