My brother, sister, and their spouses spent the holiday with us, so, I knew that, based on the Rule Book of Married People, they’d be at their in-laws the following year. I had 365 days to emotionally prepare.
Then when my parents told me they’d decided to leave early December 25th, 2016 on a trip to Florida, I realized that I would, in fact, be spending Christmas alone.
It was more funny than anything. One of those “Yeah this would happen to me” situations. I had visions of venturing into the bleak Indiana winter on Christmas morning, pressing my face up against the neighbors’ window and placing my palm on the fogged-up glass as they opened gifts and drank hot chocolate. (Just kidding. I’m not quite that dramatic.)
I’m not telling this story because I’m bitter at all. In fact, to be completely fair, my parents invited me on their trip to Florida, but I declined. AND both of my siblings invited me to their respective gatherings. I even spent a couple hours on Christmas Day at my sister-in-law Lauren’s parents’ house for dinner. So was I totally and completely by myself? No. But the fact that I had to maneuver this unfamiliar kind of Christmas was fully traceable back to my general aloneness. So even though it was kind of funny, it wasn’t difficult to detect that familiar hint of weird sadness.
I don’t want to brag, but I’m pretty good at hoarding that weird sadness, which eventually manifests into feeling sorry for myself. I’m also pretty good at hiding it (I think?). As a self-centered human being with selfish tendencies, I get that alone feeling a lot. Yes, being physically alone — but moreso believing that I am emotionally misunderstood and unseen. There’s a vast cornucopia of factors that play into this, not the least of which are my struggles with vulnerability and expectations. I’m somehow fully capable of walking around in life under the assumption that no one has ever felt these feelings and no one could ever possibly dive down into the depths of my tortured soul (which is a really great way to isolate yourself if you’re looking for an effective method of doing that!).
In October, I went to my 10-year college reunion at Taylor University. First of all, WTF? 10 years pretty much flies past your face, slaps you, and laughs at how you never saw it coming. If you haven’t approached this milestone yet, be vigilant and guard your face! I went with my BFF Brittany, who’s married, but didn’t bring her husband. However, every other person I greeted from our graduating class was accompanied by a spouse, and many of them by their children. That’s not an exaggeration. Every other person there was married. I don’t really know what I was expecting, but sitting at a folding table in the gym, reading the room, I started to believe I was the other.
No one here knows what it’s like to be in my shoes.
I don’t have anything to talk about. I’m not interesting.
Everyone here has their lives together, and it’s still hard for me to wake up on a daily basis.
I saw my friend Jenny at a neighboring table, getting lunch situated for her three daughters. I’ve known Jenny since middle school, but I hadn’t seen her in years, so I was looking forward to catching up. You know those special people who, no matter how long it’s been since you last saw them, have the supernatural ability to make you feel completely known and cared for, and it’s 100% authentic? Jenny’s one of those people. We chatted for a few minutes about what we’d been up to while her husband wrangled their girls.
Then she did something I wasn’t prepared for. She asked how I was doing. Like how I was really doing. I experienced a brief moment of panic because, usually when people ask that question, they aren’t probing for a real answer — and because I knew she was referring to my singleness. In knowing her sincerity, the panic immediately disappeared and was replaced with an overwhelming sense of comfort. This friend had the audacity to ask me about a real-life struggle in the middle of a noisy college reunion luncheon, and I loved her for it.
I told her that the sadness comes and goes — that most days I’m ok, that I’ve enjoyed putting my house together and doing things on my own that I’d never imagined doing — but that it’s difficult when I’m surrounded by a gym full of people my age who have spouses and families, like OK I GET IT, YOU’RE THE FAMILY IN THE PHOTO THAT COMES WITH THE FRAME. I can swiftly pivot to feeling personally victimized by others’ happiness, seeing myself as “behind,” questioning everything.
Jenny’s response has challenged me for months in the best possible way. She said that, while she couldn’t relate specifically to what I was experiencing, that she understood what it’s like to pray and pray and ask God for something you so deeply desire, but it doesn’t come, and the answers remain unclear. I knew she was talking about her miscarriage. She explained to me that, while she has three beautiful daughters, she still longs for another child. She lost a baby she was so sure was meant to complete her family, and the fertility issues she’s experienced since the miscarriage may make it impossible for that dream to come true.
And just like that, there we were: two women with two completely different stories and two completely different types of pain, alone together. I can’t pretend to understand what it’s like to lose a baby or the dream of having a baby. But I do know what it’s like to watch the days pass by and wonder if I’ll spend any part of my life with a partner. I know what it’s like to mourn the optimistic certainty I had 10 years ago. In that conversation with my friend, I realized that her alone and my alone were the same.
How dare I go on assuming that no one knows what it’s like to feel my particular brand of pain? How selfish of me to think that my experiences are so unique that no one could possibly understand what it’s like to be me! There is such beauty in letting other people be alone with me — inviting them in, giving back, and learning to be alone together. And there is no place for categorizing, rating, or comparing my personal level of suffering with anyone else’s.
I’m so thankful for Jenny’s boldness that day. For her sincerity and wisdom. For how God communicated through her, sending a message loud and clear to the core of my being, bursting with Truth.
When it became clear that I’d be spending Christmas Day 2016 without my family, I decided to volunteer at a women’s shelter in downtown Indianapolis. I spent the morning dishing out pastries and juice to a room full of women of all ages and races, many with children, who had nowhere else to spend the Most Wonderful Time of the Year. I did my best to look each woman and child in the eyes and wish them a Merry Christmas. I wondered how they ended up there. Drugs? Domestic abuse? Unemployment? Bad luck? There’s no way I’ll ever know, but I’m certain that, despite the reasons, most of them felt alone there.
After food service ended, I struck up a conversation with a woman named Nerva, seated next to her four daughters at a round cafeteria-style table. She was 32 — my age — but she could have passed for 50. She had her first child at age 16 and two more before age 20. Her youngest daughter, Neveah, was 5. She proudly showed me the Barbie she got for Christmas while her mother explained quietly to me that Neveah has a mental disability.
Nerva and her daughters moved from Florida to Indiana a week before Christmas and spent their first 5 days in Indianapolis in their car in a McDonald’s parking lot before securing spots at the shelter. She said she had to go back to Florida in a few days so Neveah could have an operation. She said she was a registered nurse but couldn’t work in Indiana yet due to licensing restrictions.
This 32-year-old woman had lived a life I couldn’t possibly comprehend, but I did my best to listen and assemble the pieces of her story. I wasn’t sure how to respond besides promising to pray for her, hoping she would truly believe that I, a perfect stranger, was willing to enter into her alone with her. In that moment, it was all I could do and everything I could do, and I choose to believe that it was enough.