Several people I care about are mourning today. Not mourning a death, but mourning expected futures, mourning what will be a hard path for a while. Both are grappling with illness, devastatingly serious illness, in their own families. I am far away from them, far away from the eye contact I could maintain while they tell me about the hard parts of their days or about something entirely unrelated to their grief. Too far to participate in the normal duties of friends of those in mourning.
I’m not just in a long-distance relationship with my husband: many of my best friends are on the left coast or traveling abroad. Some of the tricks of reducing distance that he and I use apply: texting, sharing silly pictures, dropping into each other’s lives at odd times, trying to simulate the natural way people weave into each other’s lives when they live in a close community.
Sometimes that’s not good enough. A few months ago a friend was going through a hard break-up and I wanted to send her a care package: cookies, alcohol, chocolate, erotica, funny books. Everything I thought a person mourning the end of a relationship needs. But at the time, Amazon wouldn’t ship wine to her, and sending a box full of family-sized Oreos seemed a little sad.
What I wanted to do was sit beside her as she whinged and moaned about the relationship, while she felt conflicted, while she pretended not to care. I wanted to be there for her and let her know she was important.
So I made her this, a tumblr of things I thought we would have talked about if I had be sitting beside her on her couch. As I said in the blog description:
This is a blog for my best friend, who is going through a break-up. I’ll post here because we’re too far away for me to go over to her house and hang out until she feels better.
Because those are the things I think people need to be happy.
Though I couldn’t hug her, I could show her that she was valued, and that I cared about her. I wanted her to know she could feel a wide range of things, and so included a number of calming manatees.
I kept posting to that blog long after that break-up had faded in importance. So did she. That this place I’d designed as a safe place for her after a particular hardship grew into a regularly-used room in the house of our relationship helped me think about this new wave of sadness in the lives of my friends. That maybe illnesses and break-ups and deaths and emergencies are caesuras and not breaks.
When I’m singing in a choir, we’re never supposed to break. As long as we’re on stage, we’re singing. We may be singing with our bodies, keeping the rhythm while another section or the orchestra speaks their piece, but we are singers and we are singing.
Occasionally, there is a time when everyone–the singers, the oboists, the flautists, the conductor–everyone pauses. There’s no time limit on the break, no number of beats it always must take, it’s unique to the feeling of the ensemble and the piece and that performance. That pause is called a caesura.
A caesura is part of the music but has no rhythm and/or melody and/or pitch. It is a space filled with the echoes of many sounds, and it lasts as long as it needs to as it has no set length.
I was trying to cope with my friend’s sadness today, to support her as much as I could, and I did something I nearly never do at work: I kept my cellphone out on my desk all day. Because my job involves posting to my organization’s Facebook and Twitter pages, reading news articles to curate content for those places, and researching the latest trends in web design, it would be structurally easy to slip into personal browsing.
That’s why I am very strict with myself while I’m at work. I avoid personal Facebook messages and notifications, personal email, personal phone calls; I focus on my work. And there’s always more than enough work to keep me busy.
I’ve taken to taking an unpleasant kind of pride in my lack of browsing. To feeling superior when other people send me funny links. This is similar to the unkind pride I feel when I am able to work through colds while other people take sick days, when I decline to remember that robust health is a privilege and not something I earned.
Today, I made an exception. I let my personal commitments intrude in a physical way into my work. I still did good work: I wrote a core page of our website, negotiated the content for another, fixed formatting on a dozen others, sent rejection notices to fellowship applicants, moved our monthly newsletter forward, packed the conference room for our move, and read a major benchmarking report. And that’s just what I can think of. I also answered my friend’s texts, keeping her company while I saw so far away.
We talked about driving, about food, about what she needed to do for the day. These were also the things we talked about when she needed company at 4:30am last night. I will not make texting at my desk a habit, and she won’t need me to, but I’m trying to feel ok for needing to today.
Mourning is part of the music of life and I felt I was able to keep my melody playing, while allowing my friend’s unexpected pause the space it needed to ring out in its fullness.
This is the poem I sent one of the people I know who is in mourning today because it helps me remember the range of what family responsibilities can mean:
To a Five Year Old
by Fleur Adcock
A snail is climbing up the window-sill
into your room, after a night of rain.
You call me in to see, and I explain
that it would be unkind to leave it there:
it might crawl to the floor; we must take care
that no one squashes it. You understand,
and carry it outside, with careful hand,
to eat a daffodil.
I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:
your gentleness is moulded still by words
from me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,
from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed
your closest relatives, and who purveyed
the harshest kind of truth to many another.
But that is how things are: I am your mother,
And we are kind to snails.