A Layered Valentine

 An onion, or two, for Valentine’s Day.

“Not a red rose or a satin heart,” as poet Carol Ann Duffy wrote. Nor “a cute card or a kissogram.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with those.

Love is often linked, aptly and sometimes egregiously, not only to light and dark but to food and drink.  Comfort foods which harken back to the idiosyncratic home cooking of childhood, at least for those, unlike my own sons and daughters, lucky enough to have grown up with a competently sustained culinary oeuvre.  Obscenely costly symbols—authentic Champagne, caviar, pure 24K gold itself shaved over Black Forest Truffles as insular and dense as volcanic rock.   Family recipes handed down for better and for worse.  Flourlesss chocolate wedding cake.  Fresh cardinal-red strawberries and purple cauliflower.  Friends who make and feed us the only foods we can manage to eat in times of abject grief.

In my experience, rarely had love’s layers been called to mind by the sulfenic acid particulates which aerosolize as one dissects a vegetable.      

But on my counter sits a stalwart couple: a towering purple onion listing slightly over its companion, a small golden onion, as if giving shelter. They have long outlasted all their brethren, delivered to me by a friend not driven to distraction with anxiety at the thought of going inside in winter to purchase daily bread. Only their surfaces are slightly worse for wear, separating along sepia fissures at their translucent outermost layers, furling ever so slightly, more like Rilke’s unending rose petals than the chafing away of our own perishable brittle epidermal layers, cracked by sub-zero cold. 

Although I unceremoniously felled some of their brethren, I do not plan to do harm to these companionable Alliums. 

I consider them my Valentines. 

Early in the pandemic, knowing both of the exceedingly difficult anniversaries which inhabit my outsized winters and in-house medical issues (soon to be compounded by my mother’s CoVid diagnosis), friends from work began driving significant distances to bring me food. 

After a scale revealed that I had dipped down into double digits, I was delivered troves of healthy food, including bountiful salads someone had endured quite a lot of volatile red onion vapor to adorn. . .along with a not inconsiderable amount of my favorite less healthy treats. The sustaining bounty arrived on my birthday, and fortified me for the hollowed-out holidays which followed.  My brother brought me highly sweetened booze, just in case, to toast my birthday and Jim’s, although of course Jim does not age.  A friend sent Maine coffee to warm my mornings, and then decaffeinated coffee once I had to forgo the real thing.

Writ large, multitudes, alone and in countless communities, continue to risk their own health to continue to provide meals and groceries to those in need of them.    

A century ago, in the pandemic season of her time, Julia Neill Sullivan, at 72, cooked pots of food in the small cottage on Ireland’s west coast where she had raised thirteen children, hauling meals across a stony field to those stricken by influenza and too weak to feed themselves.  More than 50 million people perished worldwide, but her own grace in her remote corner of the world ensured that others would survive. Generations have followed them.

Suffering and deprivations are immense.  It is hard to know where to begin, and daunting to consider all that we cannot heal or fix—certainly not by ourselves, and maybe not while we still walk here.    

But the gift of grace is ours to take as far as each of us can carry it.  It is exponential and enduring.  Trauma can unfold and carry its scars across time, but so does the grace “to help in time of need.”

In his last newspaper column, at the end of May, Jim Dwyer wrote about those who at their own peril now come to the throne, to feed the sick and those whose calling is to minister to them.  He also gifted us all with this final sentence about what Julia Sullivan did a century ago: “In times to come, when we are all gone, people not yet born will walk in the sunshine of their own days because of what women and men did at this hour to feed the sick, to heal and comfort.”

Food is not, strictly speaking, love, but the impulse and the calling to bring or serve sustenance to someone else is. We all need, and may be called upon to give, any “provision for the way” that we are capable of giving. 

Deaf Stone Alone

“Now, I don’t know much about the sea, but I do know that’s the way it is here.   And I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing blind, deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your own hands and your own head….”

— Primo Levi, A Tranquil Star

Simmering, solitary, stone alone on rocks half jutting from the Atlantic, facing bottomless sky.

I feel most at home now in these vistas, the same settings in which I felt overwhelmed to the point of fear as a child.

I am grateful to still have a home and a job, and be able to give to those who do not have such safe harbors, yet I cannot think of another physical space that is not fraught. I cannot believe it is cost-free for any of us to see our communal spaces, inside and outside, as places we no longer comfortably occupy together. Danger lies in merely breathing the same air; different wounds lie in not being able to.

I first noticed the transformations by day, as my professional community began to identify ways to minimize what must be done in human company and ascertain what can be accomplished alone and at a distance.

It quickly became apparent that it is hard to physically separate the humans who carry out a process or purpose from each other without eliding the humanity of what they do.

This is not restricted to our occupations and avocations. What do we all lose once it may be lifesaving not to sit in sustained silence with someone who is grieving, bereft, not prepared to speak? When the colleagues are missing from collegial problem-solving, the give-and-take of people with different life and work experiences at a pace that permits contemplation before setting course? How do our responses change when we do not have time to envision less immediately-evident possibilities, or even lighten a discussion with humor, when we do not have the luxury of letting our minds wander as far as they need to in order to regroup as an experienced team to tackle what is at hand? What do we lose when we need to come up with answers whose critical feature has been elevated to contact-free speed?

What do we all lose when we can no longer offer a hand or shoulder or an unbarricaded face to someone in physical or psychic pain? When we can only offer up an electronic voice to be held up by a stranger to, at the mercy of an internet connection, whisper into the ear of a dying parent? When a frightened pediatric patient cannot read the kindness of the shrouded caregivers trying to assist her?

Without the noise and energy of the sheer presence of more than a handful of people, now spread out like thumbtacks in spaces meant to hold connected communities, it is not just the people who are absent. And when we are reduced to action, to business itself, to the in-and-out tasks we must still perform, we are forced to contend with our unadorned selves. How we proceed is limited by the absence of comradery, of the shared history and understanding and burdens of traumatic work and other collective pain.

Into this continuing, exhausting breach, we may be accompanied by our own insufficiently tended demons, cast into excruciating relief because they are now our only constant companions.

******

Given the existential perils the world faces, my losses are of little moment. Still, they limit what I might have been able to put out into the world. I realized, for example, that I seem to have lost the capacity to write non-fiction about loss, which at its best someone else might then identify as communal, not something that need always be suffered alone, as I do now, adrift from communion and companionship among those whose earthly presence I did not understand I had grown so much to depend on.

Now I am only relatively confident of my identity as the green eyes above the mask and suit jacket. But even on those occasions when we physically assemble in some form, usually somewhere on the spectrum between resignation and terror of attendant risks, masks allow us to conceal so much.

Sheared off from the corpus of each of these communities, I have discovered it is nearly impossible to understand my omnipresent self. My capacity for memoir, such as it ever was, seems to have escaped me this year–problematically, because that is the stuff of this blog.

(If you have been with me here for awhile, first, thank you from the bottom of my still aching heart. And second, I apologize for the exponentially increasing spaces among posts.)

There seems no point in writing about life apart from anyone else. In retrospect, it seems telling that the last time I was able to write about my family immediately followed the small, masked, stringently-separated gathering of family members at my father-in-law’s September funeral. There I finally could share space with family, although I could not hug, or even closely approach, my own son after his reading for his beloved Papa.

Yet in these same strange times when non-fiction seems incapable of being instructive, writing fiction has become so easy as to be unsporting. Unreality composes itself at the keyboard. I am but the fingers which hunt and peck, rapid-fire, to generate stories.

At the age of nine I lived an isolated life as a less-than-welcome American in Meudon, Hauts-de-Seine, where I read Agatha Christie and Edgar Allen Poe and tried my wee hand at crime fiction, very loosely speaking. I used blue felt tip pens to replicate rigid typeface within brightly-colored fabric-covered sketch books. My inspiration was tertiary: fiction by authors who, as far as I can now tell, had no professional experience, and possibly no significant life experience, with violent crime and its detection and consequences.

Decades later, I have become more immersed in the memories of such transgressions than I apparently can bear to process. In a handful of sleep-bereft early pandemic months and in the particular solitude of winter’s enduring darkness, some 70,000+ words of what I would have described as crime fiction materialized on my computer screen. The story might just as easily have appeared full-blown as I slept, were I a far more gifted sleeper.

It took a third-party’s eyes on the draft to illuminate this mystery, explaining that she recognized missing pieces of my life–that it was not crime fiction at all, but a biography of intergenerational trauma, still writing itself forward.

It was not that I could no longer write about lived experience but that solitude has made it easier to write from memory’s reservoir, in a different voice that extends it to a heartbreakingly whole cloth, which includes the invisible brothers and sisters who share some of the harsh experiences which transform truth into stories we can live with, in some measure. This non-fictional fiction has become the only way I can bear to commit some truths to words, to expose them to daylight in whatever ways mere language can.

Seachange wrought by the ocean’s battering force can make sharp-edged glass bearable to touch; it can subdue the razored edges of the immense cantilevered stones and jagged rocks I navigate as incoming waves present me with tidepool offerings of reflected pre-dawn light.

Living creatures are different. They may harden against onslaught, or the risk of it. Shock and tumult and the fear of their future repetition, particularly when a traumatic event was impossible to see coming, can elevate the apprehension of another impact into an immobilizing force. Embedded pain may condition our brittle, wounded selves to brace against a next blow, to hold ourselves far too rigidly together, trying not to let the fissures show. But those stress points still change the shape of what comes next.

I am learning that the steeling itself, feeling utterly alone to confront what comes next, can facilitate the next breaks, if not the next breakdown. A greenstick bone fracture heals quickly and leaves no traces precisely because the site of the injury remains so pliable that its residue disappears in the healing. A child’s bones can snap clean through, as one of my daughters’ forearms once did in a short fall from a piano bench when she was three, yet heal so completely that within weeks an x-ray will reveal no trace of the trauma; these greenstick children mercifully will not be imprinted with an expectation that the pain will revisit them.

The pandemic has taught me that all too often I remain on high alert, particularly fearful of the one thing I consciously still fear: harm to the people I love and, who, unlike their father, are still here. “Here” now means out and away, out there. The daughter whose bones healed so seamlessly is on another continent, and I have no idea where and when I might be able to see her again. I cannot hug her or her siblings any more than I can touch my ghost husband’s shoulder.

I find myself incapable of cushioning lesser discomforts by taking care of myself; I push myself until a first wave of percolating back pain becomes something immobilizing, as if ignoring what pains me is mastery and not its opposite: surrender.

Only when I am outdoors at off hours, taking stock of the gloriously unending shore and heavens, do I let myself settle as the waves cycle in, without steeling myself and my aching, surgically-rearranged spine against a next terrible blow.

In these months of transformed community, my subconscious seems to have rewritten catastrophic experience as fiction. In this maelstrom, perhaps the superficially non-biographical has become the comparatively safer place to which my wounds and memories have fled and disguised themselves as something other than my life.

Maybe this is simply a fleeting new voice for ancient communal experience that merely feels like it springs from one’s own lived years. As poet Louise Glück wrote:

I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:
from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.

If at the beginning of this endless year your hope; your belief in justice, or love, or redemption; or your faith itself had fissures, then like score marks on paper they may have left you–like me–more vulnerable to being reshaped in unwelcome ways by outside forces. Without the palpable presence of the multitudes of fellow beings most of us used to walk and sit with and otherwise be among, distractions and self-protective filters of the metaphorical (non-N95) kind are hard to maintain.

But we can still safely breathe in and out to unseen others from where we find ourselves–in love, in any art at all, in service, in food, in flowers, in fiction and non-fiction, pictures, spoken and sung words, old-fashioned written letters, fabric, and photographs taken when the rest of the world is asleep. Even when it deeply hurts to put something out into the world still out there, it may speak to someone who feels equally unseeable.

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

 

Full Fathom

The Violet Envelope (c) S. M. Glennon 2020

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?

******

Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
                                             Ding-dong.
Hark! now I hear them,—ding-dong, bell.
 
 
 

 

 

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.

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