She died alone. Wrapping Christmas presents while watching television. Joyce Carol Vincent died in her North London apartment and wasn’t discovered for three years. This story haunted me for years. 5 years ago, after too many glasses of wine I recounted the story to friends at a birthday party and was so overwhelmed with sorrow I began crying. No. I recall sobbing. I remember the stunned look on my friend’s faces. I’m not a big cryer, so it was shocking to everyone, including me. Eventually I confessed that I related to the dead woman. What if I died and nobody found me for years? Some of the people reacted by getting indignant. They felt that I was casting aspersions on their quality of friendship and, how dare I? I wasn’t criticizing them at all. I was becoming aware that my phone didn’t ring that often and I could go days without seeing or hearing from anyone who knew me. I could pass away in my sleep and it would probably take more than a week for anyone to notice.
Not much has changed.
Living alone in a big city is a choice I made because I’m a loner. I am not interested in having a roommate in order to have someone to eat with and deconstruct my day. I have learned how to keep myself occupied. I was the only girl in a family of boys and they weren’t interested in playing with me. I kept myself entertained by writing short stories and reading a lot; I recall writing down the one thousandth title I’d read, since I loved keeping lists. Living in my head is my normal.
I am aware that many would find my life very lonely. Years ago when I excitedly described my traditional New Year’s Eve plans (Chinese food and pre-1950’s movies) to an acquaintance, his face clouded over and he said, ‘that sounds really sad’. It never occurred to me that anyone would think solitary activities were sad. When I moved to Stratford for 3 months several people were worried that I’d be lonely. “I just don’t want you to be lonely,” I heard repeatedly. I wasn’t lonely when I lived there but the friendliness of local citizens called into relief how we barricade ourselves from contact in Toronto.
Podcasts have become the soundtrack of my life lately so I often have my headphones on when I walk from place to place. I’ve perfected the glazed far off look as I get to my destination, careful to not make eye contact with strangers. I modified this behavior after two weeks of living in Stratford because I became aware that people, strangers, were trying to make eye contact and say good morning to me. It happened every single day. I got used to seeing the same people and the greetings got warmer and more sincere. I stopped looking over people’s heads and looked them in the eyes and said ‘Hello’ and ‘Good Morning’ regularly.
Moving back to Toronto at the end of May was more jarring than I expected. Very few people make eye contact on the sidewalk and the ones that do, don’t smile. I tried making eye contact with people when I returned to my home in the Annex and encountered the unfocused stare into the far distance that I’d perfected after living in Toronto for over 20 years. I crumpled a little internally, felt a bit lonely, and stopped doing it.
Loneliness is an epidemic now. Technology and the devices that connect all of us have fractured our attention spans and made us more isolated. It is rare to see me walking down the sidewalk while looking at my phone. I look up and around, and this is why strangers always ask me for directions (or ask if I’m lost, which I totally love). I make a point of turning off my phone at 10 pm every single night, and sometimes I don’t remember to turn it back on until 11 am. I don’t miss it. I don’t get a lot of calls, either.
But with the news that I am to have a surgical procedure that will result in my being housebound for up to 3 weeks the response from my friends and family has been incredible. I’m loathe to ask for help but have been told by many people that this is not a recovery I can manage on my own. Living in the same building for 21 years has its benefits in that there are no fewer than 6 individuals who have insisted that they will run errands for me. Others are going to pop in to make sure I don’t need anything, and one has offered to hold my straw if I want to have a beer in the backyard (nice thought, but I think I’ll refrain). A friend brought me a lasagna yesterday, another gave me access to their Audible account since I’ll be unable to watch much television for the first week.
I have no idea what my surgery is going to be like tomorrow but images from A Clockwork Orange come to mind. All I know is it will be over before rush hour ends in Toronto. I’ll be home before lunch and, hopefully, after the rain has ended. Another friend is picking me up from the surgery and helping me get acclimatized to having reduced vision in my home. I hope I’m not grumpy but, even if I am, I won’t be grumpy by myself.