Full Fathom

The Violet Envelope (c) S. M. Glennon 2020

I did first ask if it was too soon.

In this case, to bowdlerize the first sentence of Love in the Time of Cholera: “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the run on spices that left the aisle as inexplicably barren as that of TP.”

A quarantined extreme extrovert and lifelong NYC friend had circulated a blog post updating opening lines in great novels.  Surprised that it did not contain an homage to social distancing encompassing a full century’s solitude, I contemplated a first line as ideally suited to pandemic as it is to every other aspect of human life: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father told him, ‘Stay the f*** home.’”

In some ways we’ve reframed love.  Or perhaps we just see a gloriously expanded array of acts which now express it.

Love is crossing the street when you see your neighbor coming.

******

Forever ago—that is, earlier this spring—maintaining a Smoot-length separation from one another did not neatly fall within our framework of an act of love, a noun that embraces affirmative physicality, not negative space.  I suspect most of us think of love as encompassing tactile expression, starkly incomplete as an interior experience.

Adopting a habit of strict distancing, on the other hand, is quite a bit easier than navigating the scope of a statute, a Commandment, or even an office-wide email.  It is not fraught with nuance; doesn’t entail awkward conversations with children or peers, or a foray into any framer’s intent; and seems impervious to miscommunication if one pays minimal attention, even with a pandemic-distracted mind.

When the love lies in the apartness….Well, six feet is six feet.

Or is it?

******

Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
                                             Ding-dong.
Hark! now I hear them,—ding-dong, bell.

Dropping the sense of touch from love’s repertoire may be a sea-change for most, but it is nothing new to those grieving the loss of a life’s partner.  For years I’ve felt space change shape in a way that rewrites how love is shown–intimately, profoundly, and perhaps most of all at unfathomable distances.

My husband died nine years ago, from the speedy and ghastly exponential progression of a disease that had declared its end even before there was an outward hint it had arrived to occupy his his body.

An internist, he described to me by its precise reflected sensation, but before he or anyone else could see anything there: a small, persistent lower-quadrant “ping” that lingered just a little too long after his daily run with Rufus and Brady, our exuberant rescue beagles.

By the time he intuited that this sensation differed minutely from the muscle strain it resembled, the deadliest cancer’s cells had spread and could not be contained, having first staked their claim to his pancreas and irretrievably wrapped around his portal vein.  I could never bear to look at the projected scan that accompanied a doctor’s uninflected, oddly lyrical description of his tumor’s “labyrinthine varicosities.”

Suddenly, it seemed, we were living in José Saramago’s  Death  with Interruptions. Death, aware of the problematic unintended consequences of having taken time off, and having herself become flesh and fallen under the sway of its physical desires, had resumed her job but changed it up: now, as appointed dates approached, she dispatched handwritten notices to those whose time was about to run out.

My husband had been handed one of her violet envelopes.

******

Love whittled to its essence by the prospect of a loved one’s imminent death makes holing up in solitude—and the spatial do-si-dos when we encounter people outside–seem among the lightest loads to shoulder.

This is not to say that physical separation is insignificant.  Far from it.  Multitudes of people will be haunted by outliving those who fell gravely ill and perished, whom they could not comfort face-to-face and hand-to-hand.  I am  thankful that my husband was able to be at home, surrounded and enveloped by love when he died; as traumatic as his death was, it would have been ineffably harder had we all not been able to touch and be with him.

I’ve found mere measurable distance from my children as they’ve grown sometimes physically painful.  Dropping them off at schools and airports has been a minefield of exquisite sadness, pride for the people they’ve become, yearning for the spirits of their younger selves when we all were together, and profound regret for all I could have done better when we were.

When it comes down to the point of even impermanent separation, it always seems far too soon. Kiran Desei described such a moment in The Inheritance of Loss, writing of a mother whose son had left his home in the foothills of Mount Kanchenjunga to travel to New York City, and who “was weeping because she had not estimated the imbalance between the finality of good-bye and the briefness of the last moment.”

The dissonance is a function of the uncertainty of not knowing how long a separation will last, or how or whether it will end.

******

I gratefully accepted the privilege of an opportunity for home confinement with one of my sons only a little bit before it become au courant, and well before the first shelter-in-place order expressed the alchemy of an act of isolation as a commitment to community.

I found myself trying to put my dread into words for someone whom technology permits me to see and hear on a wee screen. My subconscious seized on those who will survive the pandemic. (Cue, as ever, Hamilton: “Dying is easy; living is hard,” and Eliza, who outlives her husband by a half-century).

I finally stammered, “It’s the grief that’s coming, for so many, so soon.”

Six feet apart is essential, but my husband would also have been early to understand that for countless people it comes too late to escape six feet under, or whatever measurement we may assign to the “thin” space we can no longer breach between heaven and earth once people we love are no longer within our reach.

These thin places are where I best understand how touch can be the least important of our senses.  According to Eric Weiner, those who originated the term “almost certainly spoke with an Irish brogue. The ancient pagan Celts, and later, Christians, used the term to describe mesmerizing places like the wind-swept isle of Iona . . . . Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.”

A thin place involves only one corporeal presence but is soul-to-soul.  It lacks complicating barriers and layers, physical and otherwise; it cannot accommodate pretense or posturing or guile. It cannot sustain a space in which “furtive things [begin] to crawl.”  Although we cannot reach out and touch the person we love within that space, it is hard to envision a more intimate connection than that which happens there.

******

This new practice of love-at-a-distance has helped illuminate something that’s been nagging at my sleep-deprived subconscious for nearly a decade.  At about the two-year mark of widowhood, and with varying degrees of enthusiasm and tactlessness, friends started suggesting that I should try to “meet” people.  Even yours truly, who married the boyfriend I met when I was not quite seventeen, could understand an entreaty into the world of dating into which many of my divorced friends regularly and readily dive.

To some I was direct.  To most I merely demurred, having not yet identified that my unwidowed friends and I think in different languages.  “You might as well get a rocking chair and a shawl,” one separated friend, summonsing years of unresolved aggrievement to which I cannot relate. What could she possibly think is wrong with that? I thought.

These conversations, which I abruptly fled, were focused on one sense: the physical.

I suspect that is not even within the top 100 of the list of missing pieces from the ranks of the grieving so many are  joining.  The experience of watching someone you love so deeply at the end of life can consolidate sensory memory and distill the essence of intimacy in love, to which touch may be tangential.

Were I forced to pick something physical that catches my heart still, it is a memory that doesn’t even involve touch.  I can still see every detail of my husband’s left shoulder, rising and falling with the subtlety of a shimmer as he, always on his right side, slept the “sleep of the just,” as he called it with a twinkle whenever I incredulously asked him about his capacity to occupy the present and disengage for restorative rest from what he could change in this world and what he accepted he could not.

******

Minutes after my husband and I learned we would have to tell our four children that he would not live long, we walked outside a Boston hospital on a cold, black November night.

I could not stand without leaning on him.   He was more than a foot taller than I, so my head pressed against his heart, under the button of the fruitless implanted port pressed up like a penny by his collarbone.

“You know, I’d really rather you run off with an Argentinian mistress than this,” I sobbed.  (Back then, as a matter of current events, it made sense.)

He looked at me with a tenderness I will always be able to see.

“Nah, I still think you’d kill me first.”  Before the metastasized cancer did.

He wasn’t wrong.

******

Inside my shuttered window on the world I have come to think that disorientation by physical distancing has little to do with the physical, including romance; it has everything to do with love, and quite a bit to do with grief, anticipatory and present.

The fathom as the unfathomable.

******

On an icy early spring day in New England, just like the March day my husband died, snow had dissolved and darkened into finely-crimped crêpe a sizeable cohort of a bed of violet crocuses which just the day before had sturdily faced the sun.

After I darted across the street to avoid them I watched an elderly couple, gloved hands on wool coat sleeves steadying each other, as I hope they still do and always will.

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The Earth Below Our Feet

 

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“It was odd, she thought, how if one was alone, one leant to inanimate things; trees, streams, flowers; felt they expressed one; felt they became one; felt they knew one, in a sense were one; felt an irrational tenderness thus (she looked at that long steady light) as for oneself.”  ― Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

I am no newcomer to life among inanimate things, physically distant from beloved fellow humans.

For years I’ve been wandering alone among the shapes and colors of absent souls.

In recent years, as my children have become adults and ventured ever farther outward, the spaces among us earth-anchored souls also have become immense.

I was, of course, the first to feel the frissons of our sons’ and daughters’ physical presence.  My cheeks flushed scarlet and grew warm.  Soon it seemed I could hear and feel the air buzzing around me, its weight pressing down on me more surely than gravity beckoned below.  I grew dizzy and nauseated, then violently ill for a full six months.  Formerly pleasing smells sickened me.

Eventually, when I could hold down food, with each pregnancy I developed a single-minded fixation on some unlikely earthly sustenance.  Gestating the baby who would turn out to be an omnivore–and who to this day remains disinclined to confine a given meal to vegetables alone- I craved only broccoli.  My vegan-to-be prompted quixotically untimely third-trimester quests for sausage and cheese breakfast sandwiches.

Long before anyone else could see any part of them–an event that required awaiting the moments when their wee heels pressed upward and outward on my abdomen as they ferociously kicked to already distinct musical preferances–I felt their beings as gentle waves, miniature murmurations of starlings.

And when at last we saw their faces in each operating room, my husband was the first to gather their exquisite beings in a single hand, pressing them this time to his own heart.  We thirstily held them, and each older brother and sister cradled each sibling, then lingered over them, plump fingers tucking flannel blankets into the increasingly well-worn Moses Basket.

Although they still relied on my body to sustain them when they were delivered, it took only days for me to realize I could never again seal off our babies from whatever was out there in the world.

I touched my carefully-washed fingertip to the crescent of one of my firstborn’s fingernails, tinier than a pencil eraser, and saw the first visible, infinitesimal intrusion of something beyond us into our bubble: somehow, a speck of slate dust or firewood ash had found its way there.

Soon after that, due to complications from delivery, I had to be readmitted to the hospital for another week.  As dramatically sick as I was, I resisted my return to the maternity floor, devastated that my baby would not be allowed to stay in the room with me.

‘He’s been discharged,” a nurse tried to explain. She refrained from alarming me with news of how immune-compromised I myself was at the time.

“He’s considered a street baby, now,” Jim translated, looking as worried as I’d ever seen him. “Outside germ vectors.”

For a time, we could no longer safely be in constant skin-to-skin touch.

******

For years afterwards I felt echos of that first distress of separation. Our children emerged from the cocoon of whatever home we occupied and went beyond my field of view. But I still knew where they were, every second of every day.

Now they routinely inhabit fields of knowledge and parts of the world entirely outside my experience, and largely outside my understanding. I not infrequently lack even a range of plausible answers when asked what continent is currently home for one.  One child is merely thousands of miles away, on the opposite coast.  Two are in New England.  Another, during this never-ending  winter alone, has been dispatched to Uganda, the DRC, Singapore, and Vietnam.

My thoughts of what their senses now tell them often exceed my imagination.

They seem just as decisively distant as those who, like their father, are free from the earth’s pull.

In some ways, the absence of one kind of sensory input–including the ability to see or touch a person–may re-route our capacity to use our other senses.

As with bone breakage, I hope that a greenstick effectmight be at work for these young souls we love without measure.  Two clean through-and–through breaks in my four year-old’s arm had completely healed in six weeks, while I still feel the effects of a sequence of lesser bone affronts suffered as I unsteadily walked the world in the first foggy years of following my husband’s death.

I believe, and am grateful that, they are all stronger and more resilient than I am.

Close to the recent anniversary of their father’s death, I responded to what I thought I saw in a son’s eyes and asked him if he missed him.  He responded gently and intently in unadorned truth, just as his father would have: “Not the same way you do.”

In these days of quarantine, separation from both the dead and the living seems to me a matter not just of measured distance but of which senses we draw on.   I can conjure up my absent children’s and my late husband’s faces and voices and mannerisms in equal measure.  My waking and fitfully-sleeping dreams are populated by both.

Touch has transmuted to memory,  imbued with an acceleration of all other senses: the earthy smell of a woodpile covered in snow as I carried my first daughter to replenish the woodstove; my sons, hand-in-hand, scrambling on limestone rocks and inviting me to touch the smooth wood of a drowned forest; my husband’s and toddler daughter’s voices singing along to the Ramones; the taste of lemon.  Sometimes it seems I’m surrounded by a cast of dozens, the keeper of all the vibrant incarnations not just of my husband’s and my younger selves with our growing family, but of the children they were at each stage, even before they could form their own memories. I cannot now touch them or their dad, but it is among the greatest of gifts to be able to carry them all.

 

 

 

 

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Misty Mist and Dusky Dusk

 

Befitting my kindergarten position at the back of the line during kickball team picks, I recently was assigned to write no more than 200 words reflecting upon a 40th  verse abandoned on a neatly-maintained list after its 39 brethren had been claimed.

If you know me at all, personally or professionally, you may be experiencing paroxysms of disbelief at the thought that I could limit myself to just 200 words about anything.  (Even my text messages have voluminous sub-texts.)

That applies even when the 200 words is forty-fold the size of my assigned clause-as-sentence, which was just five words: “….may your will be done.”

After I finished my written ruminations–which, amazingly, came in at six words under the maximum–I realized that one word might have done just as well.

Acceptance.

I thought about the space between the cup of the Psalms, which overflows with blessings, and the cup of roiling wrath that provides the context for Matthew 26:42.

And how else can it be?/ The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain./ Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?”

At the distinct risk–and likely realization–of sacrilege,  I could not get out of my mind that when we mortals face each morning we simply don’t know and can’t control from which cup we will sip.  We chose, in our multi-fold ways, to partake–or not–of the day and engage in our world; in neither case can we choose what each day hands us.

When we reach out to other beings it can be glorious.  It also may be disappointing, maddening, or so harrowing it reduces you to zero at the bone.

We may maintain ourselves within the reasonably safe, the manageable known unknowns: Land of the Tightly-Wound and Closely-Held Amygdala.   Akin to Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates (here I hear, intoned in Jim’s smile-leavened voice, speaking to the formerly fearful me, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?“).  The banal pleasant present of (spoiler alert) the Good Place, shorn of its peaks as surely as its dark vales have disappeared.

Or we can take a page from the not-so Cowardly Lion.

But reaching out–and dealing yourself in–can also be like a cross between “The Lady or the Tiger?”  and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans (will it be the grass flavor or the vomit, cinnamon or cement?). Will you be handed the cup that runneth over, or the vessel of down-to-the-dregs bitterness?

Some element of choice remains ever-present from the macro to the micro within each day.  I choose to get outside and contemplate  the horizon even when the winter wind turns my hands to powder-blue ice and all the sea and sky I can see  is rendered in simmering dusky black.

I never regret going out to greet ordinary skies.  I deeply regret when I cannot take the detour.

And sometimes–say, one in forty mornings–I’ll dally at the shore upon a hint of the merest glimmer of incandescent pre-dawn light, and be there to see something like this….

We don’t get to chose the result; we do get to chose where we stand, and sometimes what we position ourselves to see.

 

 

 

 

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Sensational Sunrise

 

Already in this young calendar year, I have become irrationally upset at having missed a sunrise.  This dazzling world‘s irreproducible morning display.

I voiced my sadness to a colleague later that day, telling her how extraordinary the color had been, white-gold waves seeping into bright pink and variegated plum.  It was, I told her, similarly as saturated as the Valentine’s Day sunset I had chased into her west-facing office (from my windowless one) last year, sliding her vertical blinds aside and pointing to the enormous bruised purple heart cloud floating on a wavering sea of yellow-orange crepuscular rays.  (Mmmhuh, she nodded politely.  Evidently I was the only one to see it that way.  It was another particularly tough February 14th.)

Quite rationally, she wondered how I could so vividly describe a sunrise that I had missed.

It took me more than a few beats to realize I hadn’t missed sunrise at all.  I had seen it at its glorious peak as I exited the highway just as the sun was about to emerge on the horizon.

What I had missed was the chance to take a picture, to commemorate a part of it–to be able to share it, to pass it along to someone who had indeed missed it.

I collect sunrises, but do so very imperfectly, and without the overwhelming synesthesia of solitude.  My photographs don’t dance with the glittering indigo diamonds of cross-wakes as fishing boats glide out to sea.  Living things become one-dimensional shadows–a viewer can see only the  most recent vogue pose struck by a silent cormorant atop a mast.  Looking at a picture, you cannot taste the sea air or feel the crunch of underwater barnacles or hear the morning light lyrically unfold.

And in my friend’s observation I may have discovered a key to my writer’s block.

All I can ever capture of loss, of my husband and all other missing beings who have become some part of me, is what I can put into the language of words and pictures.  I want to tell their stories, but the tools I have are, in the supremely elegant words of Primo Levi in A Tranquil Star, “inadequate and [seem] laughable, as if someone were trying to plow with a feather.”  That language “that was born with us, [is] suitable for describing objects more or less as large and long-lasting as we are. It doesn’t go beyond what our senses tell us.”

Perhaps it has become difficult to write because I feel I should have moved forward–that I have nothing useful to say now that I am somehow on the cusp of a second decade of living with this never-ending grief, now augmented by the half-life of the additional losses we all accrue.

All I can ever capture of a sunrise is what it looked like, but maybe that is–or should be–enough.  Maybe that dollop of beauty, which I am almost always the only person in sight to behold, is enough to share.  And maybe it’s enough to be able to write about what you know of the people you love and have loved, especially those who can no longer tell their stories.

I did not, after all, miss that sunrise.

Let me tell you about it.

I have known people who live and have lived lives filled with kindness, humor, wisdom, and grace.

Please allow me to tell you about them…

 

 

 

 

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