Fallout Shelter

I ran into my friend Suzanne this week in the Sobeys checkout line. I hadn’t seen her in a long time, since the before before the before. The effect was not unlike what I expect opening the door of the fallout shelter to emerge into the nuclear winter would be like: we compared notes, as one might, on how sheltered life was going, and drew a little strength from knowing we’d shared something of the same experience.

Megan Hallinan wrote in November about a bar in Rome that forbid COVID talk:

There’s a bar in Rome (bar in the Italian sense meaning that it primarily serves coffee) where they have taken the revolutionary step of forbidding talk about COVID by anyone who steps foot inside. It’s a refreshing idea, and at this stage in the pandemic calendar one that I don’t think many people will complain about.

On reflection, I realized that most of my conversations, for as long as I can remember, have been COVIDy: Where’d you get that mask? Are you still in Code Magenta? You went to see live theatre?! How you holdin’ up? What’s the deal with celery? (COVID talk apparently involves a lot of folksy contractions).

Between COVID talk and grief talk (and, for a while there, insurrection talk) there’s not a lot of room left over for loftier ruminations. I could use some lofty ruminating.

Years ago my neighbour (and Catherine’s roommate) Mike Johnston pitched a talk show set on a bus, and snagged Margaret Atwood as a guest for the pilot:

Even more impressive, Johnston finagles the participation of Ms. Atwood. Drawing on his friendship with the late Canadian poet Al Purdy, whom he used to book for poetry readings at Peterborough’s Red Dog Tavern, Johnston coerced the author to film an interview for the pilot; Atwood appears gracious and bemused in the segment, and she even signs the roof of the bus in a good-luck gesture. “She was awesome,” he says. “And she had really great skin, too.”

I was thinking about Mike and Atwood this morning because my social worker told me that I could be intimidating, which I found surprising, as I have never thought of myself that way. Atwood, surely, is the most intimidating living Canadian, and I wonder whether she feels that. Or, like me, considers herself a lucky idiot. What kind of friends do you end up with if you’re intimidating?

As if by magic, midway through writing this, my friend Martin phoned and offered to deliver Vietnamese sandwiches for lunch. He arrived 45 minutes later, and we spent the next 2 hours (mostly) not talking about COVID (or insurrection). We did, however, talk about grief for a bit.

Earlier in the week Martin pointed me to a post by his friend Ivan about grief. He mentions the Widow We Do Now? podcast, which I indirectly led him toward, a very helpfully irreverent podcast for people with dead husbands (and wives) that, like Ivan, I’ve been binge-listening.

I wrote to Ivan after reading his post, in part:

I don’t know why hearing tales of those on a similar journey is comforting, but it is.

I’ve found the same thing to be true of the monthly grief support group: who would think that a Zoom populated exclusively by the grieving could be anything other than a catalyst for embarrassed silence. But, no, it turns out there’s a magic to it, and that talking and listening to others who, no matter who and when and how, are grieving is helpful. In a way, what we talk about is irrelevant: just showing up to bear witness to each other is the key.

The estimable Rose Cousins released a lovely cover of Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody this week (Rose Cousins’ middle name is Millicent, by the way; that endears me to her even more).

The night before Oliver was born we watched Message in a Bottle, starring Whitney Houston’s friend (and former costar) Kevin Costner. I’d forgotten until just now that the plot concerns love letters written by Costner’s character Garrett to his dead wife Catherine, with the dramatic tension being “Garrett cannot quite forgive Catherine for dying and leaving him.” I’ve been there. The tension resolved only when, in a sense, Garrett emerges from his fallout shelter.

Megan Hallinan’s post continues:

Much like politics, we’re all tired of talking about COVID: what it means and how it influences every single decision we make. And when we are not talking about it, we’re all still thinking about it. My internal chyron has had these same two topics looping around for the entire year and good God I am worn out.

As much as I’ve found talking about grief to be powerful and important and, in the end, necessary, I feel worn out in the same way: being defined by, and defining myself by, absence. It can be exhausting.

I’ve been reading John Kim’s book Single On Purpose, and this paragraph hit me over the head:

I’ll tell you why you feel lonely. Because what you get from an intimate partner is something you can’t get from anyone else. Because those conversations after work and those waffles on Saturday morning help the world make sense. Because spooning puts you to sleep like a little baby. Because tongues feel fucking good. Because looking into someone’s eyes for longer than three seconds reminds you that we’re not meant to do life alone. Because being emotionally naked makes you feel alive. Because you can’t really tell your friends how your day went every single day or you won’t have any friends. Because we’re meant to give and share, lose ourselves and find ourselves through others, and love, hard. Because ordering in is so much better when you have someone.

If I’d read that a year ago it would have plummeted me into a cascade of tears as I lay, paralyzed, on the cold metal cot in the back corner of the fallout shelter. Reading it today doesn’t do that, because, hell yes, I’ve been there, I know that, and wasn’t that a blessing. But also because I know that, even after the nuclear winter, nature finds a way, and it reminds me of life’s possibilities.

One of the things we return to frequently in discussions among the grieving is whether grief with a side of COVID has made the process easier or harder. Opinions vary: one person’s loneliness is another person’s time for quiet reflection; some take solace that the world is, in a sense, also grieving. That’s something that’s always hit home with me, and I now again find my own situation mirrors that of the world around: with the back of the COVID curve seemingly broken again, and the pace of vaccination picking up, the fallout shelter doors, if not enthusiastically thrown open, are at least no longer welded shut.

To the point where, when I write “Who knows what might happen next?”, it can be a statement of possibility and hope, not of despair.