The past few weeks have been surreal, filled with anxiety, disappointments and as someone I respect described it a sense of “anticipatory grief.”
In my own case, I was grateful I was able to get away during the first week of March for a brief vacation with my sister at a beautiful tropical resort in Mexico. We knew that the coronavirus was impacting China and Italy, even Seattle, but they all seemed far away. We were grateful that we were able to get home very smoothly and to be able to enjoy our vacation with minimal stress.
All of that changed very quickly. The new man in my life was on a trip to Morocco, and almost got stranded there when flights started being canceled and European borders closed. After he had to spend an extra night in Casablanca, and a night in a hotel at the airport in Paris, I felt a great sense of relief when I finally received the text telling me that he was actually on his last airplane and the doors were about to close.
But now we’re still 500 miles apart, and he’s self-quarantining. The shows and concerts we had planned to attend, the trips we had hoped to take, everything is canceled—or clearly uncertain– for the foreseeable future. And for us, any kind of trip is risky, since he has an underlying health condition that makes him particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. The governors of both of our states have imposed “stay-at-home” restrictions.
At times like this, it is sometimes helpful to remember that we are not the first people to deal with these kinds of challenges—and we probably won’t be the last. I did not live through World War II and the Great Depression, but my parents did. They did not have to endure separations, but many of their friends did.
When I did the research for my novel The Poet’s Girl, about the relationship between the poet T.S. Eliot and Emily Hale, his first love and longtime confidante, I was reminded of how their own lives were impacted by the separations caused by two world wars. Eliot left Boston in June of 1914, headed to Europe for a graduate fellowship at Oxford University. He was actually in Marburg, Germany, when war broke out that August between Germany and England. He finally made it to England, lucky that at that time, the United States had not yet entered the conflict and was considered a neutral nation. But the sinking of the liner Lusitania quickly underscored the dangers of transatlantic travel. Eliot was able to make one brief visit home, but did not see Hale back in the States for nearly 20 years.
During the 1930s, Hale frequently visited Eliot, now a British citizen on summer trips to England. Those came to an end in 1939, when war again broke out between England and Nazi Germany. Again, they were separated for seven long years.
In the summer of 1941, before the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war, Eliot wrote Hale a poignant letter that resonates for me today. Until Eliot’s letters are formally published, his estate does not permit them to be quoted directly, so I will have to try to paraphrase it.
Writing letters, he told her, is not a good substitute, but if two people have to be apart, it is somehow better to be separated by circumstances that are unusual for everyone than it would be if the rest of the world was going on about its business. It is easier to view it as an interlude, even if it is a terrible one. These circumstances do not numb our own feelings; in fact, they make relationships even more important than ever. They just make our own desires and frustrations seem less significant in light of the wider tragedy.
As someone who is sending email messages and viewing Skype sessions across a geographic void these days, that’s somehow comforting to remember.