Two weeks ago, I was in a retirement community in Eastern North Carolina, celebrating the long life of my mother-in-law.
After a lovely funeral Mass, the family lined up to hear the kind words of those who knew her. We were instructed not to shake hands or hug. We could lean in, bump elbows, smile.
It was impossible.
The first folks through the line did their best at communing from a distance, but by the end, we were all clutching, embracing, touching. That is how we, as humans, comfort and connect. It’s how we calm our anxieties and bravely face danger — we gather and share and hold each other up.
Two weeks later, we’ve all come to accept a new, unimaginable reality. We are mostly shuttered in our homes, chatting with neighbors from across the street, worried about getting groceries and how to keep the kids entertained without school.
But that essential truth I witnessed at the funeral hasn’t changed. The novel coronavirus that is sweeping the world is horrible because it kills. Because of its crazy, sneaky contagion rate. Because there is so much we don’t know about it. It’s also terrible because it robs us of our best way to cope. It asks us to stop connecting.
So often in trying times, we have gathered, shared meals, talked out our concerns, prayed in community, lent a hand, made someone else’s load lighter. We’ve come together in bomb shelters and churches and impromptu potlucks, barn raisings and rallies, food and supply drives, and planning meetings.
All that is taboo now.
Being together is what puts us at risk. How can we wrap our minds around that?
The internet has been a salve, for sure. My teens are taking classes online. My tween tuned in for a virtual soccer practice this week. My dancer donned her tights and leotard to follow a ballet instructor who had posted class on Instagram. She’s taken heart in the fact that dancers at all levels around the world are in the same boat as she — desperate to move together in front of a mirror on a sprung floor. Instead, they are plie-ing to piano notes from their phones — gathering the only way they can.
There are other creative solutions: quarantined Italians are playing music on their balconies. I’ve seen suggestions that we light candles in our windows each night to show solidarity. I have found a daily walk is doing me good. Even if I am no closer than six feet from anyone I encounter, just seeing other people lifts my spirits.
Social media has been awash in ways to help from afar: Write and mail a note to a senior citizen. Deliver food to the door of someone in quarantine. Pick up the phone and call a friend or cousin or grandparent.
But all this only goes so far. How will we manage weeks and weeks of sharing the company of only a few souls?
We can’t know, of course. We will do what we have to. I am accepting that I feel sad to lose easy everyday conversation, connection, hugs.
I think sad is a way I’m going to feel a lot over the coming weeks.
We all will. And many will feel it while they’re even more alone than I.