“Who are you going to take care of when you get home?”
My grandmother leaned forward as I tucked a thin white hospital blanket around her exposed shoulders.
Her voice was thin, her breath short; she’d been at New York Presbytarian for about a week by then, with symptoms of bronchitis tied to a host of other, more serious concerns. Four days earlier, I’d gotten on a plane from Seattle—where I’d been visiting friends—after a phone call from my mother suggested things were dire.
“I don’t know,” I shrugged, collapsed back down into a square leather chair. “Myself?”
A week before I flew to New York, Rob had moved to Duluth—in pursuit of a lifelong dream. (Calm down: not the city itself, but one the city happens to contain.) He may stay, may not. We may stay coupled, may not.
Either way: for the next few months, I will be mostly in Minneapolis, mostly alone.
For those few days in Manhattan, I was not. I was, primarily, by my grandmother’s bedside: spooning her applesauce, holding paper cups of ice water and ginger ale to her (lipsticked) mouth, fetching her the daily Times and tracking down displaced reading material. (“How is she doing?” My mother texted after my grandmother, who I have always called Susie, emerged from a relatively minor procedure. “Well,” I wrote back. “Her biggest concern is what happened to her New York magazine.”)
I am no hero: it is my parents, mostly, and my mother, most of all, who have been her true caretakers throughout the course of these recent health struggles. My presence allowed them a brief respite, some capacity to attend to their respective work demands, but the afternoon I left, they were back by her side—as they still are.
Too, that I could get there in the first place was a product of privilege—my parents ability to subsidize a last-minute, cross-country airfare; my flexibility as a college teacher to easily cancel the first day of class.
And being with Susie, I must add, is no chore: among her many miraculous traits is the capacity, even with her body under multi-pronged attack, to maintain a dry humor; upon the departure from her room of a rather aggressively handsome cardiologist: “They know,” she deadpanned, “to send me the good-looking ones.”
All this aside: my presence, while appreciated, felt like a gift to myself as much as anyone else.
“I think our deepest human desire is to give ourselves to each other as a source of physical, emotional and spiritual growth… Isn’t ‘tasting’ the best word to express the experience of intimacy? Don’t lovers in their ecstatic moments experience their love as a desire to eat and drink each other? As the Beloved ones, our greatest fulfillment lies in becoming bread for the world. That is the most intimate expression of our deepest desire to give ourselves to each other.”
At a recent retreat where I spent two nights, one of them with Rob, we stumbled on books by the late Christian theologian Henri Nouwen.
Just days earlier, a friend had told me about Nouwen, a former professor of his at Yale Divinity, so the books appearance felt serendipitous—and Rob and I spent that evening reading passages together. What’s quoted above is one of many that stuck out.
One theme Nouwen touches on is the tension between solitude and community: how, while connection is what nourishes and sustains us, we must also seek to be comfortable in solitude—must avoid being driven, blindly, by the (very human) fear of being alone.
“The movement from loneliness to solitude,” Nouwen writes, “…is the beginning of any spiritual life because it is the movement from the restless senses to the restful spirit, from the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, from the fearful clinging to the fearless play.”
This theme has felt resonant lately: as I enter into a period of straddling isolation and partnership, as I contemplate shifting commitments to different communities and paths.
I believe connection—our capacity to forge intimacy with others—is our primary purpose; and, that it is through seeking authentic intimacy with others that we can come closer to knowing our true selves.
Knowing ourselves isn’t the end goal in and of itself, of course—but self-knowledge is what allows us an understanding of what gifts we can offer each other; how, as Nouwen puts it, we can provide “bread for the world.”
Bread that, as my time with my grandmother reminded me, feeds ourselves as much as it feeds those for whom we care.
The day before Rob moved to Duluth, I read on the couch while he went through boxes of old papers and things.
At one point he tossed over a stack of print photographs: from a post-college summer he spent in New Jersey, doing a social justice-focused fellowship. I’d heard bits about it, but not much.
As I flipped through, I teared up: he looked so young and so innocent, so cute; the following day signaled not just a move for him but uncertainty for us; I was (it turned out) pre-menstrual.
Too, as I explained on the drive to dinner, there was (is, perhaps, always) something melancholy in the reminder that the person to whom you feel most connected, by whom you feel most seen and most known—that this person has lived many lives without you.
Rob met my observation playfully—with a look that translates, roughly, to: My god Elizabeth could you possibly perform more of a caricature of yourself than you are right now??
“She has to know everything!” he teased.
Indeed, one of my favorite quotes comes from a Tim O’Brien craft essay I’m sure I’ve mentioned before here: the simple statement that we will never know what it’s like inside another person’s head, how compelling it is to try, how tragic it can feel that we’ll always fail.
But the sadness those pictures triggered was accompanied by a sweetness and warmth: by the feeling that I am still beset with the same excitement I was initially: the feeling of omigod I want to know everything about this person!
And, regardless of that desire’s impossibility—or perhaps, because of it—the desire itself feels joyful, enlivening.
That desire, as it relates to Rob, and to others who I have, do and will encounter continuously—fellow spiritual seekers (folks who often take the form of activists and poets)—comforts me. Because while it may surface as a sort of grasping, a reaching out, it also contains its own nourishment—a gift that doesn’t require anything in return.
It felt sad coming back from New York to a home where my partner is not. Where I didn’t have anyone, besides myself, to care for.
I won’t pretend there isn’t pain in the loneliness I feel now. There is.
But there is also relief: in taking a Thursday night after a rollercoaster week to lie on my couch and read a novel. To attend an organizing meeting early on a weekend morning without feeling pulled to stay snuggled in bed. To visit a Saturday night resistance singalong without the competing option of a date night. In taking a trip to the co-op with the express intention of spending $30 on rose-scented lotions (mission achieved) because aromas, I have discovered in advanced age, are a powerful mood-lifter and these days my moods could use some help.
There is warmth, in other words, and maybe even joy, in caring for myself—knowing that work equips me, down the road, to care more fully, more authentically, for those I have the privilege to love.