One of my children has coaxed me to parts of the world I never otherwise would have occupied. Even her father’s spirit of adventure and powers of persuasion had their limits, and I would happily have stayed home in New England if he had lived to be able to visit the countries to which her studies took her.
My new world , thanks to my daughter, has included desert adventures, peeking through stone windows from ancient forts on three continents, a pink city and a blue one, and paired pigeons atop a golden fort.
I spent a nearly sleepless sojourn with her in this planet’s oldest continuously inhabited city. There, I watched the sun rise into sopping August air over the Ganges, which had flooded the ghats–along with the first floor of the building we occupied. With her, I’ve circumnavigated an active volcano and an entire country, and bobbed in a blue lagoon under lime ribbons of northern light.
My early morning adventures have included a stint approximating a wedding photographer at the aptly named Peacock fountain in Jodhpur. At the Bal Samand Lake Palace, I snapped photos of a dazzling peacock and pea-hen. I have no doubt they would have answered to Romeo and Juliet, had I spoken their language.
I had never seen some of the glorious color combinations we found everywhere we looked. Silky brandied ruby water buffaloes against pure purple. Marigold and neon pink seeming to leap above neighboring baby blue. Vivid scarlet-beaked lemon-lime canaries glancing down from the world’s tallest minarets at Qutb Minar in Delhi.
I often have thought about parents’ roles in sheperding young children. But it is my children who have taught me, and taken me out into the greater world, time and time again.
This is the tenth Father’s Day that has dawned for my children without their father here with them. This year, they all are also separated from each other, occupying different spaces on two continents.
And, strangely, it is just four years since my own father died on Father’s Day , after living to teach generations of students and be a grandfather to young adults.
I am a theoretical physicist’s daughter: I understand chaotic progression cannot be undone. But I can’t help feeling the world might seem a little less profoundly disordered were they here now.
Could Jim have averted this pandemic? Perhaps not, but he surely would have seen it coming and calmly set in place and guided the communities around him to a reasoned response, adopting practices which would have saved lives, just as he did with earlier viruses which spread into human populations. He took significant time out of his early career as a practitioner to devote himself to mastering emerging, fast-moving research about a past zoonotic pandemic, in order to be able to help people many others were at best disinterested in treating. His hallmark always was a prescient, “Show me the data”; he would listen and always, always learn a great deal before proceeding.
At a far smaller scale . . . .
I would not currently have a bleeding, throbbing, plum-hued thumb, embedded with a fierce circa 1802 splinter. I would neither occupy my current home, nor have been doing a household chore involving unfinished antique wood. And even had I been, Jim would have been able to extract the splinter.
I would not have learned the patterns of the seasons in which flora grow and collapse before doing it all over again.
Hundreds of thousands of photos would have gone untaken. I do not exaggerate.
I would not have driven about a quarter-million miles, including the miles between Pittsburgh and New Hampshire that delivered me to an industrial park, lost in the middle of the night in Connecticut, where I found the musical score Jim made for when he knew I’d need one.
I would not have known so many people had such depths of kindness….or that a few people I thought I knew better would be capable of so grievously disappointing me.
I would have had a lot more sleep.
But what else would not have happened?
Would one of our daughters not have gone into global health and recently put the final touches on a dissertation modelling the spread of spillover pandemics?
Would one of our sons not have chosen, after hearing from physicists at his grandfather’s memorial service, to start in a new direction and begun an additional graduate program in physics?
Would I have gone back to my home state and my original job, or ever met the colleagues and friends who have brought so much to my life?
I would not have stood up alone on a stage and told more than 2,000 people about bringing my husband home to die, and I would not have met my friend Bethany, who told her story on the same stage and told shaky me to just look at her when I got up there, and I’d be OK.
I would have slept through, or not been outside to see, countless dazzling sunrises.
I would not have stopped being afraid of all but one thing.
I would not finally have learned how to love with no fear; had I paid more attention, I would have realized our children got there long before I did.
The hardest thing to admit is that I would not have become a better person. The experience of a devastating illness and premature death distills a good marriage to the essence of the people who share it, and gives both a chance to know and to choose what to hold onto.
Today, for Father’s Day, I am wearing the color Jim liked best–though scarlet creates an unfortunate match in feverish feel and tone to my violent global allergic reaction to summer’s arrival–as if he needed its bright beacon to locate me, when I know part of me accompanied him as well.
This morning I stood in the place where I now live and faced sunrise, as I usually do beginning in the dark wee hours of summer, waiting to see what kind of light and color will erupt and shimmer over the Atlantic., while feasting noseeums remind me I am indeed still here, hair-trigger immune system and all.
I don’t usually remember to look behind me, but this time I did. The color there was gentle, the clouds swirling and soft, without the hard bright edges of the too-bright-to-behold sun being delivered squalling into the horizon for the day ahead.
Sometimes looking back is uncomplicated and beautiful.
This nearly weightless feather, tendrils curled from a wave’s sweep and gravity’s tender embrace, was one of the last things I saw before my own fall without grace on a cliff by the sea.
By a trick of light and shadow the feather appears to be floating above a black sand beach.
I am not among the people who believe souls have a quantifiable physical heft. I think they are no less real, but more weightless still, than a feather stolen away from a bright body that still soars in the sun and dances on ribbons of moonlight.