A TGB READER STORY: Structure in a Time of Pandemic
Friday Blog Post – A Blast From the Past

The Universe Decides That, Not Me

It has become the oddest thing for me now to watch movies and TV series where people hug and kiss and shake hands and generally be together in close contact, touching one another by leaning in or patting a friend on the back, ruffling a kid's hair.

I keep wondering what the writers and actors will give us when they take on stories set in the era of the pandemic and personal distancing. So far, all I've seen are jokes related to the awkwardness of elbow bumps. Not really funny.

Watching something I don't recall on television recently, I saw two people hug. The man and woman, meeting on a big-city sidewalk, were bundled up in hats, scarves and puffy coats for cold weather. But it was still a great, big, full-on, fuzzy, warm, body hug.

The image got blurry as my eyes watered up. I hit rewind to watch it again and by then I was weeping deep, wet tears.

It has been a long time since I've shared a hug like that – way before COVID-19 and personal distancing made their appearance in our lives. It is not unlikely that I have already experienced my last hug – whenever it was that it occurred.

Especially for old people, life can be like that sometimes – not knowing when we are doing something that is important to us for the last time, and therefore not making note of it.

But then I remember that front-line workers of all kinds take their lives in hand every day. They do it for you and for me and for everyone else who needs their attention while knowing for certain that some of them will die.

And I'm sitting here wondering if I'll ever get another hug before I die???

My grownup self dismisses the thought as too grotesquely selfish to admit out loud. But life can be like that too – all the other needs, desires, responsibilities, worries, longings, fears, etc. - continue even in the face of the life-threatening disease we live with now and the awesome bravery of caregivers.

Some of you may recall the good old, early days of my cancer journey when I said that all I wanted was to live to read the Mueller Report. Well, that was a dud and I've been saying since then that I want to live to see the outcome of the November 2020 U.S. presidential election.

Maybe I will, maybe I won't. But I sure do want to.

It's always been that way for me – getting the can't waits to find out the end of the story. When I was a little kid, I begged my mother to finish the book she was reading to me at bedtime rather than wait until the next night. After I had learned to read and often ever since, I've been known to force my eyes open to keep going until the end of the book or movie.

It has taken the pandemic and some changes to my health for me to learn something important about being old: I don't get to choose whether I find out the end of the story – mine or the election or any other. The universe decides that.

Comments

Thank you for this.
Only yesterday I found myself reflecting on what I would never do again and who I would never see again. As you say, even holding anyone again seems to be aiming a little high.
I finally mostly shook it off by reminding myself that old age is not a gift given to everyone - of friends who had put off doing what was important to them until it was too late. Better to relish this day and what we can make of it than to dwell on what's missing.
Keeping good thoughts for you, Ronni.

Thank you Ronni for another thought provoking post. During the last 7 lockdown weeks I’ve learnt so much about what is - and is not - important in my life.
I listen more to friends and family instead of mentally hurrying them to end their story so I can tell them mine! My routine now includes a weekly letter to each grandchild - something I always had time to do but life’s details got in the way.
Free of religious belief I nevertheless say aloud a Goodnight and Thankyou to my dear house before I go to bed each night for looking after me for one more day. Take care Ronni xx

There was a phrase I read in a book about Native Americans, perhaps 'Back Elk Speaks' or another one that might have been factual. "Today is a good day to die." I'm saying that more often now. But I don't really want to yet.

Commenting on this is easy on this beautiful bright day. The sun is shining, the sky is blue, birds are singing, things are blooming and temperatures are rising enough to open windows and let in some fresh air. It's taken quite a while to get here, weather-wise -- many false starts and set backs. We had freezing temps and a mixture of rain and snow just last weekend. But it appears that the warmer temps, despite storms on the horizons, are finally here to stay. Is this how it will feel when we are no longer confined mostly to our homes and things actually re-open all across the country, welcoming the return of something that was so missed? In some ways, I suspect that things will never be quite the same as before, and that's unsettling. For myself, I think that the feelings of vulnerability and awareness of how quickly everything can change will remain with me for quite a while and I may always be waiting for the other shoe to drop. But that's how much of life is and has been for a vast number of people. That pool may have become much larger over the past two months.

In spite of all the questions I still have and as curious as I remain to learn the outcome of many things, I am trying more and more to follow Thornton Wilder's advice of just enjoying my ice cream while it's on my plate. I hope you're enjoying your ice cream too, Ronni.

Oh my Ronnie, Your observations about seeing hugging and close body contact on t.v hit me as well. Will that became a behavior of a bygone era? We don't know and right now it is not looking good at least for some years.

I am fortunate as I have a huggable husband. I also share our world with two dogs who crave bodily contact and that has made all the difference for us. My heart aches for those that truly live alone and I send all of you cyber hugs.

Fortunately we live in the age of zoom and the internet which is certainly better than prior generations had when weathering whatever storm was sent their way. This could be worse, my mantra of late.

Please stay well and safe and smile if you can. It does help,

A devoted fan,

Karin

Thank you for these thoughts, Ronni. I have been trying to understand my need to binge-watch "Good Witch" on Netflix. It brings up memories of a world we all must wonder if we'll ever see again...or so your post help me realize.

Thank you , Ronnie. I echo Cathy J. in that we have this bright Spring day to enjoy, and I can look forward to more. But those hugs from my grandkids seem so far away. And I wonder, will I ever see my son who lives in Europe again? I didn't think of that when we hugged goodbye at New Year's. Now when we end our video chats, I always think of it. I'm grateful we took that trip last fall to explore where he and his wife live, so now we can picture them in their surroundings.

Thankful for little things. Thankful for your writing.

Very well written piece. Poignant too.

Right now I'd settle for a good pat on the back and some decent conversation. You know...human stuff.

On point. My mom lives with me and at 84 has been pretty much home stuck since early March. She's a brilliant woman and this is taking a toll on her. My college age daughter is also at home. She and I hug often and the other night, watching all the physical contact on the screen, I realized I hadn't hugged my mom in a long time... We are all very bubbled. So I gave her a long, heartfelt hug. She resisted which I also understand. We ended up having a nice moment. So, yes, your post today touches my heart. I'll make sure to hug her more often because we are in isolation together. Thanks, Ronni.

Thank you for this post, Ronnie (and for all of them)! Old persons who live on their own don't get touched much, and some miss that enormously. Years ago I worked on a project training tour guides for a large US travel company that specialized in seniors' tours. One of the executives told the guides, "Some of these people have not been touched in years, so be aware and sensitive to that." She went on to say that when it was appropriate, they should give it, and mentioned the forearm as a 'safe place' to touch.

The guides were Spanish. (The training was for two to four week excursions to Spain and Portugal.) One of them said, "I tell the ladies, 'I'm Spanish, and we kiss each cheek to greet one another, so I like if when you kiss me!'" He added, "Each morning I am there at the door of the bus, and I get the kiss, if she wishes." I asked him how many kissed him, and he said, "At first a few... but by the end of the week, everybody!"

A Hug, the end of a story, finish reading the book or the last in a series on Showtime or Netflix, back to the hug, and now seeing commercials and realizing we are changing our behavior and not going to kiss hello, shake hands or get closer than 6 feet... however, our souls are still touching, and your story touched my soul, love to you Ronni, and hope what we want to see happen, happens, while we are still this side of 6 feet under... so to speak.

'Today is a gift...that's why they call it the present!'
'I cannot stop the waves but I am learning how to surf!'

I've never been a touchy-feely person, but I decided weeks ago that when this virus thing is over, I want some long, warm hugs from my son and grandkids. I didn't think much about hugging them before, always taking it for granted that they'd be here often. Now I just want hugs! I've no reason to think I won't live long enough to do that, and to vote that orange toad out of office. But one never knows. Art Buchwald said, "Whether it's the best of times or the worst of times, it's the only time we've got." Let's hope it's enough.

I am struggling not to break down and cry after reading this article. It’s so true; we never know when we are doing something for the last time. One of the things that struck me several decades ago, when I was cleaning out my grandmother’s house after she died, was all the little things. As I cleaned out the drawer in her library table, I thought when she bought that cellophane tape she surely didn’t realize that was the last tape she’d ever buy, the last pen she’d ever use, the last birthday card she’d ever get. There’s so much of life we never appreciate fully until it’s in the rear view mirror. Thank you for reminding me of the poignancy and preciousness of everything things we have taken for granted, like great hugs.

We're back in the fifties again. I remember when polio (iron lung---a primitive ventilator), measles, the mumps, chicken pox,
etc., ran rampant. No vaccines. We just took our chances and knew the risks. We kissed, we hugged, we loved. Hey, life doesn't stop. I was a factory rep for over 10 years and a Mayor of
a small town. "Pressing the flesh" was a method that had been used for generations. It created personal contact and appreciation of the other person as a human. Same for hugs. The risks were always there in the background. I wear a mask and wash my hands, etc. We've just gone backwards in time about 65 years. I, too, have COPD and underlying health issues.
I'm cautious, but not dead. B

Susan R's comment--when this virus thing is over--rattles around in my brain. I have been asking friends if we will see the end of this virus in our lifetime. Will the life we once knew ever return?

There is definitely going to be a new normal, but what will it look like going forward and what will I see in my lifetime as it is now much shorter than it was at the beginning of the millennium when changes were rapidly upon us.

I was just thinking about hugs and the lack thereof yesterday. Since I live alone and my beloved dachshund died just before last Christmas, I am hugless. But the first thing I did after Chaco departed was buy a stuffed doxie online that resembles him. No, he is isn't soft and cuddly and kissy, but he's enough to tuck under my arm when I fall asleep and pretend a sentient creature still loves me. So many of us, as we age and live alone, forget what touch is like and how vastly important it is. And yet I too recoil when I see people hugging and kissing on old TV shows. Be careful! I want to shout. What a sad state of affairs that is!

When I bought my car three years ago, I was well aware that it would probably be the last car I would be buying. I wanted the Crystal Blue color. They did not have one on the lot and would have to procure one from another dealer. When they brought over the third salesman to try to convince me to select another color from stock on hand, I said "Look, I'm 74 years old. I've had my current car for 17 years. I keep my cars for the duration. Do the math." That ended the conversation and I love my Crystal Blue car.

As I lay at midnight in the CT scanner last Friday night, with my arms up above my head, waiting for it to do its job of looking at my heart, I thought, “What if this is it? What if this is my night? What if this is my heart preparing to stop?” And I found, to my surprise, that I was okay with that! I was ready, while at the same time, also ready to go on with life. Obviously, I’m still very much here, but I am also very much at peace, knowing that every day will have its gifts, and I see the gifts more and more. Thank you for this tender piece and for speaking this gift of our elderhood.

So much of what you and others wrote is so meaningful to me, so helpful and comforting to know there are sharing walkers on this path. I too have wondered if I've had my last hug, when it was, with whom it was, neither of us knowing. For two months now, another human being and I have not touched, held hands, patted arms or backs. I remember at one of our last meditation groups, a man who had been in a car accident passed close by me as we spoke and I reached out to touch his arm..........and stopped myself. So sad. It's only been the last several weeks when it has really taken root in me how long this could go on, how I may never live to hug or touch again. And there are still the flowers, the clouds, a friend on the line, a color never seen before. And I don't know why, but I feel somehow that the universe has beauty and kindness too.

As I get older (and older), I think of these possible "last time" moments more often, too. But then I remember that the last time-event could be triggered at any moment. A car wreck, a stray bullet, a broken-free blood clot, a falling tree limb. The universe decides.

(((((HUGS)))))
For Ronnie

I've never been much of a hugger. I do it because people expect it and it's a social nicety. But I understand the lack of it these days being difficult for many. It's a form of communication for them. That's not what I miss these days. What I really miss is being able to have a face-to-face discussion with a friend over a table after a good meal, a good beer.
An irony for me these days is that I just retired at 71 and planned on doing a lot of traveling while I'm still able. Ha! I do have a heart condition and while it's stable now, who knows for how much longer? As you said, the universe decides. One day at a time, as they say.

Ronnie, I am celebrating the wisdom of your post today! It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That's why they call it the present." Someone also added this, "Learn from the past, plan for the future, and live for today." I just opened the window to my backyard as a type and am listening to the birds talking to each other. What a gift today is!!

You may not want to see how the election turns out, if there even is one..

I have a quote
"There’s a point in which life stops giving you things and starts to take them away"

And another.....
"Have we talked about the beautiful sadness of old age? The part that remembers life many years ago, remembers people we loved laughing, who are ghosts now. We walk among ghosts always, happy and sad, that others cannot see or hear. "

And one more....

“I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief… For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” – Wendell Berry

I'm counting on reading you here between now and the Nov. election and long afterward, so hope the Universe doesn't let me down.

"...not knowing when we are doing something that is important to us for the last time, and therefore not making note of it."

Those words struck a note with me. I try to engage in numerous interactions as though they might be the last time I'll ever have them, but without being obvious to others about it, or even my mentally obsessing on that possibility.

I recall when I worked what seemed my automatic reflex to touch a shoulder, pat an arm, momentarily rest a hand on another's which I soon realized was a hungered for interaction from so many in encountered in various medical units.

I do long for hugs especially from living family and friends from whom I've been physically separated since long before our current situation, dear ones who've left this life before me. Perhaps once again there will come a day..........or not.

These days, I find myself daydreaming about finding out what life will be like "after" the pandemic. I'd probably be happier, or more mature, or something if I could just focus on today -- not always trying fruitlessly to look ahead. But I just want to see how the part of the story I'm living comes out. Always have.

Meanwhile, let's all end the nightmare we've lived in since November 2016. That's something we probably can do. Stick around for it dear Ronni!

Much food for thought here. My son commented this probably would be my last car when I showed off my "new" top-of-the-line used 3 year old Toyota. It is now 10 years old. I was taken aback but he was probably right. I love the heated seats for driving in winter, and all the luxury add-ons.

Luckily I still have my husband to hug, and two sister cats who are now 6 years old. One I call my "therapy cat' b/c she is very attentive, and the other only seeks attention on her own time agenda.

My younger sister collapsed and died of a massive stroke at the age of 72 about 5 years ago. I thought at least she didn't suffer as our mother went through a series of TIA's and was in a wheelchair before she had a massive stroke and was on life support in a hospital for about 3 days.

For sure, one never knows what is in the future....we humans plan and the Universe laughs.

YES, janinsanfran! Voting in November is one thing I really, truly hope I'm still around to do--and that many other like-minded folks are, as well. I SO want the Contemptible-in-Chief gone, gone, gone!

Like one of your other commenters, I've never been a hugger. It's not the personal touch of others I miss. I'm an introvert, and find even the three or four Zoom calls that are now a part of my weekly routine can be a bit much. On the whole, I'd rather be left alone. I don't know to what I should attribute this quirk in my personality; I was an affectionate child. But I can empathize with your sorrow over missing hugs, even if I am not feeling it so much yet myself.

No, what I miss is the ordinary, the living without thinking, the casualness of life Before. The stop at the grocery store (I used to shop for a few items nearly every day) without having to pause and don gloves and mask against contact with others who are now a source of fear, the impromptu dinner out with friends, the strong drink in a jazz club while the old greats on the stage (many now in their 80s and beyond) play sweet music that washes over me as I listen with eyes closed. One “meme” that is making the rounds on the internet these days: “Pretty wild how we used to eat cake after someone had blown on it...”

But “the universe decides that, not me” —oh, boy, that does resonate. When I was younger I have often wondered, projecting forward, what it would be like to miss the outcome of world events...will the rocket ship make it to the moon? will the Vietnam war end? will the ERA be ratified? will*they* find a cure for cancer? And now, will the Orange F*cker be defeated? .... It used to seem to me that it would be tragic to die before knowing the outcome to some momentous event. But I find myself less and less fussed about it all. Even the more personal, “will I ever live in a house, instead of an apartment?” “will I have a grandchild someday?” “will I ever see Paris again?” — well, maybe, maybe not. So, I will try to concentrate on today.

Today. Just this, now. This cup of tea, this cat at my feet, the sun on my skin, the birds outside my window. Some days it seems like enough.

With all the nostalgia and philosophizing of today’s TGB, I am struck most by Bernie Fleming’s comment: [Contagious diseases] ran rampant. No vaccines. We just took our chances . . . We kissed. We hugged. We loved.”

I wonder if we went overboard on this thing just because we had the technology to do so and the Media to communicate every “expert’s” frightening opinion 24 hours a day. What did we get from it:? What did we give up?

If you are even mildly interested in the odds, here in California they are about 1 in 1,300 that you will encounter anyone with the virus if you venture to step outside. Which means that there may be 1,299 people out there who will do you no harm.

I was talking to an old friend this afternoon. She's in KY caring for elderly parents. She's very scared. She wears a mask and gloves when she goes shopping. She gets hard stares from the townspeople. She uses disinfectant wipes in the car and on her face. Her face!

We talked about how this pandemic makes us realize how little control we have. I have also realized how much I took for granted.

No, we don't get the choice of knowing the end of the story. It's out of our control.

"I hit rewind to watch it again and by then I was weeping deep, wet tears."

Yeah. I totally get that, Ronni. Well said. And no apologies needed.

Deep, wet tears are a perfectly legitimate response to this situation. Particularly when added to the "predicament" you're already in.

I'm having similar responses and am never sure whether it's the cancer-thing or the Covid- thing, or both of them combined.

In any case, emotional responses to cold hard brutal facts are what it means to be alive on this planet, as far as I've been able to figure out.

And you're a master at giving us both the cold hard facts and the understandable emotional responses that accompany them.

Thanks for both.

 I  feel I have to respond to this idea, expressed by a couple of commenters...

 "[Contagious diseases] ran rampant. No vaccines. We just took our chances . . . We kissed. We hugged. We loved.”

The thing is: measles, mumps, chickenpox and even polio, all of which we navigated in our earlier years, are not remotely comparable to the Covid-19 pandemic of today. 

Measles, mumps and chickenpox as I recall, were called "the childhood diseases". 
The reason for that was that they had been circulating in the human population for many years, often for hundreds of years, and therefore there was wide-spread adult herd immunity to them.

The great majority of adults alive at that time had already survived those diseases in their own childhoods and were therefore mostly immune to contracting them again.  There was no need to shut down the entire economic engine of any country and quarantine entire populations.  All that was necessary was to try to protect and care for the children of those generations and hope that they survived too.

Polio, as I understand it, was more terrifying than the others;  it had only been around, as far as we knew, since sometime in the 1800's.  And people WERE completely terrified of polio and what it might do to their children.  But again, because it mostly hit young children there was no need to shut down entire societies because of it.  Even so, our society was frantic about polio, until it was finally realized that it was spread through poor sanitation practices; and of course until a vaccine was found to stop it. 

The societal response to the known childhood diseases of our youth might be compared to a war between old enemies.  We mostly knew these enemies.  We knew the worst they could throw at us and we knew the best ways we could respond, to protect ourselves.

Covid-19 on the other hand could be compared to an invasion by aliens.  It did not exist in the human population until it began attacking us a few months ago.  We have no idea even yet of exactly what it might do to us, either short-term or long-term, and we have no defenses whatsoever against it.  

The response of any intelligent organism to a wholly unknown and potentially devastating enemy is to hide, until we figure it out.  Until we know exactly what it intends, how it attacks, how many of us it wants to slaughter, and most important of all, until we can discover effective weapons to fight back and defeat it, or at least slow it down.

That's what humans have always done and it's the only thing that makes any sense, if we want to survive.  

I doubt that our reaction to previous plagues was much different than our reaction to this one.  

It might be instructive to think about how the childhood diseases that we lived with, affected populations who lacked herd immunity to them, as we now lack immunity to Covid-19.

From the LA Times:

"1492: In a pattern that would be repeated across the world for centuries, Christopher Columbus and his fellow European explorers arrived in the Americas, bringing a raft of deadly diseases — including measles — with them.  Native Americans had no natural immunity to many of these diseases. Measles, smallpox, whooping cough, chicken pox, bubonic plague, typhus and malaria — already dangerous and often deadly in Europe — became even more efficient killers in the New World. By some estimates, the Native American population plunged by as much as 95% over the next 150 years due to disease."

PS And for those who think we went overboard in our initial response to this pandemic, there is a new study from Columbia University, indicating the opposite...

From the New York Times:

"If the United States had begun imposing social distancing measures one week earlier than it did in March, about 36,000 fewer people would have died in the coronavirus outbreak, according to new estimates from Columbia University disease modelers.

And if the country had begun locking down cities and limiting social contact on March 1, two weeks earlier than most people started staying home, the vast majority of the nation’s deaths — about 83 percent — would have been avoided, the researchers estimated."

California shut down early and reaped the benefits of that. Ditto for where I live in Canada.

This virus, it appears, is pretty much like a wildfire. The more fuel you give it, the faster and hotter it burns. And each of us is the fuel.

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