By Wendy Hodge
It’s a Monday morning, and the roads are dark and empty. Not a car in sight. The world is a different place these days. I am on my way to a job that is deemed “essential.” I’m not a doctor or a nurse or a radiologist or a phlebotomist. I work in a small private medical practice. I’m just a small cog in a small wheel.
But I talk to people all week long who are sick or afraid or upset. And the one thing they all have in common is uncertainty. No one knows how to plan or what to plan for. What will next week look like? Next month?
For now the reality is face masks and gloves and lockdowns. As uncomfortable as all that is, it’s the social distancing I’m struggling with the most. My best friend would laugh at that and say, “I’ve trained all my life for this!” But I am not the introvert he is.
Walking through Walmart, which I have done thousands of times (and complained about doing, I might add) has become a lesson in awkward maneuvering. Staying six feet apart is not as easy as it sounds. It takes a concentrated effort. Where I once walked in, head down, focused on what I was buying and eager to head back out into the world, I now have to pay close attention to everyone around me. It’s like walking and chewing gum at the same time. I’ve never been that coordinated. I’m also a chronic failure at measuring distances of any kind. When you give me directions, please don’t use technical terms like yards or miles. That’s just white noise for me – the same as phrases like “head north” or “south as the crow flies.” I don’t speak that language.
So if you see me on my weekly Walmart supply run and it appears I’m doing a shuffle step from a beginner’s dance class, please just pass on by and wave and know that I am not intoxicated. I am attempting to measure the feet between myself and those around me. I am just adjusting to life as we now know it.
This social distancing is hard for me also because I am a toucher. I’m a “hand on your arm” kind of talker. And hugs are a big deal. Now, I have to cross my arms and remind myself that hugs are a no-no.
As much as I complained about the crowds in Walmart and the noise and the chaos, I realize I miss that so much. Think of all the people we brush shoulders with every day. Or at least we used to. Most of them we don’t know and may never see again. Faces that barely register in our consciousness. The lady we stand next to while we pick out some fresh peppers in the produce aisle…. the kids who are looking at birthday cards while we shop for a gift bag … the clerk who went to high school with you and just wants to “hug your neck.”
All these people we touch in a casual way and never think twice about it. Or at least we used to.
It turns out that six feet is way too far away for someone like me.
Six feet doesn’t seem like much, but have you ever slept in a bed with someone you love after you’ve spent an hour arguing and saying things you wish you could swallow back down? Those angry words hang in the air above you as you cling to your side of the bed. And the gap between your bodies feels as broad as an unbridged canyon in the desert. Or have you visited someone in prison? Have you sat on a metal stool and watched someone you love shuffle toward you with chains on their ankles and take their place on the other side of a plexiglass divider? They are right in front of you, but they’re a world away.
Have you ever sat on the other side of a table from someone you swore to love forever while attorneys sign the papers that will undo all those vows? You can feel your heart breaking apart, and all you can do is nod and sign and try to remember how to breathe. And across the table, the face you know as well as your own becomes the face of a stranger.
Yes, a few feet can leave you feeling as alone as you’ve ever felt.
On this Monday morning, I stop and park in front of the big iron gates and wait for the little old man to swing them open. He’s always here this time of morning, and sometimes I am too. He waves from a safe distance away, and I pass through and drive up the hill to the back of the cemetery where the willows hang low. Stepping out into the morning air, the silence is loud enough to make my ears ache. I climb the three steps and stand in front of my sister’s marker.
What would she think of this world she left behind? What would she think of me? The six feet between us is eternal. I miss her, and it hurts. So I let myself cry for a bit. I say her name out loud because it feels good to hear someone say it. But I don’t speak after that because I think she can hear my heart much better than any words I could come up with. I think that maybe it would be so easy to just lie down here in the wet grass for a very long time.
A car passes by on the highway below, and I remember that I am still in this workaday world. There’s much more than six feet between me and my sister. There is a whole lifetime ahead. And I remember that, no matter what reality looks like now, I am on the living side of this earth. And every one and every thing is precious. It’s all a gift.
May we all be safe and well.
Hodge is an Opelika native, an empty nester and lover of all things Opelika.