Eating alone

I mostly eat alone. There are semi-regular meals with my children and grandchildren, yes, which I enjoy, and coffees on patios with friends, but I’m still wary of having people in on account of Covid. So, I eat alone. I’m eating well, thanks, taking care of myself, thanks, and I usually keep company with a book while I eat so eating isn’t actually the loneliest part of living alone. I know some people think reading while eating is a bad idea, one ought to be concentrating on chewing, I suppose, but that’s boring in the extreme. Eating alone, a book is a fine substitute for conversation. 

The other day, during that awful heat dome that pressed over the northwest of the continent, I decided to have supper at the local White Spot. My apartment doesn’t have AC, and I was managing with fans, but by the afternoon of that day it had gotten just too hot. I was compelled by the AC of a restaurant and the food would be a bonus.

“Table for one,” I said to the attendant at the front desk when I came in.

Slight pause. “One?”

“Yes, one.” She wrote it down and I sat down to wait. The place was full and more people were coming. Obviously I wasn’t the only one longing to cool down in an eating establishment. 

When it was my turn, I sensed some slight confusion, or perhaps dismay, by the front staff, perhaps as to where I should be put, one person taking up a booth when up to four might be seated, and that many more orders and income etc. etc. I had this weird fleeting wish to say that my husband had died, as if I needed to explain why I was eating alone, or as if to say, well there’s just one but actually two if you know what I mean but only one of us is visible. But that would have been awkward for them, and disingenuous on my part, for I was there specifically because of heat, not grief.

I had a better idea, though: I quickly offered to eat at the bar counter, which was empty due to Covid restrictions, and they thought that was just wonderful, to allow one person there. Their relief –honestly, it was palpable, I don’t think I was imagining it. I felt happy to do it too, for them and everyone behind me, also wanting to eat in a cooler place, so I’m not recounting this with indignation. It was interesting, though, to pick up these various vibes about “one” and also my own sensations in those exchanges.

The White Spot folks were super attentive to me after I’d made my “sacrificial” suggestion, and though I did feel a little conspicuous perched at my bar stool with my meal and water, without the protection of a booth, it was okay, I had a book, and also there was a hockey game on if I wanted to look up from the book, and the bartender and I had little bits of conversation about the game (like sports fans do, ha ha, after I’d asked what TB stood for and learned it was Tampa Bay playing Montreal). The manager bustled over at one point to ask about dessert and was perhaps overly enthusiastic about my choice of cherry pie, as if I’d pulled a winning ticket or something, though I believe it was because they were out of apple, which I’d actually wanted at first.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve eaten in a restaurant alone, and I’ve never been self-conscious about it, but this time I was, and I think it’s because in fact, I now mostly eat alone. As of course many do, regularly, but it’s newish for me, that’s what I mean. It wasn’t an exception being marked as much as an extension of personal reality into a public space.

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To mark Sundays, I use my china for breakfast.

Making it better

I’m finding that making things helps. Last week I made a cake, an entirely unnecessary cake, but one H. would have liked and one I could share, not to mention eat slowly myself. I’ve also been “making” in the form of a visual grief notebook, pasting and painting and noting, the book getting fatter as the pages stiffen and crinkle with watercolour and glue. I’m not sure why it helps, maybe it’s the fiddly effort of it, which makes grief “work” tangible, or maybe it’s the fact of a record (allowing me to trace where I am/was), or maybe it’s just that it holds down, however temporarily, something otherwise internal and unpredictable and uncertain. Also, the doing is enjoyable. (And as I’ve said before, having finally grasped this for myself, it’s not the artistry that matters but the process.) Whatever the psychology involved, it reminds me of lines from a Sandra Birdsell story in Night Travellers:

…crying made everything worse. But she’d discovered that crayons and paper made it better. Drawing was a bird moving against a clean sky the way you wanted it to.  

Here are a few pages from the book to show what I mean. One early page contained “ordinary little” reminders of him.C1C6E3BB-8AB2-4361-A791-E7215D30841F_1_201_a

Another told a story about his clothes. (Yes, I’m afraid I actually went to the thrift store and bought back a shirt I’d donated!)379E668D-6CC3-439E-9406-9D450757AD32_1_201_a

 

There was a small regret to note. During the last years, he wasn’t allowed grapefruit because of a heart medication he was on, so we never had them in the house, though we’d both previously liked grapefruit a lot. Once in hospice, off those meds, why didn’t I bring in some juicy triangles of grapefruit to let him taste again? It never occurred to me! Now that I’m back to eating grapefruit myself, I wish, oh I wish, I had!

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The most recent page I made was prompted by something I saw in an illustration of Covid loss, which I recognized immediately as a powerful description of absence — space filled with a life summed in obituary. I worked from happy photos of our 46th anniversary last August when we had our morning maté (yerba tea) at the bay, sitting on our favourite log. I walk there still and sometimes sit on that log beside the unbodied shape that memory makes.

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Afterwards

A year ago, January 2020, pre-Covid, my sister and I met for lunch and she asked me, over fettucine alfredo, did I think of life afterwards? Alone, she meant, though I can’t remember exactly how she put it. We knew H.’s cancer would not be cured, though he was relatively comfortable and even relatively active for his circumstances, thanks to radiation and a regimen of meds.

I told her I’d had thoughts, yes, but I didn’t elaborate. I remember that I imagined pulling everything out of the closet and re-organizing the whole thing and that it would be emptier, tidier. I imagined taking a dream trip, starting from Beijing on a train, through Mongolia and Siberia and on to Moscow, which, given his diagnosis and restrictions on travel, would not be possible for him but which he encouraged me to pursue if I could.

But these were tasks, or single events, and in truth I didn’t know how it would be, and thoughts of the future, when they came, perhaps while cooking or staring out the window at the quiet street at night, were mostly tinged with dread. Sometimes the dread was a kind of fear, feeling that once his death happened, it would be time to get ready for my own. Some nights, falling asleep, I found myself thinking about having to sleep alone in that unknown stage ahead of me, and I comforted myself then, that for now, he was there, I wasn’t alone, and that it was good not to have to sleep alone, I felt safer somehow, and that even sleeping, he was good company.

As of this February 6, I’m in the afterwards of my sister’s question. Here. The living that turned into dying has so many stories, and so does grieving in the wake of it, I don’t know where to begin telling any of them, or even if I should, because, really, loss is ubiquitous and telling is more like joining a song already being sung in many places. But since I’m a writer, and writers show up in words, I figured I should drop by my blog and say Hello. Hello, everyone.

My Lenten bowl