“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.” ―
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 effect might 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.