I grew up surrounded by a loving family and lots of friends and everyone lived within a hundred-yard radius. Weekends meant family lunches at my abuelos’ where paella and asado and laughter and games were plentiful.
Never in a million years did I think I would end up living in Dallas, Texas, with my husband, a Brit I met in Buenos Aires.
My relationship with Dallas, and sometimes with my husband, was rocky at the beginning. I did not want to be there. I missed Argentina. I often cried. I was moody. I found fault with the food, the people, the weather. Nothing seemed right.
One day in particular stands out in memory. My husband was out of town and I invited two friends over for a glass of wine and nibbles. I got everything ready quite early, and there I sat, waiting. I felt restless. I was looking forward to human interaction.
I kept checking my phone when a memory hit me out of nowhere. During one of our visits home, my husband wanted to cook a lechón. My maternal grandfather had an oven big enough for a whole suckling pig, so we asked to use it. We came to his house at 11am, rang the bell and waited while my abuelo walked slowly to the front door. He refused to use a walking stick in the house. He survived the Spanish Civil War for crying out loud; he could do without a cane.
Wearing jeans and his red check shirt, he had been up since 6 am getting things for us, much like I’d done that day for my friends. My then 94-year-old grandfather tidied up the house himself even though he could hardly see with his good eye. He had the local bakery deliver sandwiches and enough sweet treats for an army and brought out an array of drinks for us: “I got this whiskey especially for you, Sean” “But it’s not even eleven in the morning!’ I said. Granddad smiled his impish smile.
Now, sitting in my kitchen, I understood the meaning of loneliness. I understood also that I fear loneliness and old age.
I began to measure the impact of loneliness in my life. I couldn’t sleep at night and took Lorazepam to ease the anxiety. It had to stop, and I searched for something I could do to feel better. “Why not volunteer?” I asked myself. I live a life of privilege and the idea of giving back appealed. Except I lack any training in social work. I’m not an animal lover, so animal shelters were out of the question. Small children scare me so orphanages were not an option either. The thought of my grandfather sitting at home by himself made the decision for me. I arranged an interview with the manager of a local nursing home.
We agreed that I would come once a week to talk about my travels and about Argentina in general. The day of the first meeting arrived. Sweat dripped down my back; my hands felt clammy. I almost went into full-blown panic. About ten or twelve residents sat in a semicircle of chairs and Zimmer frames, eagerly waiting for me. I felt honored and so nervous.
I stammered and pointed at pictures of gauchos, the Andes, and the pampas. They seemed very interested and asked intelligent and informed questions. A sweet old lady came in late and her walker got stuck in the doorframe. I helped her get through by holding the door open and gently pushing the walker while rheumy eyes looked on and arthritic hands rested on laps, unable to help. Was that in store for me down the line?
The experience wasn’t as bad as I imagined but not as fulfilling as I expected. I sat in the car waiting for this promised wave of happiness to envelop me, but it never happened.
Instead, I wished I could just curl up on the sofa and listen to all their stories, even though technically I was there to keep them company and bring a spark of energy to their day.
I carried on. And still, no wave of happiness, no warm fuzzy feeling. I gave up. What started with the best intentions became a chore.
Reality did not live up to my expectations. I wanted to feel needed and comforted. All I got was the stress of facing strangers and their circumstance and that of looking inside my own void.