Loneliness is a cancer that incessantly eats away inside, with a hunger that can't be ignored. Oh, don't get me wrong ... you can put on that public face if you're practiced enough and no-one will probably know apart from those who share the experience. After all, people are used to the obligatory: 'I'm fine!' It's all they want to hear. While inside, life is anything but fine. It's at Christmas when it hurts most - the loneliest time on earth because there's no escaping the carols, the festivities, the decorations and trees, shop windows begging you to buy, everyone smiling and happy, looking forward to holidays and spending time with family, not to mention unwrapping all those gifts on Christmas morning. Living alone, especially when you're unexpectedly thrown into a mix of emotions that don't fit with the 'season to be jolly' because the man you love chose to walk out on a marriage you believed was fine, already with someone who has already taken your place ... it leaves you isolated, vulnerable, at odds with the world around you. You're not a part of the planning of Christmas, the annual dilemma of whose turn it is to visit, or where you're supposed to be.
Memories pluck at the already raw open wound making it bleed.
Once upon a time Christmas was special.
As a child, we didn't have much money, but we were rich in every other way because we shared, we had family, and more than anything else in the world, we knew we were loved beyond measure. On the night before Christmas, we'd lie listening to rustling of paper, whispered voices, footsteps creeping across the floor, shadows moving through a chink of light as our doors opened and shut. Our eyes remained tight shut. We cuddled the promise of our stockings on Christmas morning being full of little trinkets, pencils and crayons, chocolate soldiers and clocks ... with the bag of shiny gold-wrapped chocolate pennies and a satsuma wrapped in silver foil at the bottom. Outside our front door, always there would be a mysterious cardboard box of hidden treasures to see us through the day. Father Christmas really did exist! As well as food, there would be a gift for each of us. Meanwhile, clad in slippers and dressing gowns we'd excitedly make for the tree where, underneath would be a host of gaily coloured paper covering all shapes and sizes. For a while we'd simply touch and feel, trying to guess from clues we found there. But first ... breakfast. Second, dress. Third, there was the Church Service to attend, a cup of tea and mince pie to share with the congregation after which Dad shook hands, giving out gifts from under the tree to the children. Laughter and joy echoed all around us as a family as we stood on parade in our Sunday Best like the Von Trapp Family in 'The Sound of Music'. I remember the anticipation, the excitement, hearts fluttering as we drooled over gifts still waiting unopened under the tree. But then, this part was really the best time of all because once we were there, Dad handing us each a gift to be opened with just the one main present kept till last, however long we lingered with the wrapping for Mum to keep for next year, the greatest excitement of the day was almost done. We'd each have an Annual - a 'Bunty' or 'Princess' for me, 'Look & Learn' for my sisters, with a 'Paint By Numbers' set of pictures and Enid Blyton mystery to keep me busy the rest of the day. I remember the Noddy Theatre I received one year, Lego bricks to create villages and parks, miniature gardens to put together and plant with plastic flowers, racing cars on a track which needed to be set up (mainly for Dad's benefit!) We weren't born into an age of technology, with war games, i-pads, computers, techie games ... I'd love creating a pretend doll's house from an old grocer box, or a little shop, with lots of little packets of sweeties, dressing up as a shop keeper willing the rest of the family to play. Always, there was a family game ... Monopoly, The Memory Game, Buccaneer, Scrabble, Careers ... (I still have them today in a box under my desk!) The rest of the day was tradition. In the afternoon I'd settle to cutting out and dressing cardboard cut-out dolls from a wardrobe of clothes. There was plenty to keep us occupied. It was the only time we ever had a roast, when chicken tasted extra special because it was a rare treat, with roasties and veg, and oodles of gravy, followed by Christmas pud with sixpences hidden inside.
Memories can be cruel. It's times such as this I crave those times of childhood innocence when everything was so simple and I knew I was safe, protected, loved.
Loneliness thrives on memories, happy memories and sad ... especially when you have no idea how much of your marriage has been a lie! Loneliness happens for a variety of reasons, but it's the same mix of emotions of isolation, vulnerability, despair that can drive you to the brink. There are widows and widowers who say that the death of a loved one is easier to bear in many ways, because at least it draws a line, leaving sorrow, yes, but also gentle, happy, strong memories that can never die. They tell me they couldn't bear the thought of a loved one walking out on a marriage without warning, tainting what has been, leaving behind a confusion of betrayal and lies, not knowing any more what is real and true. More so because of the constant daily reminders ... Christmas cards arriving in his name as if he hasn't really gone, post needing to be re-addressed and passed on, everyday things that are impossible to do because he was a Carer as well as a husband. Hours can go by in a haze of pain on bad days, when you know nobody is coming to the door, leaving you feeling all the more isolated and alone.
When you do go out, on stepping back through the front door, the silence is deafening, immediately immersing you in a tsunami of emotion, while an ocean of tears chokes the inner scream. You put the kettle on, reaching for the TV control just to fill the house with sound. But then everything is related to Christmas. People laughing and joking, flooding the room with an agony of memories, filling your heart with a desperate aching longing for today to be so different to what it actually is.
How can Life be this cruel!
In among all the everyday feelings of loneliness when it often becomes easier to stay in, cocooned, cradled in the womb of home, surrounded by the familiar even if it means being alone; at Christmas you've also got to deal with the lack of company and a family to share it. There is no Christmas spirit! You sit on the sofa and drift, thoughts reaching back in time, trying to gain a different perspective, to bring back another way of Life ... richer, wealthier in all the ways that count most.
Maybe there are crackers left over from last year to decorate the table, a token bit of sparkle and pizzazz. Cards deck shelves and mantle. I read and re-read the sentiments, wishing I could somehow magic those people here from memories of the past, along with family and friends now departed.
What's the point!
Usually days drift into nights drift into days drift into nights seamless, never-ending ... a constant flow of Time. Evenings, weekends and holidays are worst because there's no way to find any kind of routine. Besides, these are times when families are together, out for the day, sharing time with one another. And that hurts like crazy!! At Christmas everything is accentuated. The void between those who have and those who have not is wider. I stare into the abyss, and the abyss stares back at me. Darkness becomes a friend, although I've become afraid again of the dark and lights need to stay on to get me through the night. But can I find the right bulb for my touch lamp at the side of my bed? I buy a bulb with an assistant's help, but the damn lamp is still not working. It means the slightest noise and I'm jumping ... having to constantly check and re-check the house, even under the sofa and behind the TV!!
'I promise ... you'll never ever be afraid again!'
He spoke those words to me back in the beginning.
'You have me to protect and look after you now!'
I trusted those words with a passion. He became my Sanctuary. His words cloaked the darkness of past years so effectively it was as if they had never been. So why did he renege on his promises?
'... for better or for worse, rich or poor, in sickness and in health ...'
Did he even mean them as the words left his mouth, or was it all one almighty con? I'll never know.
All I do know is that loneliness becomes a living death ... a cancer that continues to eat away inside leaving just crumbs to try to get you through another day ... night ... day ... night ... day ...
All paintings/drawings copyright Janine Harrington