Now Face West

Facing East

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.

Seven years have passed since we brought his ashes to billow into an underwater cloud at Northern Ireland’s northernmost point.

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 likely would have yet to experience the agita of handling family finances.  Jim spared me quite a bit.

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?

Had life not unwound as it did, I assuredly would not have seen penguins on the equator, or cliff-dwelling birds above a midnight-black sand beach in Vik.  I would not have traveled by camel into deserts on two continents,  or come perilously close to causing an international incident at the G8 summit in Belfast.  I would not have been overcome by dizzying heat in timeless Banaras, rounding an ancient  corner to stand eye-to-eye with a water buffalo.  

 

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.  

Happy Father’s Day.

Father’s Day 2020

 

Love Lessons: A Marriage Manifesto

Overhead at the spot where we married, Memorial Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Overhead at the spot where we married, Memorial Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts

” . . . [T]here are three people in a marriage, there’s the woman, there’s the man, and there’s what I call the third person, the most important, the person who is composed of the man and woman together.”

–Jose Saramago, “All the Names”

” Because, you know, you and your spouse are, like, one.”

–Melissa Gorga, “Real Housewives of New Jersey”

I’d like to weigh in as a mom.  One with young daughters and sons.  The remaining member of a couple who lived out our wedding vows until–and in a way after–death us did part.

I believe in osmosis–the continuing two-way exchanges within a good marriage.  It’s not so much that one consciously molds or shapes a partner, but I think sustaining loving relationships let us incorporate the best parts of one another.

The person the two of you become can be a better human being than the people you once were.

(I refuse to link to an original mom “manifesto,” issued by, I am somewhat pained to say, a fellow alum who produced two sons.  She wrote an open letter–published in the school newspaper of the university her son then attended–exhorting the nubile female undergraduate population promptly to set about seizing husband material from the upper classes.  In a subsequent self promotional tour, she paused theatrically and announced, without benefit of a preceding question, “Yes, I went there.”  To which John Stewart responded, “Where?  The 1950s?”).

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Wedding Flowers

I’ll spare you reading that screed and report that–while celebrating the supposed uber-marriagability of her sons and their male classmates–her clarion call to to other mothers’ daughters did not contain a single discussion of love, kindness, faith, grace, friendship, or anything like a commitment of souls for better and worse.

Your College Romantic Relationships, or Lack Thereof, Will Not Doom You.

Three Cheers . . .

First a disclaimer: I happen to have married a man I met when I was a teenage college student.  It was a statistical improbability that this relationship would last.

He broke up with me after nearly a year.

I didn’t take it all that well.

What he said, with some puzzlement at my surprise: “Did you think it would last forever?”

What he didn’t say, but what I read in his decision and discomfort: “You’re my first girlfriend.  We’re still teenagers.  Neither of us has any experience with a serious relationship.  How could this possibly survive?”

As it happened, he reconsidered.  And it did last forever.

Jim’s Closing Ceremonies took place in a church on a school campus, attended by multitudinous children and teenagers.  The Reverend commented on the beginning of our marriage.

“And don’t rush it, guys,” he told them. “But if you chance to meet someone at seventeen and think, ‘This is my life partner,’ know that sometimes it works.”

The key word here is chance.  Happenstance.  Serendipity caused us to meet.  A confluence of love and hope and compatibility, as well as innumerable concrete events we did not control, led us to marry.

Absent any of these whispers from the wings, Jim could have been to me and I could have been to him, as Greg Brown put it, “just another face in the crowd.”

Had any number of other choices been made in either of our lives, no doubt we would have had other relationships and become very different people.  But I guarantee that the quality of the marriage wasn’t influenced by us attending the same college.

If my own children one day emerge in their adult lives with partners they had in college, then great.  And if not, great.  I will never subscribe to, let alone ply, the misguided notion that a “name” school is necessarily the ideal breeding ground for . . . well, finding someone with whom to breed.

I do believe that everywhere my children have gone and will go–from the playgrounds where they ephemerally encountered fellow littles (hat tip to E.  Lockhart)  to the coffee shops they may frequent; from the bands, dance troupes, trivia nights and game boards where they gather to the far-flung countries where they are immersed in different languages and cultures–is a way to learn how to love and value other people.

If romantic love comes to town along with that, fine.  And if not–as any widow or widower can tell you–that’s not all there is.

The capacity to love, wherever you found it, endures. Continue reading “Love Lessons: A Marriage Manifesto”

Life Lessons From a Mayonnaise Jar

Straddling New Hampshire and Vermont
Mother’s Day 2012

I don’t know how many commencements I’ve attended, but I remember what the speaker at my husband’s medical school graduation told the crowd of new interns.  He quoted the instructions on a mayonnaise jar: “Keep cool.  Do not freeze.”

That’s really not bad advice.

Within the catalogue of my parenting deficiencies without my husband’s physical presence, I cannot claim consistently to have kept cool, but at least I have not frozen for long.

I simply never imagined being the only parent.  It was outside what my mind could envision until the darkness that crashed down in that drawn-out moment when my husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Last spring on Mother’s Day I was very fresh to the world of involuntarily single parenting.  Today it remains overwhelming to realize that everything ultimately falls upon me; my wise husband is not there to give advice and be a sounding board in my or our children’s  crises–not even to send me out of the room to regroup when he saw a warning salvo signalling one of those blitzkrieg-like escalations between mothers and teenage daughters.  Jim possessed no temper. Continue reading “Life Lessons From a Mayonnaise Jar”

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