Letter from the President
The Deep Sting of Loneliness
Helen called again today.
It’s gotten to the point where I can almost tell it’s her, just by the sound of the phone.
I know it’s hard to believe, but the ring seems more urgent, more anxious, more excited, when she calls.
Helen is a fan of my reporting. I mean, a big fan. I know this because she calls to tell me. A lot. At least three times a week. First, she’ll call my direct line at work. Then she’ll try my work cell phone (because the outgoing message on my desk phone directs people to call my cell if they really need to reach me).
And if all else fails, she calls my personal number (because my work cell directs people to call my personal cell if they really need to reach me).
That’s actually nine calls a week, if you add up all those rings. Sometimes it’s twelve. Sometimes more. Helen is persistent.
She’s also very lonely.
Helen entered my life a few months after I started reporting in Minnesota, in late 2011. Our introduction came through a hand-written letter she wrote and mailed to me. A fellow reporter glanced at the envelope as I opened it in the newsroom, and immediately concluded, “Whoever it’s from must be old. No one sends letters any more. And only old people write in cursive.”
Helen wrote about her “respect and admiration” for my work, that I always look “so nice and so handsome,” and she wanted to know if we could meet, “just on a friendly basis.”
When I started reporting on television in the late 1980s, I was 22. My first devoted fan was a 16-year-old girl. She used to send me cards that were a tad sexually suggestive. Later in my career, a woman with a very sultry voice would leave me voice mail messages in the middle of the night that were more than a little sexually suggestive.
Now I have Helen. She’s 73. The same age as my mother.
When I told her I was 46, she seemed disappointed. “I thought you were older than that,” she said.
When we do connect on the phone, Helen usually tells me that she watched my most recent story, and enjoyed it. She never really comments on the subject matter. Then she segues into her own news. It usually involves something with her knees, or her shoulder, or her teeth. They’re not in good shape. I know she has a son and a daughter-in-law and a couple grandkids. She’s from somewhere in North Dakota. She’s on a fixed income and takes the bus when she has to go out. I’m not sure what she looks like, though I picture grey hair, pulled back in a bun. I’m thinking 5’1 and petite. The cadence of her voice suggests quintessential “little old lady.”
Here’s one of Helen’s recent voice mails: “Hi, Mark. I just thought about you and decided I’d try to give you a call and see how you were doing. I’ve had real problems with arthritis the last two, three days. It’s just been terrible pain so I’m going Tuesday to get cortisone shots so that should take care of it. And then my family is going to help me get a computer later on so I can email and stuff. So anyway, like I said I just thought about you. I’ve seen you, and your stories. You really do such a good job. Well talk to you later. Bye-bye.”
I’ve made plans to meet Helen on three occasions, to have her tour the station. But each time she’s canceled. There’s always been a last-minute health issue. With her knees. Or her shoulders. Or her teeth. Part of me thinks she’s somehow afraid to come, worried that once a face-to-face visit is complete, they’ll be no need to continue our acquaintance.
For a few months, I’m ashamed to admit, I stopped taking Helen’s calls. I’d see her name come up on my phone and either ignore it or hit “decline.” I didn’t have time to listen. And yes, I sometimes didn’t have the patience.
As a result, Helen returned to her letter-writing, sending me a new note in the mail. It said, “I’ve tried many times to get ahold of you. It kind of bothers me that I haven’t heard from you. I don’t want you to feel bad about this but it hurts, as I feel completely left out. I really like and care about you as a friend, and I miss talking to you. And yes, I get lonely at times. “
Another time, I answered the phone without looking at the caller ID, expecting it to be a source for a story. I was on deadline, and on edge. Hearing Helen’s voice, I was immediately irritated. “Helen,” I snapped, “you’re really going to have to stop calling so much. You call me more than my own mother.”
“Oh,” she said, quietly. “I’m sorry.” She seemed embarrassed. “I guess I forget that you’re always busy with something to do, and I’m not.”
I apolgized, too. I was sorry, but more than anything else, I was sad.
No matter how rich or full any of our lives might be, I think everyone has had moments of memorable loneliness. I can think of several significant patches in my own past. There was ninth grade, when I literally had no friends. None. My whole group of junior high pals had split into different cliques, leaving me the odd boy out. I had no one to sit with in the lunchroom. I ate candy bars in the library instead.
My first few months in college were tough, too. I wasn’t adjusting. I remember getting drunk in my dorm room. Alone.
Then there was the entire year of 2004. Broken-hearted after a failed relationship, I became a social hermit, certain I was destined to be single for eternity. When I wasn’t working, I hibernated at home under the covers, watching television nonstop. With my cat.
There’ve been plenty of other life-defining lows for me (fodder for another column at another time), but nothing compares to loneliness. It can crush your soul if it consumes you. It plays mind games on your confidence. You feel invisible, so you become invisible.
Long story short: I’m taking Helen’s calls again. Not all of them, mind you, but at least one a week.
The sound of her rings, I’ve realized, seem urgent for a reason. When you’re lonely, you just want someone to listen.
When you’re lonely, you simply need to be heard.
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