08/15/2011 02:56 pm ET Updated Oct 15, 2011

The Loneliness of Living Long Enough to Be Lonely

Loneliness is a strange beast. Patiently hovering in the wings, confident we'll eventually get there, watching as we avoid it, maneuver around it, ignore it like a bad boyfriend, only to find it's still there waiting for us in what used to be the distant future.

You know that old adage, "We're born alone and we die alone"? Have you been around when a baby is born? There ain't nothin' "alone" about any of that. I recall groups of doctors walking by, glancing at the post-delivery debacle that was my body, wondering how on earth the beauty of new life could be accompanied by so little privacy and so much physical humiliation. But the whole event was a party and when the nurses brought in fake champagne and we all hooted our congratulations, I remembered thinking, now this is the way to make an entrance! So we're not alone at that point, and from there the fun continues. We learn that connecting to the humans in our midst is essential to our very survival. And this urge to join the network of hearts and souls that make up our circle of wagons -- parents, siblings, extended family and family friends -- stays with us for a very long time.

At least until adolescence. Then the separation begins, the gentle but insistent pulling away, so necessary for development of self and individuality. And yet even as we pull away from family, we attach more deeply to friends, signaling that the separation from family doesn't portend loneliness -- it simply evokes evolutionarily-demanded new attachments necessary to find mates that ultimately lead to actual mating and the propagation of the race.

The marriage and children part ensues. That deep, binding, over-the-moon attachment of romance, sex, love and marriage/cohabitation/civil unions, then dogs, children and hamsters (not necessarily in that order). Preschools, then real schools, soccer, art classes and all that glorious madness goes on for a chunk of years. And while you're doing all that you're also reattaching when possible to the family of origin, still maintaining friendships from yore and trying to workout, and maybe even keep writing or singing and maintaining some semblance of former self. All while working a job as soon as you find one that works with the family schedule, and it's all incredibly busy, busy, busy and then ... it's over.

The kids are grown. They pushed past adolescence, began their own cycle of detaching while attaching to friends they can't stop texting, Skyping, Facebooking, Tweeting, calling, emailing and even, in some rare cases, meeting in person. Okay, I'm kidding; there's lots of meeting in person, leading ultimately to their version of that paragraph about marriage and children, and they're off.

It's very quiet. No more crazy driving schedules or school events to cram into the week. No more bag lunches and talent shows and frustration over the demands being made by that effin' PTA. You feel a deep loss on some level but then start looking at your old mate (remember them?) and, if you've been lucky enough to maintain some equilibrium during the madness, you discover there's still a spark that says "I think we're alone now, there doesn't seem to be anyone around." It's nice. You start thinking about fabulously corny things like second honeymoons, suddenly delighted that the children are no longer there to whine about how hot it is at the Animal Park or why didn't we get a bigger hotel room. It's all set up to be the next chapter.

Then life can throw you a curve. You're sideswiped by illness or unexpected accidents, lost jobs, mid-life crises, financial woes, brain injuries. You know, that stuff. Suddenly the second honeymoon is put on the back burner for more demanding things, like saving the farm, saving the marriage, saving a life. And in all that critical demand, connection is lost, fun is sidelined and damn loneliness, always waiting in the wings, creeps in.

I remember the moment I truly understood my mother, a woman I couldn't understand for the life of me, for the entire life of me, up until this moment of revelation. I was looking at her sitting alone in her little apartment in "the home" (as we call the very lovely facility she's living in), talking about her former life as a wife and mother. A 50-year marriage, 11 children (I know, makes my head spin, and I was there actually there feeling my head spin), a large, active church community, great friends, extended family, lots of events, gatherings and excitement and a whole lot of craziness, good and bad.

And then it was over. The last of the children grew up, the house was sold, the community diminished, people moved, died or just disappeared. And when my father passed away almost 11 years ago this woman, who had been so intensely surrounded with life and all the people and things in it, was alone. Loneliness swooped in so damn hard it knocked her off her feet, and she hasn't been the same since. She can't remember much of her former life now, but maybe that's better -- some of those memories kept loneliness so well fed it made life as it is much harder for her to live.

I saw her loneliness that day. I saw it because, for the first time, I felt glimmers of it in my own life: my son was in college, my step-daughter was married and creating her own family, the heady collaborations of my performing years had gone cold, my writing career -- while satisfying -- was a solitary pursuit and my husband was suffering a brain injury that detached him from me in ways I could not have anticipated. And as I looked at my little gray-haired, 80-something mother who used to be a social terror and one of the most ebullient, party-hearty gals around, I felt it. For her. For me.

Some people may be able to avoid the lonely years. Certainly dying young gives you a leg up, but that's never preferred. Some keep family around till the very end, defying even part two of that old adage. Others seem to actually prefer being alone. But the fact is, the longer we live the more likely the ache of loneliness will begin to accompany our days and, hence, we are obligated to figure it out. The key, of course, is to stay as healthy as possible so one can still get one's ass out to a baseball diamond, a good hiking trail, a campaign rally or up on a stage (I can't say it enough -- exercise, people, even just walk, for God's sake!). The second part is to stay engaged with the passions you still feel passionate about (it doesn't matter if the industry doesn't like old singers, keep singing). The third is: have good cable. Okay, maybe not so important, but if you read my blog you know I did enjoy a few of the offerings! The point is, stay plugged in. It's your life, even if you're the only one in it.

Good words for me to live by, especially these days, when I still haven't found a job to replace the one I unexpectedly had pulled out from under my feet, when my son prefers to spend his remaining days before college with his girlfriend (go figure!), when my husband continues to deal not only with the ramifications of brain injury but the recent loss of his father, keeping him weeks away in another state, both physically and emotionally. I feel a bit like my old mother these days. Wistful, a little disoriented, and yes, lonely.

I'm getting better at it, though. Where she has her card game, I write. Where she does "exercise class" with her housemates in the community room, I just joined a band for the first time in five years. Where she waits for calls from family and anxiously anticipates my visits, I wrangle social media, keep the phone on and do my best to get out to plays and art openings. I have a kick-ass power walk I do regularly, I'm still pounding the pavements with my novel and I'm focused on finally getting my damn photography site up. Mostly, alone though I may be, I try to look forward, not back.

Most days that works. Other days, not so much. Damn loneliness. Maybe today I'll go over to my mom's and play some cards.