What If the Most Important Person in Your Life Is Invisible?

Do you see who no one else sees?

Posted Sep 21, 2009

If you are married, no one will ever forget or diminish the place of your spouse in your life. Social invitations will often routinely include your spouse as well as yourself, other people will ask how your partner is doing, and if you were to die before your spouse, all expressions of sympathy would flow unthinkingly to your widowed partner.

If you are single, though, the most important people in your life are sometimes treated as if they are invisible or inconsequential. It is National Singles Week, and to mark it, I think we should stand up not just for ourselves as single people, but for all of the people who matter so much to us, regardless of their marital status.

I've been reading sociologist Margaret Nelson's accounts (here and here) of the care she provided for a friend and colleague during the last two years of that person's life. The woman, whom Nelson calls "Anna," was single. She and Margaret Nelson had been friends for thirty years. Anna, Nelson explained, "had no lover and no grown children to speak on her behalf; her own family of origin was, from her point of view, so dysfunctional, and knew her adult self so little, that their input was not only inappropriate but irrelevant."

When Anna was diagnosed with a cancer that would prove fatal, she asked Margaret to take on the role of "durable power of attorney" for her health care, and to share that role with another longtime friend, Louis. From that time forward, Margaret and Louis, together with a network of other friends of Anna's, provided the company and the care and the help with shopping and doctor's appointments and everything else Anna needed to maintain her independent living as long as possible. Then they were there for her still as her cancer spread, her complications multiplied, and she could no longer live on her own. To the rehabilitation wing and nursing home they came, coordinating visiting schedules and bringing whatever gifts and food and pleasures she could still enjoy.

Margaret, together with Louis and in consultation with the network of friends, made the hard decisions about just how aggressive the medical care should be when the ultimate outcome was certain and dire. Fortunately, they had had long and intense conversations with Anna before her illness had left her impaired, and Anna also had prepared a written advanced directive. Still, the decisions were wrenching. The enormous amount of time that Margaret spent at Anna's side would have posed challenges to Margaret's other obligations even if the situation were not so unbearably sad. The emotional toll compounded the difficulties.

The people in Margaret's life did not acknowledge her role in Anna's care the way they surely would have if she had been caring for a partner. Margaret noted that her "colleagues made few alterations in the demands they placed." At Anna's memorial service, "the president of our college pointedly addressed his formal condolences to Anna's biological kin."

Then there was this story, of Margaret's encounter with a colleague a few weeks after Anna's death. The colleague

"said that he wanted to acknowledge Anna's death with a card of sympathy. Did I know to whom it should be sent? When I responded that he could send it to me, he missed my meaning, assuming that I meant that I would forward it to her family. When I tried to explain that I would keep the card myself, he again misunderstood."

It's Singles Week. Let's acknowledge all of the important people in our lives. Then, eventually, maybe our colleagues will know where to send their cards.

Singles Week Special: Give yourself or someone you know the gift of attitude - Single with Attitude, that is! You can get $3 off your purchase of the book between now and the end of Singles Week (September 26) when you order it from this website and use this coupon code during checkout: WR6PYUZQ. (You can also order it from Amazon as a paperback or Kindle version, but I can't create discounts on the Amazon pages.)

Today on the National Singles Week BLOG CRAWL:

The National Singles Week blog crawl is continuing. Today, Day 2 of the crawl, Simone Grant of Sex, Lies, and Dating guest posted on Singlutionary.

This Friday (September 25), Laura Dave, author of the novel The Divorce Party, will guest blog here on Living Single. The next day (Saturday September 26), I'll close out the blog crawl by guest blogging over at our friends at Onely. Those last two days of the blog crawl will be dating-free.

To read more about the singles week blog crawl, click here. You will also find a complete schedule of the guest bloggers and the sites hosting them at the end of that post.

To mark National Singles Week, I hope to post here every day. It has been a busy couple of months for singles-relevant issues. You can find all of my Living Single posts here.