What I can’t be right now
The other day, I took my twelve-year-old daughter on a drive. I didn’t even bring my wallet ( I had my license, calm down). Somewhere on a road from here to there and back, with no stops, the very few cars in front of us slowed to a crawl. I immediately noticed a lack of frustration in the delay. Everyone calmly going nowhere at a snail’s pace.
Within a minute, the cause of the rubbernecking became clear. A small, older woman (in my story I’ve decided, the grandmother), and a boy around 10, were stopped between the sidewalk and the road. A tumble of groceries and a massive bag of rice exploded at their feet. The grandmother’s mask absorbed her tears while the boy frantically scooped rice from the road back into the sack.
So help me God.
Every car before and after me wanted to pull over and offer them a ride. Replace the rice, dropping a new bag at their door after bringing them home. We would have helped.
I have been a helper since I was six years old. It’s my true North.
But we drove right by. I narrated my anguish out loud to my daughter, listing all the ways the rules of our current crisis strangled us.” We can stop. Oh, my God, we can’t stop and help them. We can’t pick them up. We can’t touch their stuff. We can’t offer to drive it to their door. We actually can’t really do anything.”
It passed in seconds, but I’ll carry it as mine forever.
COVID has broken my already broken heart over and over.
I hardly know how to be in the world these days.
Later that afternoon, my husband collected our kids to skype his family back home in England. This is not exactly a new development, but it’s become more consistent since the quarantine. Everyone ostensibly checking up on my in-laws who fit squarely in the age group of deepest health concern. With the excellent technology available these days, eleven family members meet with ease despite time zones and stay at home orders. A beautiful, chaotic symphony of familiar voices heard from my chair just out of view.
And I couldn’t be on the call. I just couldn’t do it.
My mom died in August. My dad died in 2017. There is no reciprocal phone call for me to make. In the presence of my husband’s family, all I feel is absence.
But I can script exactly how the call I yearn for would go.
First, my parents would never agree to video. Initially, my dad would pick up my call. He’d tell me all my other siblings had already checked in, meaning nothing by it except the roll call of the half dozen kids he had to his name. He’d relate the BBC TV shows he and my mother had been watching (they never got to see the last season of Luther, so let’s give them the gift of Idris Elba in this imaginary scene), then the various problems the house developed since I’d last checked in. If he was lucky enough to have a cold of some kind we’d spend a few minutes on his symptoms which he would exaggerate, because God love the man he was a life long hypochondriac. He’d ask after my kids but I wouldn’t put them on the phone.
I’d hear my mom in the background before he’d hand over the receiver. She’d be muttering something like, “Damnit John, give her to me.”
Finally, in control she would announce, intending my dad to hear, “he KNOWS you are calling to talk to ME.”
Several of us called her lady. My younger brother and sister and I watched a lot of old Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Katherine Hepburn type movies (Philadelphia Story over and over). Maybe we adopted the lingo.
I’d tell her every movement of the slow, boring, chaotic, sameness of the days since we’d last talked. Which was likely yesterday. She’d launch into stories she’d already told me or new ones about funny clips she’d just seen on the internet. Of course, she wouldn’t have tracked that I’d sent her the videos. She would giggle through her own retelling and eventually saying, “Oh you have to watch it, Meg. It’s so funny.”
Sometimes I’d get the added bonus of hearing the story again from a sibling who had the exact same call with my mother. God, she was great.
And she’d tell me my dad was driving her crazy. And maybe also the entire plot of the true-crime book she’d just finished. And how all of my siblings were doing. And the stories of people from her church who were sick had died.
And we’d say that we never thought we’d live to see the day that we were locked in our houses.
And we would hang up with promises of talking again the next day.
The anguish of missing something that never was.
And because my emotional math isn’t always accurate, I felt the hell out of all of this before it made any sense to me.
First, I cried in the bathroom.
About the boy and his grandmother. All the caring from the people in cars, from my car, they would never feel or receive.
I listened to a few minutes of the family call not wanting to be included but hurt that no one insisted on it. The laughter, the complete lack of significant conversation, the relief of connection.
My mindfulness practice is pretty much exclusively noticing when I feel shitty, and not acting shitty.
So I slipped unnoticed upstairs and greeted my emotions.
Hello anger, hello loss, hello envy…such familiar old friends. Helplessness joined and sat near hopelessness in the back. Grief stood by the door holding a coffee and a cigarette.
Hi guys. Makes sense you are here.
An overall feeling of exhaustion. How I feel is not who I am.
Or is it?
I took a nap. I dreamt of rice and sand under my feet.
I woke up to find my daughter sleeping next me.
Meghan Riordan Jarvis is a psychotherapist, author, wife, and mother of three. After losing both her parents within two years of each other she began Grief Is My Side Hustle. (www.griefismysidehustle.com).