Picture: 123RF/JOZEF POLC
Picture: 123RF/JOZEF POLC

My frail, 82-year-old Godmother, who lives alone in a windswept cottage on the edge of the Irish sea, e-mailed me this week. She gave a spirited account of the myriad ways her food delivery man is finding to avoid contact with her: leaving her bags in the garage (too far), the back stoep (hard negotiating stairs), the sun porch (too something).

Her no-nonsense “pull yourself together” style blunted all emotion, including sharing her feelings, so her saying she was feeling low was unusual. The isolation, my Godmother wrote, is unbearable, almost worse than the possibility of contracting the virus. “I’m desperately lonely with only the television for company.”

There are many who seek solitude and who choose to separate themselves from society: hermits and mystics and shut-ins and those who are socio-phobic. But their number is few.

The coronavirus has thrown into sharp relief a problem that is bigger than our global lockdown: loneliness.

I found a 2018 survey done in the UK (there is no local equivalent, though I’m sure our numbers track) that found more than 9-million adults in that country were either often or always lonely. The scientists concluded that chronic loneliness is as bad for you as smoking and as dangerous as being morbidly obese. It apparently reduces lifespan by 26%.

When my father died, my mother — who lived on her own in our family home in Ladysmith in Northern KwaZulu-Natal — went a little crazy from loneliness. She once told me that outside of three nights apart in their marriage (my dad was away marking matric exam papers), she’d never been alone.

My mother’s trajectory from birth do death was plotted in precise chunks of time.

She left her family home in Washbank when she was seven for Little Flower School, a boarding establishment in Ixopo in the Midlands, started for the “daughters of indigent coloured people” by the Missionary Sisters of the Precious Blood, a Swiss order.

I am finding social isolation to be a double-edged thing: to be cherished for the quiet time it offers and, in the exact same space, to be feared for the void that is the silence

After matric, unlike her school friends, my mother — whose domestic skills always remained unexplored — staved off the drudgery of housewifery for a few years, beginning a teaching degree at Fort Hare University. The little town of Alice in the Eastern Cape was home for the next three years.

With her degree in hand, she moved to Ladysmith to begin teaching at Windsor High School. Away from home yet again, she went to live with family friends, sharing the home with their 10 children.

In their first few months as newly fledged educators — him of  English, her of history — my parents met and fell in love in the teachers lounge. An interminable decade later, aged 32, they married and moved into a tiny apartment above a bicycle shop.

Within two years, with money from my maternal grandfather, my childhood home was built, they moved in, Anton was born, followed by me, Shaun and Antonette: my parent’s love story became a thing of legend.

The weight of solitude

When my father died, after half a century of being with each other, social isolation drove my mother crazy. She didn’t drive. While she went to mass regularly, she was not a joiner-in, preferring to remain on the fringe.

Looking back on it, my parents formed a tight unit that excluded most people. There were many acquaintances, but few best friends. Poor mum.

My normally eloquent mother was inarticulate with grief. Her face and hands were left to tell the story of her sadness: her rheumy pools-of-sorrow eyes; her limp, lifeless hands. Deep sighs replaced song; her voice cracked, unsure what to say in this new world she inhabited, a world with blurred edges, where silence replaced familiar sound, where solitude was heavy and weighted down with dread and fear.

My mother, who was warm and tactile, who touched an elbow to sympathise, who hugged with ease — those embraces I miss most — who held hands with those who were sad, who shook shoulders to emphasise a point … my mother would not have been very good at social-distancing.

She would have hated the solitariness of lockdown.

So I understood my Godmother’s uncharacteristic small voice complaint coming through the ether from Northern Ireland. She was lonely and it made her anxious, and restless, and uncomfortable. And sad. Barely a year ago, she too lost her husband; she too has had to make the adjustment to being alone after a lifetime of not.

And now this coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the situation and added a cruel dimension to her already sad life: enforced isolation.

I don’t know how to comfort her — I didn’t know how to comfort my mother. Loneliness is often a thing of the soul; you can be lonely in a room full of people you love.

I am finding social isolation to be a double-edged thing: to be cherished for the quiet time it offers and, in the exact same space, to be feared for the void that is the silence.

If, like me, you have spent most of your life alone, being alone is normal. But it is not normal to be completely cut off from living beings; it is not normal to spend every waking minute of every day absolutely on your own, without touch — the hug from a friend, the head touched by your hairdresser, firm kneading of shoulders from a masseur, warm hands on your soapy toes by the pedicurist.

I miss waiters delivering steaming cappuccinos and “peace be with you” handshakes at mass on Sunday mornings. I miss mass on Sunday mornings!

But, unlike my mother and my luddite Godmother, I am connected digitally and therefore am busy enough.

If you want to be a billionaire, CNN’s Richard Quest once said, do what billionaires do. Enter Bruce Whitfield, writing in Business Day about the billionaire behind the successful PSG Group, Jannie Mouton and his tips for working from home.

The backstory: In 1995, Mouton’s partners at the stockbroking firm he helped start fired him. From his home office he conceptualised and built up a business worth R1bn.

His sage advice? A rigid routine.

Rise. Make your bed. Meditation. More meditation. Exercise. Yoga with Adriene. Shower. Dress.

But, half way through week two of the lockdown, some of my hard and fast rules are beginning to blur. Longer lie ins; sporadic exercise. Fewer zoom lunches with family in Australia and LA.

I am mindful of those who are absolutely alone, and sad at being so. If loneliness is life-threatening, we need to come up with ways that we can, within the rules of social isolation, reach out to (mostly old) people who don’t necessarily have the technology skills to connect.

I’m open to ideas if you’d like to share them with me. 

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