Today’s post is from TWH’s newest columnist, Sheri Barker. Sheri is an author and artist, wildlife enthusiast, Pagan, and poet living in western North Carolina. Visit her blog, From the Bear Path.
Sometimes the goddess brings full circle lessons I believed I had already learned. I expected that the coronavirus pandemic would bring lessons about compassion and the presence of death, but I did not expect them to hit so close to home.
Through most of 2015 my youngest daughter was lost to me. She was moving from out-of-state rehab to relapse to rehab in an ever-tightening spiral, and her mental health was declining at a frightening rate of speed. Our conversations, whether by text or phone, became increasingly difficult to follow.
In that year I came to fully realize the many aspects of mourning. I wrote this poem while living with that early grief.
There are days that the skies are gray when I wake, and
When I rise from my bed they reach for me.
I open my arms to slip effortlessly into them,
Putting on my mourning robe.
This is how it is to live in mourning for someone who is not dead.
Someone who is so far gone that you cannot touch her;
Someone who is so lost in the shadows of her own mind
That communication only happens through the veil between the worlds.
The phone becomes a Ouija board and
you cannot understand the message she is sending.
The planchette moves in endless, random circles.
Spirit, can you hear me?
Is anybody there?
In November of that year she returned to our hometown. I spent the first night with her in a hotel room; I had not seen her in seven months and wanted to be with her before she transitioned to her recovery plan. Sometime in the middle of the night she asked me if I had heard Adele’s then-new song, “Hello.” She was eager to share it with me.
I watched her face as we listened to the lyrics – thoughtful, reflective, sad, bereft of hope. I thought of a phone conversation we had over the summer, during a time when she was somewhere in Florida. She was so sad then, too. That day she asked me, “Momma, did I die? I feel like no one can see me anymore.” That question broke my heart when she asked it, and it broke my heart again that night in that hotel room to realize that my living, breathing child already believed she was a ghost. It breaks my heart even now.
Catapult forward to March of 2020. My girl has been gone from this world for more than three years, but life has continued for me, as it does. My husband and I bought a home last year, and for various reasons invited his 82-year-old father to live with us. He is generally a highly active person and mentally is as sharp as a tack. He volunteers for a weekly lunch for the homeless, attends church, sits on various boards, goes to the gym, and is active with the library for the local genealogical society. During a normal week, he is away from the house more than I am.
The pandemic changed all that, of course. He put all his activities on hold right before they all shut down anyway. He refused, however, to stop going to the grocery store and pharmacy. We tried several different approaches to discussing it with him, and after two weeks he finally agreed to allow us to do whatever shopping he needed. Over that time he seemed to be fading right in front of our eyes. He stopped going out to the woodshop on our property, stopped coming up to watch television with us, and his posture and his demeanor were increasingly stooped. We began to work harder to engage him in everyday life but he continued to decline.
Then in early April I got sick. My symptoms started suddenly on a Wednesday afternoon and by the end of the evening I felt like I had been hit by a bus. In normal times I would have just thought I was coming down with a bug; I would have started extra dosing elderberry elixir, consumed mugs of hot tea with local honey, and made a sick bed on the couch because that is a sure-fire way of summoning the memory/spirit of my mother to comfort me when I don’t feel well.
These are not ordinary times, though, and I was especially concerned about my father-in-law getting sick. My husband and I agreed that I should self-isolate within the house. I confined myself to our bedroom and bathroom, and the rest of the house was off limits to me.
After two days of increasing symptoms, I contacted my primary care physician’s office, and because they were not and still are not testing in the community in which I live, I was surprised that based on my symptoms they wanted me to come in for an evaluation. It was almost a typical office visit, except it took place in the clinic parking lot, and the doctor was wearing Tyvek and a respirator. A nurse took my vitals, asked me some questions, and then the doctor came and talked to me.
This is a summary of what he told me: I want to run a test on you, but I can’t do that. We do not have enough tests. We are in a pandemic and anyone who has these symptoms probably has the virus. Keep doing what you are doing, including isolation. No one who lives in your home should leave the house until you have been without symptoms for 72 hours.
I went home. I talked to my husband, who in turn talked to his father and explained why I would be isolating and that they could not leave the house. That was Friday morning. Until the following Thursday, when I began to feel better and my symptoms stopped, my days were pretty much the same. I would wake in the morning feeling better; I would spend time outside in the gardens, and by mid-day would be exhausted and ready for a nap. By late afternoon my symptoms would return suddenly, sometimes violently, and except for meditation and garden time in the mornings, I stayed in bed. My husband brought dinner and hot tea to me every day, but our shared concern for his father’s health made us ever mindful of staying safely apart.
The first few nights being isolated were not bad. I felt so terrible that I did not want company. I had books and could watch movies on my laptop if I felt like it. However, it did not take long for me to realize how deeply lonely being isolated could make me feel. The layout of our house does funny things to acoustics. I could clearly hear the conversations my husband and his father had when they had meals together, and their evening conversations sometimes lasted for a couple of hours. I could also hear them when they were watching television in the living room. I could hear them, but they could not hear me if I responded to something they said or hollered out a question. If I needed something or wanted to talk, I had to send my husband a text.
One of the nights when I was feeling particularly miserable and lonely, my fever-loaded writer’s brain took over categorizing my existence. Underlying the situation was the knowledge that I might have a viral infection that could kill me, and that it could kill my husband or his father. In my fevered state the moment was focused on me. I did not want to die, especially in such a horrible manner, and especially not alone.
I tried to shift my focus to good thoughts. I thought about the text messages and pictures my kids and friends had sent. About the sleepy voice of my husband, coming from 30 feet down the hall every night, wishing me good night. I thought about how blessed I am to have my gardens, and to be able to spend time every day sitting with the goddess in her form as Earth. I made the effort, but sometimes the writer’s brain must keep going with an idea because it works hand in hand with goddess to bring a lesson into clarity. It carried me from those positive thoughts to a different view of them, back to memories of how my daughter must have felt when she was so isolated from everyone she loved.
It occurred to me in those moments that I was existing as a ghost in my own home. I could hear the people in my house, but they could not hear me. I could not see them, and they did not see me. My phone had once again become a Ouija board, but this time I was the one speaking from the other side. I was aware of the presence of death and of the nearness of the gateway to the other side, and as a moderately healthy 53-year-old, I thought it was far too close for comfort.
That was the last night I had any symptoms, but when I woke the next morning, nine days into isolation, I did not know there would be no more to come. And when I heard my father-in-law say that he was heading out to go to the pharmacy, the grocery store, and to shop for a bicycle, I just about lost it. I simply could not believe that he could be so selfish and thoughtless and reckless with other people’s lives.
I asked him not to go, reminded him why he should not, and he went anyway. I was so angry that I vented to a support group online, and was then appalled at responses that suggested disabling his car, hiding his keys – basically throwing us all down the slippery slope of taking away someone else’s right to make bad decisions.
I could not let go of that anger. My husband explained to his father that I was angry with him, and he genuinely did not understand why. When I emerged from isolation a couple of days later there was an uneasy tension in our home and in my spirit. The situation became even more uncomfortable when he crashed his new bike and cracked some ribs. When we reminded him that if he broke a hip or injured himself in such a way that he would need surgery he was very likely to die alone in the hospital, he just looked at us and said, “I know.”
That night, after dinner, I went to take the day’s offerings to the compost bin, and on the way back noticed that the rain had escalated the timetable on setting fence posts for our habitat fence. I stood next to the fence line, holding each of five fence posts as my husband poured concrete around them, and while the rain was washing away the day’s troubles, we talked about my father-in-law. My mind was already working on this column, which did not start out looking anything like this.
Sometimes magic happens when we least expect it. In the instant when a raindrop caught on my lashes and blurred my vision, I experienced a startling moment of clarity about the anger that had been troubling me for days. I knew I had been looking at the situation through the wrong lenses.
I perceive social distancing and my days of isolation as a way of preserving the years of life I have laid out before me. I am making small accommodations for a larger purpose, and although I am aware of that gate in front of me, I know it is not likely I will be traveling through any time soon.
My father-in-law, though – well, he has his own lenses, and he is looking at that gate within arm’s distance. Every day he spends in his room, not participating in the activities that have filled his life since his wife died, is a day that brings him a step closer to that gate he really is not ready to go through. Every day that he does nothing, he moves more toward being a ghost in his own home. Social distancing and isolation are stealing away the life he has left.
It is not age that takes us through to the next place, and it is not age that determines whether the gate seems like the doorway to safe haven or a fearful next step. The very inevitability of the journey does not really matter until one is ready to embrace it.
I do not agree with some of the choices he is making. I will continue to try to communicate clearly with this recalcitrant housemate, but I will not hold anger for him anymore when we cannot see eye-to-eye.
In the last few days he has been poking around in the woodshop again, and his posture is improving. This past Tuesday he drove through our recently established permaculture apple orchard and knocked over one of the saplings. The day after that happened we fenced in the trees, because we cannot and will not fence in the old man.
The lessons I thought I learned with my daughter have been slightly fine-tuned.
Spirit, can you hear me? Is anybody there?