I meet Judy T outside her home, which sits at the side of a beautifully flowering preserve that was donated to the city by Judy and her husband. It is the wrong day for our interview. I have gotten my dates mixed up. Judy is hanging out laundry in the clean summer air, and she graciously overlooks my mistake and invites me in. She has a lovely home, spacious and very well cared for.
Judy is a straightforward woman who pulls no punches. She knows I am here to interview her about how she looks on the bright side in her life, but she is not one of those people who gets there by pretending the bad stuff doesn’t exist. “I have spent most of my life lonely,” she tells me. It is a hard thing for me to hear. Judy, 75, is a woman of many talents, a deacon in the Episcopal Church, an on-call chaplain at a local hospital, a caring wife, mother, and grandmother, a warrior for the planet. But loneliness has been a constant part of her life.
All I can do is the best I can
with the day I have.”
“I didn’t know anybody in high school and they didn’t know me,” she says with a laugh. Her class had 250 people in it, and Judy describes herself as simply a quiet girl who got good grades. But she has begun meeting some of her classmates every other month for coffee. Some of them drive in from towns that are over an hour away. They have no high school friendship to look back on, certainly no agreement on politics. But, Judy explains, “by this time in life, we have all had various crises and disasters in our lives, and so that puts us on a pretty even keel.”
Except Judy got there very early in her life. Judy’s first husband was bipolar. He was undiagnosed, and cycled from manic to depressed, even attempting suicide. Judy was 27. When her husband’s mental health deteriorated, “It suddenly put me in a place that none of my peers had been.” Being a young, college-educated woman in a small, rural town was only part of it. Judy is also on the autism spectrum, something not diagnosed until she was 65.
The marriage resulted in three sons. I ask how she felt about having all boys, and this gets a laugh, and a typically straight-forward answer. “God knew what She was doing when She gave me all boys. A daughter and I would have killed each other. With my poor social skills and lack of understanding of what girls go through, wouldn’t have had a chance!”
Judy’s second marriage was also unhappy. Judy calls it “a mistake,” but explains that she feels it was a typical thing for someone on the spectrum to do. “He was going to rescue me,” she says, with a tired frown. “And when he discovered that I didn’t need rescuing, he didn’t know what to do.”
I cannot imagine a situation from which Judy would need rescuing. I tell her I have always admired her empathy, the way she takes into account the battles that everyone else is fighting. “People who are autistic aren’t supposed to have some of those skills,” Judy reminds me. “Well, actually we have more than people give us credit for because we’ve spent our lives banging our heads against the wall!”
Judy and David have been married over 25 years. It is clearly a happier bond than Judy has had in the past. But when I ask her if she is still lonely now, she says yes. She and David are good spouses, good friends. But his health is failing, and he has a very serious hearing loss. “Unless he knows I am speaking, I have to repeat,” Judy says. “Always.”
David’s health status has greatly curbed their social life. An active man, David is now nearly house-bound. Judy responds to this situation with her typical honesty: “That’s the way the world is right now.” Earlier I had asked her to imagine her future, and she simply told me, “I have to deal with today. I can’t change the past. All I can do is do the best I can with the day I have.” One of the nicer things they still have left to them is to watch favorite television shows together.
Judy finds other activities to occupy her at home. “I spend a lot of time and energy on cooking meals from scratch, using as much local stuff as I can. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed. It gives me a lot of satisfaction.” She adds with a laugh that she also enjoys not growing her own food, what with the deer that wander through the preserve next door.
The prairie itself is another source of comfort for Judy. The city owns the land now, but Judy does the lion’s share of the upkeep. She tells me all about the invasive species she eradicates, the multi-stage work she has done over the years and the work still to do. “I look forward to spring and summer and fall because I can get outside. During the time I’m out there, the only thing I’m thinking about is, where is the bottom of that vine or multiflora rose stem or whatever so I can cut it off at the ground and squirt it with roundup!” She calls the work “playing in the poison ivy.”
There are some especially beautiful moments outdoors. She tells me a story that starts with her cutting and spraying unwanted plants, walking along in what she calls “granny position.” “And I look up and there is a doe standing fifteen feet from me, kind of going, ‘What is this?’ Cause you know if you’ve got your butt in the air and your head down she doesn’t know what that is! So I just kind of moved away from where she was and kept on going. She stood and watched me for a long, long time and finally disappeared.”
Okay, you survived this,
the world did not come to an end.”
Judy is a religious person, as am I. I ask if she has a favorite gift from God. What she describes sounds like a talent that someone on the outside of many social interactions would have. “I seem to be able to look at what is going on and see where the dynamics are off. And I will try to communicate that to people.” Judy worked at a computing center in the 1980’s, and the ability to see a bigger picture served her well there. It still does, in personal relationships, and at church. But of course, Judy describes her gift with brutal honesty, telling me it “can be annoying as hell, both to me and other people. I guess it could be considered a form of prophecy. But you know about how popular prophets are!”
So finally, the big question: how does she find the bright side of things in a life of loneliness and struggle? Judy shrugs. “I think that I am congenitally an optimist. And whatever has happened, I’ve managed to muddle through. So that there’s always that resource to fall back on. Call it faith, I don’t know, I just know you keep on keeping on and it sorts itself out. I think that that early experience with Nick [her first husband] was very much affirmative in saying, ‘Okay, you survived this, the world did not come to an end. It was not great, but it did not come to an end, and we muddled on.’”
I have struggled with this interview more than I have for the others I’ve done. I’m sure I was naive to think that everyone that I ask about the bright side of life will describe to me a place of peace and beauty, somewhere along a well-lit, well-worn path. Judy doesn’t seem to have come upon an easy path in her life, ever. But she is not lost. Imagine, not getting lost just because you refuse to get lost. “Muddling through” the kinds of situations that bring people to their knees. What can I learn from Judy? Those of us who live more or less on the bright side–are we as strong as she is? Are we simply not as honest as she is? Should we feel fortunate that we have not had to be as strong?
I am glad to know that people do have this kind of strength. It gives me hope for the next time my path becomes rocky. And it makes me think that I do not do enough for the people in my life who are lonely.