It could be worse. I could, for example, be nine months pregnant and have just learned that the baby I am carrying has no heartbeat, but must be born anyway. That would be much worse. I am neither pregnant, nor is my baby dead, so I am, by all accounts, among the lucky ones. As the narrator of one of my favorite movies, Lasse Hallström’s 1985 “My Life as a Dog” enjoins, “It’s important to have things to compare with… You have to compare all the time…You have to compare so you can get a little distance on things.”
Still, I am sick with Covid 19 (though, again, not too sick and so not too unfortunate), and I do have to pack to move two weeks from today, by myself, with two children and my seventy-three year old mother, two out of three of whom are also sick, just after New Year’s, for the—wait for it—thirty-seventh-ish time in my life. Not quite once for every year I’ve been alive, but not far from it.
Often, these moves were voluntary and appealing—boarding school! Brazil! New York! Paris! Honolulu!—but just as often they were not—a lease was up, my family couldn’t make rent, a relationship was ending.
It is hard enough to do hard things when we’re motivated, but harder still when we’re reluctant, or outright averse, as is the case for me just now. When I moved into this house a year ago, I had hoped to be here for the rest of my life, or, at the very least, a very long time. We were buying rather than renting, we were in love, we didn’t have jobs that threatened to take us elsewhere. And I was committed, and believed that if I was sufficiently committed, for better or worse, that would be enough.
But here’s the thing: commitment, it turns out, is not an insurance policy. All the commitment in the world can’t resurrect the dead, and, to paraphrase Bonnie Raitt, we can’t make someone love us if they don’t.
One problem, however, is that we can try. Unlike biological death, the incontrovertible quality of which most of us can’t help but accept, the death of a relationship has just enough ambiguity about it to render it torturous. The educator and researcher Pauline Boss, who pioneered the concept of “ambiguous loss” in the 1970’s, describes them as by far the most stressful kind: Losses that seem arbitrary, or partial, or senseless, or avoidable; losses that wouldn’t be, if only.
I have begun packing books, the low hanging fruit. They fit neatly into boxes and lend themselves to categorization. Poetry, fiction, non-fiction, reference; women’s studies, art, coffee table, children’s. But then I realize the shelves I’m taking them from are built-in, and I’ll have no place to put them in the new house, and I am defeated. I remember how grateful I was when they were built, how impressed I was with my partner’s carpentry skills…
Before the Covid diagnosis, my father and sister and older children were to have come for Christmas, so I was going to try to leave the house in tact until the last minute. We got a tree that fits perfectly in the living room, adjacent to the (non-funtional) fireplace. The house is a brick Tudor built in the 1920’s and looks as if it were designed for such an idyllic holiday scene. I had been looking forward to our first Christmas in this house all year. I remember when we first brought our young girls to see it, before putting in an offer, how they marveled at the heavy arched wood front door, the lion’s head door knocker, the stones steps in the porch light.
Now that no one is coming for Christmas, I’ve gone ahead and begun dismantling our life, though it breaks my heart that my five and fifteen year olds have to witness this and navigate the maze of boxes and packing materials instead of basking in the glow of the tree which, along with the oranges and cloves and gingerbread and hot cocoa, we can’t smell. It’s as if Covid were engineered to deprive us of even the most modest pleasures of the season. The baked goods we’ve made we can neither taste ourselves nor share with others for fear of infecting them, and so they grow stale on the counter. Kind friends and colleagues have offered meal delivery, but we can scarcely bring ourselves to eat.
The nausea is a bit like morning sickness, and I am reminded of another occasion during which I had to pack and move across the Atlantic, from Honolulu to Charleston, while pregnant and with two preschoolers at home. How ever did I do it? Of course, that was fifteen years ago and so I was thirty years old, with all of the energy of a much younger person and so much less psychological baggage.
It’s true, we’ve accumulated a lot of books and bakeware and bedding over the years, but what really weighs me down are not so much the material possessions as the emotional ones. How many times have I carefully wrapped up my hopes and dreams only to have them broken and battered in transit? How many times have I told myself just this one last time, and then we’ll be settled for good?
We will be renting again, so can harbor no illusions as to the permanence of this move. Hopefully, we can stay a year or two, maybe longer. I would love to be able to see my youngest son through high school without another upheaval. I have a job I feel good about and like the town where we live. But this is not the life I wanted. I did not want to be alone. I did not want to have to work so hard just to get by.
I feel like a child who is disappointed by a Christmas gift that cannot be returned or exchanged. This is the life I have been given, and if my parents taught me one thing, it was always to be gracious in receiving. I do not have to lie and pretend it’s just what I always wanted, but I do have to say thank you. I do have to be grateful. I do have to believe it was given to me for a reason, a reason I might not be able to fathom from where I’m sitting. A reason that will be revealed in time. A reason that may, like most, reveal itself to consist mainly in cultivating compassion for everyone else who is not living their best life, or “living the dream,” as my brothers like to say, compassion for everyone who is, instead, living a version of a nightmare from which they cannot wake, but doing so bravely, because they have no choice. Chances are, this is a more typical human experience than any other. Chances are, there are more people on the planet struggling and suffering than not. Chances are, it could always be much, much worse.