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?
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.