Now, as then, one rock’s broad surface comfortably seats a man over six feet tall, allowing him to look up at the much slighter young woman facing him under a Long Nights Moon.
You faced the moon and I faced you. . . .
Technically I have been alone when revisiting the spot, in mind or body. Even now, few couples would make the rocky climb on a December night. Its most perilous stretches had no guard rails then. Hemmed by poison ivy and washed by surf, scattered signs warned of the trek’s perils, beginning with the precipitous drop from unsteady earth to roiling sea.
And we talked about the future we hoped to have and came to be.
From the narrow, rutted path’s highest point, where the young man sits and she stands, an overlook offers a panoramic view of the horizon, bracketed by ridged limestone shelves angled into the seabed, as glaciers had decreed.
The young man’s vision is razor-sharp, as it will remain all his life. Beyond his moonlit partner he sees a swath of inky, noisy ocean punctuated only by a rocky outcropping miles from shore. There, tiny Boon Island personifies the word “barren.” No less a luminary spirit than poet Celia Thaxter, of New Hampshire’s convivial close-knit Isles of Shoals and their blooming gardens, is said to have once described Boon Island as “the forlornest place that can be imagined.”
Despite its size and solitude, its uneven granite has drawn in and grounded ships over the centuries. And more than one sturdy stone lighthouse there has been storm-toppled into the sea, rearranging itself into mazes on the ocean floor.
The distant toothpick of the most recently rebuilt lighthouse is in fact New England’s tallest. Standing at strict attention atop the granite pile where nothing grows, it laconically cycles its pure white light, lest another insufficiently attentive traveler come too close.
Compared to its nearest neighbor, the gaudily scarlet-strobing, holiday-bedazzled and aggressively photographed Nubble Lighthouse, one would have to concentrate very carefully to commit this shy slender cousin to pixels or film. When one does, the tiny island itself often appears to be hovering above the water, as if it is present both as we know it to be and also its own ghost.
At this spot my husband and I shared at the cliff’s edge, the only sound likely to be heard during any season gently floated upwards. Thousands of water-smoothed stones companionably clattered as waves cycled below. They mingle and chatter as each wave washes over them and recedes, resettling their companions only slightly as they all await the next incoming wave. The sound becomes less mellifluous only in the most ferocious storms–the rare, intense storms we sometimes do not sense are coming, and which might fell even the most dependable beacons.
It is no coincidence that this single quotidian patch of earth and rock snuck itself into my subconscious memory, and in turn has played a role in both my fiction and non-fiction.
My husband died almost twelve years ago, but I will always find him–and our younger selves and our future children–in this spot, at least as present as the rocky shore and surrounding sea, and the seagulls who pause to quietly survey the rising sun along with me.
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.
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.
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.
It’s a New Zealand term of assurance: all is well, “no worries” (a phrase that now hits my ear as well-meaning but oxymoronic, a double-negative coupling of “no” and brow-furrowed “worries”; like being told not to envision a pink elephant, if I’m told not to worry, I’m going to worry).
Where “no worries” comes to a declarative full stop, the object-less “sweet as” is gloriously open-ended, and calls to mind all my (slightly belated) Valentines.
The list is, as we say in the business, not limited by enumeration.
My friend Barbara’s face when I first saw her, not knowing she’d made the long trip, downstairs at Phillips Church after hundreds of people had paid their respects and filed out. (She does not know that the purple glass chimes she gave me years ago now hang on the window overlooking my Brady’s garden. Their gentle clinking restores the missing sound of his bright blue tags as he made his way from flower to flower.)
The friend who told me he’d be there in ten minutes–from another state, on a traffic-filled holiday weekend–when I desperately texted that I had to make an unbearable decision about my beloved middle beagle, then dispensed (and even re-collected) a stream of tissues to me in the aftermath.
My newest friends, who made me laugh harder than I have in years, picked me up when I slipped on Morocco monkey ice (story to come), taught me Australian card games, and tried fruitlessly to contain me from overspending my dirham.
George, a wildly busy colleague whose wife had died when his children were very young. He always took my calls, called me when I had been silent too long, and knew when it was time for me to go back to the job I loved.
Joe and Diane, who showed up to help me move a daughter into her freshman dormitory when Jim could not, and who took all of us into their home when the same daughter graduated.
A network of people I’ve never met in person, who take the trouble to read my blog and leave me messages about posts and share their own thoughts.
Friends who sent me flowers on Mother’s Day and after my father died, who helped my children when I could not get to them because of competing crises in other states and countries, who shared their own heartaches with us and helped us see “the size of the cloth.”
G., who secured for me the music for Jupiter and in whose office I knew I could always appear and get my bear hug without needing to speak.
Bethany, whom I met getting ready to go on a great big stage where we both told our stories, and arranged for me and my son to hear a long sold-out John Hiatt show after I told her the story of the golden CD my husband had burned for me years before I found it.
Jim’s lifelong friends, who visited him when he was sick and brought him a touchstone of their shared past, and who still invite me to their family events and allow me to be a part of theirs and their children’s and even their grandchildren’s lives. Jim’s family, who became my family long ago.
David Subnaught (so-dubbed to distinguish him among many distinguished college Davids), a classmate of Jim’s who flew from Colorado to the East Coast to be there for my eldest son’s graduation two months to the day after Jim died.
Tineke, my best woman, the first person I called. She literally fed me, cooking from scratch the only things she knew would tempt me, when I could not manage even that. Best man Jon, who drove to us on the night we finally brought Jim home bearing pictures he’d taken the night before our wedding and had us all laughing so hard we may have unnerved our children. Randy and Judy. Dr. Bob.
Still in treatment herself, she knew when to recommend I read “The Last Lecture,” and she knew what additional lessons perhaps only a survivor can truly impart to those suddenly thrust into cancer’s maelstrom.
She helped me wrap my brain around what my husband meant when he said that a terminal diagnosis could be harder on the spouse than the patient.
She and her husband offered up their own hard-earned experience to ease our sudden transition into a world not even doctors–unless they also are patients–understand.
They invited us up to their home for a rollicking last recording session with the Biff Jackson Group, an evening of belly laughs and home-cooked Italian food and an exegesis on the difference between People Who Like Parmesan and People Who Like Roman.
None of us knew that it would be the last night we spent out, enjoying the matchless company of friends.
They came to our home weeks later, as Jim was dying, and brought a table-sized family rolling board on which gnocchi were hand-cut for our youngest daughter while sauces bubbled on the stove to feed gathered family and friends.
On March 22 of this year, five years to the day after Jim died, Elizabeth spoke about how she has come to appreciate life lived for nearly a decade with cancer.
Give yourselves a gift and read Elizabeth’s own words: “enjoy every moment you have, even the mundane ones. Every moment is an extraordinary gift you have been given. Ordinary is extraordinary. Every ordinary moment is the gift of life.”
May you enjoy every moment of your birthday today, Elizabeth. Each of them is the sum of wonders of love in all its forms.
As I look at the beaded pearls of water bringing light and depth to the brilliant colors of today’s newly bloomed flowers I remember sitting on the wildflower-strewn hill behind our home with you and Judy as you looked forward to your baby’s birth and told us about the friend whose name your daughter would be given–the baby who is now a beautiful young woman about to bring her gifts to college and the world beyond.
Hope and beauty, heartache and love, all part of each salty tear and each drop of rain.