What sweet solitude

While I may have been temporarily bereft of constant companionship, I am grateful for its gifts - the kindness of others, the love of my children and the joyful prospect of a loved one's return

When the children were young, I hated it every time my husband went out of town, which, thankfully, was not that often.

"When will you be back?" I would whine, thinking of all those hours I would have to, on my own, entertain the kids, make food for them, bathe and put them to bed. "Three days? So long?"

Once, he had a month-long assignment as a pictures editor for a news agency to the World Cup in Japan, in 2002. A couple of days after he left, we opened the sideboard next to our dining table to get something out and a dead lizard fell out.

I toyed with the idea of leaving it where it was, for him to deal with when he got home. What's a few weeks of pretending a dead critter isn't underfoot, right?

Fortunately, I came to my senses, dumped half a box of tissues on it and gingerly lifted the pile with a pair of tongs to chuck down the rubbish chute in our flat.

I prayed that nothing else would invade my home. Or, heaven forbid, that something in it would break. There's nothing like an unresponsive appliance to remind you that while you think you wear the pants in the house, you're still not too superior to do without your handyman-in-chief.


But now that we've been married for two decades and the children don't need minding 24/7, I try not to smile too broadly when he announces he has a commitment that will take him away from home.

How many days? Only three?

I wait a decent interval - at least till I've waved goodbye - before I luxuriate in my decadently spouse-free house.

The girls and I may decide to have a sleepover. That means puddling in front of the television with pillows and popcorn until we fall asleep.

In fact, on his most recent trip, which at the time of writing had stretched to four weeks, I discovered I had even less responsibility, with one child away at college and the other old enough not to expect more than a modicum of mothering.

In my free time, I binged on Netflix, went to the gym and never did any cooking, except when I wanted. That could mean a tasty slab of Chilean sea bass one night and instant noodles the next. Or I would make enough food that we could subsist on leftovers. With an almost empty nest, there was precious little grocery shopping to do.

It was positively addictive.

Oh, but I did have a momentary stab of panic, after four days or so, when it occurred to me that none of my close friends had checked in. Had everyone forgotten about me?

Who wants to walk today, I chirped brightly to our group on iMessage. Everyone was busy. Childishly, I felt sorry for myself.

But any loneliness I was feeling soon passed. Or rather, it became an undercurrent that barely broke the surface. I had the means and mobility, so I knew that if I never left my house, I would have only myself to blame.

I began to understand why a single girlfriend would turn down invitations, saying she needed to be a hermit. She often chooses solitude over company, even though she already lives alone.

Of course, it isn't all bliss. Being alone means you don't have the benefit of the division of labour. As more time elapsed and my husband's trip got unexpectedly extended, it fell on me to do the (boring) chores he had always handled, such as matters related to the car and our financial obligations.

Not for the first time, I realised guiltily that I didn't even know the passwords to essential online accounts that we shared.

Around the house, the maintenance work he attended to fell neglected. I would have invited my friends over, but I was embarrassed about the state of our pool, which was slowly but surely turning an unappealing shade of green, while the pool boy was away on assignment.

I compared notes with a friend whose husband had recently started a new job in Malaysia. She, too, was loving the simplicity of life though there had been a crisis - a dead rat outside her flat. "I can handle most insects and a live rat but a dead one - ewww." she said.

At such moments, a kind condominium security guard becomes one's helpmeet.

So do friends in the pool business who help rehabilitate one's backyard disgrace, and fathers-in-law who check if the engine oil needs changing and test out the funny lurching movements of the car, and neighbours who insist you come over to be fed. Not to mention the dozen friends or so who invite you out to dinner or a movie because you are on your own.

So, while I may have been temporarily bereft of constant companionship, I never really felt alone.

But, let's face it, I was also content with solitude - something I would have done anything to avoid in my 20s - partly because I knew it was for only a short time.

Furthermore, being alone at 50 is not the same as being alone at 80.

At 80, if you were lucky, you might have the means to live in a community of peers who could provide help, support and companionship to one another.

There are such retirement communities in Chapel Hill, if you can afford it, where one can live independently while enjoying access to dining and support services, social interaction and, eventually, nursing care, if needed.

It's good to see such communities beginning to emerge in Singapore. They will mitigate the duress of old age as family structures evolve and more seniors live apart from their children.

But the prospect of not having a partner or children, and of growing old alone, is one that I know frightens many older people.

I ask myself, do I have the chops?

Doubtless, there is only upside in learning self-reliance, to be able to do for yourself what a partner might do for you or to know where to turn to for help.

There are also benefits in cultivating a level of comfort with solitude.

Truly, it is not difficult to find peace in one's own company, to welcome the opportunity for reflection and enrichment of the inner life by enjoying activities such as reading, gardening or eating alone.

It is also true that one does not have to be alone to feel lonely.

In the end, however, I wonder for how many of us will solitude not be grinding and whether as human beings, we will always gravitate towards the warmth and affection of another to keep the darkness at bay.

In Kent Haruf's sweet, sad story, Our Souls At Night, an ageing widow goes to her widower neighbour and proposes that he share her bed at night. It is not romance she wants, or passion, but to be able to sleep with the comfort of a physical presence near her, and friendship, as a salve against loneliness.

But this is not the swansong of two elderly people desperate for a bit of comfort at the end of life. No. The pair want to live.

Despite past tragedies and losses, they do not lose their hope and desire for life. And having weathered life's blows, they have gained strength. It shows in the kindness they have for each other and their angry children, their humour and good sense not to care a fig what the town says of them.

It's a great story about the resilience of the human spirit.

Perhaps the human instinct is not to be alone. But even if I were, I hope never to lose the appetite for living or succumb to the falsehood that life has nothing left to give.

Meanwhile, I've enjoyed my staycation, but I'm glad it's come to an end. And I'm grateful for its gifts: the kindness of others, the love of my children and the joyful prospect of a loved one's return.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 15, 2017, with the headline 'What sweet solitude'. Print Edition | Subscribe