I wasn't always so independent.When I was growing up in the 1930s and 40s, my parents stressed responsibility, integrity and obedience to authority, but certainly not independence. I suspect it was not a trait that suited their idea of how a young lady of that era should behave.
During the early days of my first marriage when I was in my 20s, I had just learned to drive and I bumped into another car. It was parked, with the owner nowhere in sight. I left a note on the window with my phone number and an apology. When the owner called, I was terrified. I pretended to be the housekeeper and said I was out. When my husband came home, I told him what had happened. “Please dear, would you call him,” I pleaded. I was shocked when my husband answered: “You were the one who had the accident. You should make the call yourself.”
“I just can't face it,” I begged. Eventually my husband dealt with the matter while I cowered in the background.
Some years later I summoned up the courage to leave that husband to make a new life. At the age of 40, I had to learn quickly how to do many new things for myself. I had to rent a car, sell the house, find a place for me and my three children to live and try to balance my chequebook. I went back to university, completed my PhD and got a job as a professor. As I began to earn an independent income, develop a career, and look after my family, I felt each day I was becoming stronger. There were times when I wished some man would come along to look after me, but most of the time I was happy to rely on my own initiative.
I married again, this time as an equal partner. We bought our house together, we shared the family expenses, and I had a significant voice in decisions. I carried on with my career, did some travelling on my own, and developed friendships that were sometimes completely independent of my husband. Sadly, after we had been married only 12 years, he died of stomach cancer. I became a widow in my 50s.
For close to 25 years now I have lived alone, and have continued to work as a professor at the University of Toronto. I have developed a busy, satisfying life, with lots of friends and a marvellously interesting and vital lover who is equally self-reliant. We have been together for more than 10 years. I guard my independence jealously.
I am now 84, and a few months ago, when I complained that I had been having pain in my hips, my doctor informed me that I had severe arthritis and needed hip-replacement surgery. I was furious, and insisted that I was far too busy. I was planning to give a paper on my research at an international conference in Geneva and, over the Christmas holidays, I was looking forward to joining my lover on a vacation in Mexico. When the pain became worse, I gave in.
The operation took two hours and I was in hospital only five days. For much of the time since, I have been almost completely helpless and dependent on others to look after me. At first I couldn't even get out of bed without help, and as for cooking or cleaning or even bathing, there was no way. So I had to ask my family, my friends and my lover to sleep over, shop for me, do my banking, drive me, and even help me get into bed at night. I hated it with a passion.
And yet, I have acquired a little patience. Helpers don't always show up exactly when you need them most, and some are more capable than others.
But most of all, I have come to understand that helping out when a friend or family member is in need gives those who offer the aid a special kind of satisfaction. I have been touched by the kindness shown to me and, as I have begun to do things for myself again, I am resolved to accept help more graciously in the future.
While independence is wonderful, perhaps interdependence is even better.
Merrijoy Kelner lives in Toronto.
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