This past Saturday evening, my paternal family Zoomed to Florida to celebrate my aunt’s 96th birthday. Almost everyone was there; it was amazing to have all those little boxes on the screen…and everyone talking at the same time….just like a normal Schwaidelson family gathering. My aunt, my dad’s younger sister and last remaining sibling, pretty much sobbed her way through it…in the best sense of the emotion. Four generations scattered across the country, and the one remaining extended family seder canceled, I suspect we all needed to see each other.
Sunday morning, a well-meaning friend called to check in with me. With this strange and surreal Passover almost upon us, this is a kindness. The conversation was going swimmingly along until she told me how lucky I was to be sheltering by myself, because she was getting ready to kill her husband and bury him in the backyard. All things considered, I know her husband and yeah, I could see her doing that. I doubt any jury would convict her….but that’s neither here nor there.
But the remark bugged me and ultimately I told her that however annoying he is, it’s someone in the house to talk to, play Scrabble with, to scratch the place that itches one cannot reach, argue with, eat dinner with, and maybe even hug once in a while. I suggested that she not say stuff like that to other alone people she calls…because it will make many of us sad when we are fighting exactly that along with COVID-19.
It’s not about choosing to be alone; it’s about being totally alone in your heart. It’s different.
Yeah, as someone editing a new, rather long, complicated novel, this isolation is a perverse kind of writer’s heaven. No one bugs me to do anything. I do go for walks, but it’s on my schedule. I’m very productive, but I’m also talking to the pictures on the walls and having long, in-depth conversations with my characters.
The idea of isolation, self-imposed or state-mandated, changes lots of things. Choices we make to deal with the low moments are not available. People are especially busy with their own Pesach mishugas. And I find I’m digging deep into my happiness reserves to recall specific happy moments. And I am not ashamed to confess I’ve actually started looking at the Facebook memories o’the’day page for a cheap smile.
I reached out to several of my widow friends to ask why this feels so different from our usual feeling of isolation/quarantine…you know…the one where people stop inviting us to stuff we used to go to because they might catch widowness from us?
One widow put it rather succinctly: hugs.
Social distancing with your spouse/partner/family under the same roof means you get to hug someone periodically. You get to touch someone. Even if you’re arguing, there is in-person human interaction.
STOP: IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER !
SELF-ISOLATION IS ALSO A BREEDING GROUND FOR DOMESTIC VIOLENCE. THERE ARE STILL WOMEN WHO NEED TO LEAVE. THIS IS NOT ABOUT THAT.
Yes, there are other people who live alone. There are divorced people, and people who just don’t want to live with someone else. Yes, there are all sorts of people who choose to be on their own. Everyone has a story, but this is not a pissing contest about whose isolation is greater. This is about world of widows.
My friend Anita, the widow who shepherded me through the early fog, once told me, “Nobody has an instruction book. You get to write your own.” She had a great many other pearls to impart during those early days, and I am thankful for that. And I have tried to pay it forward, to say that same thing to others facing that new world. But……and there is always a but…
But when a spouse/partner shuffles off the mortal coil and leave us standing there, it’s a different kind of loss. Loss of the left shoe while you are still wearing the right one. Loss of the guffaw to your bad joke. Loss of the silent communication transmitted in a hand hold. It’s a permanent loss you weren’t looking for, really didn’t want, and impossible to discuss with the person you need to hear most. Physical and psychic intimacy is severed. There is no repair possible. You are alone.
This quarantine/self-isolation takes that alone and blows it up like a balloon filling the entire house. Every space is taken up with alone and there is no possible way to welcome a person into that space. It’s not wise, it’s not safe, and it may be illegal in some places.
YOU ARE HERE……………………………………………THEY ARE THERE.
Meanwhile, you look out the window and see couples walking dogs, mouths moving and although you cannot hear what they are are saying, and your heart longs to have that one person standing next to you looking out the window with you. Instead, there is a tiny space beside you, and not even your imagination can quite fill it.
I know I’m not alone in feeling the absence more intensely this year…because my widow friends are all saying pretty much the same thing. There is something about enforced isolation that makes many of us especially envious of those sheltering with others. Amongst my crowd, we have all commented on how we miss our life-partners’ follies and foibles a whole lot more right now. In my own silence, missing my husband is downright heart-rending all over again. And we feel sad.
Make no mistake about this: sad is NOT depressed. Far from it…at least for me, and most of my widow friends. We get to be sad because we miss our partners. We are entitled. We lived and loved these people and chose to be with them. We did not choose to be without them. And we get to pick our heads up to see the possibilities before us…mostly because we’re not dead yet, nor do we have any intention of being dead at the moment. Get my drift?
This new isolation oddly attaches itself to the one I experienced with my husband 11 years ago as he prepared to leave us. There are some similarities, some differences. As some people count the days/weeks/months of self-quarantine, we begin the counting of the Omer just as I begin my version…the last days of my husband’s life from the diagnosis on the first day of Pesach to his death the week after Shavuot. Yeah, it does add a certain dimension to my personal sense of isolation, but I know this, too, shall pass.
I’m not all that sure about coronavirus.