You CAN learn to love being alone: A widow’s poignant testimony that will move and inspire you 

  • Barney Bardsley, 58, was widowed aged 47 and has one daughter, Molly
  • Barney's husband, Tim, died in 2004, at 47, after a long battle with cancer
  • She says it's been hard to feel comfortable in herself as a single person

My friend Stephen has been a bachelor for a long time. He is 65. Like me, his life revolves around work and friends — and, in his case, his beloved sailing boat. Like me, he has travelled solo through much of his life. Until now.

‘I’ve met someone new,’ he wrote to me recently, excitement bubbling under the surface of his words. ‘She’s 38, is sweet and kind, and we’ve been going out together since last autumn.’

His news made me happy. He deserves love and seems to have found it.

Barney Bardsley, 58 (pictured), was widowed aged 47 and has one daughter, Molly. Her husband, Tim, died in 2004, at 47, after a long battle with cancer

Barney Bardsley, 58 (pictured), was widowed aged 47 and has one daughter, Molly. Her husband, Tim, died in 2004, at 47, after a long battle with cancer

But it got me thinking, too. How would I feel, at 58, about starting a new relationship? With anyone at all, let alone someone nearly 30 years younger?

Widowed at 47, I have spent the past ten-plus years as a single parent, bringing up my daughter Molly alone, busying myself with the small struggles — and pleasures — of daily life and feeling increasingly astonished at how quickly the time passes.

During that time I have formed many deep and lovely friendships with both men and women. I like male company — I was brought up with two rambunctious brothers — and enjoy the different energy they exude.

But while there have been plenty of male connections which have brought me joy and support, a ‘significant other’ has stubbornly failed to materialise.

Soon I will be 60. Time to take stock.

In a puff of smoke, the past evaporates behind me: complex, colourful — and permanently out of reach. Now what?

My daughter is finishing her degree this year. So, just as I got used to being without her, she will (as is the modern way) be coming right back home again. At least for a while.

But the past three years of increasing solitude have forced me to reflect deeply. Is this how it’s going to be from now on, sailing single into the sunset? And is that a bad thing, a sadness, or a triumph?

Barney (pictured on her wedding day with Tim) says she never thought of herself as the 'marrying kind'. Tim was diagnosed with terminal cancer just three years into their marriage

Barney (pictured on her wedding day with Tim) says she never thought of herself as the 'marrying kind'. Tim was diagnosed with terminal cancer just three years into their marriage

Well, triumph would be too strong a word. But satisfaction, slowly growing, deeply felt, is certainly something I experience more as the days go tumbling one into the other.

I have begun, through both necessity and choice, to enjoy my own company; to know when to seek people and places and noise, and when to be quiet. Alone.

There is balance to be learned in this process: between an inner and an outer life, and a moving towards an acceptance of what is, rather than constantly wondering ‘what if?’

It wasn’t easy to get to this point — to feel so comfortable in my own skin as a single person. It is, rather, a process I have gone through as the weeks and years have flown by.

Barney (left) was widowed at 47 and has spent the past ten-plus years as a single parent, bringing up her daughter Molly (right) alone

Barney (left) was widowed at 47 and has spent the past ten-plus years as a single parent, bringing up her daughter Molly (right) alone

To be frank, I wasn’t the marrying kind in the first place. I am a writer after all (and we are notoriously solitary beasts), with an inordinate need for space and time; for ‘a room of my own’, as Virginia Woolf insisted.

So when a wedding did happen, when I was 35, to the lovely, reliable Tim — a solid piece of Yorkshire stone on which to rest my weary sparrow’s feet — nobody was more surprised than me.

Love was rich. Love was difficult. It brought the beauty of our only daughter Molly — and then the anguish of a terminal cancer diagnosis for Tim, just three years into our marriage. Ten years of sickness followed, until he died in 2004 at the age of 47.

After a decade of being a carer, I seemed to spend the next ten years recovering, while shepherding our daughter through adolescence — or was it her shepherding me through those awkward mid-life crises?

Either way, we both found our way out. Now she is all set to start her adult life.

Barney (pictured with her late husband Tim) says that one of the downsides of being along is the lack of tactile connection

Barney (pictured with her late husband Tim) says that one of the downsides of being along is the lack of tactile connection

And me? I missed the developing of my marriage into something enduring and constant, because Tim was taken so young. I missed male attention: I am a romantic and enjoy being wooed. But after years of feeling cheated — of a husband and a partner — I am finally coming to peace with the fact that this is it. Here I am. On my own.

Life is a constant seesaw when you are single: between loneliness and longing, and a self-contained contentment. The benefits are sweet and manifold. Huge freedom of self-expression and action. An expansion of one’s own interests — and solo adventures.

A deeper commitment to work and to delightful friendships of all different shapes and ages. Plus, the luxury of a double bed, with just one occupant. And no snoring (except my own, of course, which I can’t hear).

The downsides are include a lack of tactile connection. Sex ceases to be interesting after a while in most long-term relationships — but meaningful touch never does.

And there’s never anyone to job‑share. Whether it’s a worry about the offspring, fixing a dodgy shelf, lifting heavy boxes, cleaning, washing . . . oh, yes, and helping with the bills. Because single life is damned expensive.

Barney (pictured) says: 'Life is a constant seesaw when you are single: between loneliness and longing, and a self-contained contentment'

Barney (pictured) says: 'Life is a constant seesaw when you are single: between loneliness and longing, and a self-contained contentment'

But through all these years spent on my own (not forgetting the bracing presence of my daughter, who stopped too much gloomy navel-gazing), I have developed a certain toughness and resilience that I never knew was possible. Necessity is, indeed, the mother of invention.

Being older, being solo, being female, I am given to understand that I must ‘disappear’ from public view now I am almost 60, under the strange rules of social convention. (Maybe it’s no wonder that some women over-compensate by defiantly setting out their stall to win a coveted ‘toyboy’, just as my friend Stephen has cast his eye on a younger mistress.)

But I find the opposite is true. I feel more visible than ever.

I am a tall woman. When I was younger, this mortified me. I hung my head, hunched my shoulders, tried to hide. Now it is a badge of pride.

If you wear your confidence, as an older woman, openly — with feet firmly planted and a steady gaze — then people acknowledge that with a certain respect, with reciprocity.

Being on my own means there’s no one to hide behind. I look the world right in the face. And it looks right back at me.

Barney (pictured with daughter Molly) says that she does sometimes get sad that she may never fall in love again although she says she wouldn't try internet dating or trawl through a singles bar

Barney (pictured with daughter Molly) says that she does sometimes get sad that she may never fall in love again although she says she wouldn't try internet dating or trawl through a singles bar

I talk to shop assistants, thank bus drivers, smile at passers-by. I find strangers interesting now, rather than a potential threat. And in the main, they respond happily and kindly. I feel socially engaged with the environment I live in.

Sometimes I get sad that I may never fall in love again. But one thing’s clear. No ghastly internet dating for me, no anxious trawling through singles bars. Love is something to discover by happy chance, I think, not something to chase like promotion or a shiny new car. If it comes, it comes. But I am in no hurry now to force the issue, as I was when I was young — and in the early days after losing Tim, when I felt lonely and scared.

Whenever I get a little mournful now about being single, some salutary reminder cheers me up.

I bumped into some friends in a local bar last weekend, two couples. The men were drunk; their wives were fed up. A few snarled exchanges between one couple brought domestic tensions sharply into public view. I was happy and, frankly, relieved to wander home alone.

Still, there is nothing more admirable to me than a long and happy relationship.

My friend Christine married very young and continues, in her late 40s, to steer her tight ship of love and commitment into the future.

Barney (pictured) says that through both necessity and choice she has begun to enjoy her own company and she also knows when to seek people and places and noise, and when to be quiet and alone

But she said something telling about how she first got together with her husband, as a shy girl from another country, bewildered by this foreign culture and relieved to have found someone to guide her through. ‘I thought having someone to love would be the answer to everything,’ she said. ‘Nobody told me that if I wanted happiness, the only person who could possibly provide it, in the end, was myself.’

It was useful to hear her say that. Because it is too easy for the single person to envy a long marriage; to feel, when they see couples together, that they are pressing their noses against a window of warmth, from a place that’s cold and isolating.

Other people’s perfect lives are always illusory. Every life contains its challenges. And whether single or married, life is simply a work in progress. Surely it’s best to make it as joyful as possible, whether you’re in a relationship or not?

And anything can happen at any time to take your breath away.

My own dear father, widowed in his 80s, found a new companion in the very last year of his life, at 86. (His lady friend, I am happy to say, was a similar age to him!) Just before sunset, a new sweetness came.

I think of him often, when I imagine that life holds no more romantic surprises for me.

There is, of course, no age limit for love. Stephen has proved that. Dad, too. He taught me, by word and example, that life at every age was full of pleasure and possibility. He was an inveterate flirt with everyone he met, witty and light-hearted.

I shall endeavour, to my dying day, to be a chip off the old block. It’s the least I can do in his memory.

Old Dog, by Barney Bardsley, is published by Simon and Schuster, at £7.99. 

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