It’s May 2020. COVID19 has been spreading around the world, infection millions and killing over 285K people, as of today. The impacts on everyday life have been swift and in some cases severe – social distancing, panic buying, many services and retailers shut down, students learning from home, and people who are still able to work often doing so from their dining room tables rather than their offices. It’s a crazy, and very scary, time to be alive.
There have been a lot of articles published about the impact of lockdowns and social movement restrictions on families and relationships. Some people are relishing the additional time at home to learn new skills, to explore creative outlets that they don’t normally have time to do, to reconnect with their families, and to binge on Netflix. There has been much concern, too, about the impact of this shutdown on relationships that may not be faring so well. Rises in domestic violence cases. Stresses erupting around struggles with helping reluctant students get through their assigned school work. The general toll on relationships that may rely on time apart when that time is now in diminishing supply. And I get all that. I find myself grateful that I’m not going through this pandemic crisis still married to my ex – life was stressful enough for both of us when we were together, without adding 24/7 contact into the mix. I’m dealing with this with my 17 and 20 year old daughters in the house, and we get on really well, but yet there are still moments where we are getting on each other’s nerves. I can’t imagine being trapped in the house with younger kids, trying to navigate all the tensions and frustrations that are associated with that.
For me, though, this pandemic is bringing about a different kind of stress. My partner lives on the other side of the country. We are used to not seeing each other for long stretches. He has his work, and I have mine. We try and schedule trips to see each other every few months, depending on school holidays and family commitments. And we communicate really well across the miles. So I thought, at the beginning, that we’d be ok. We’re experts at communicating virtually, we’d tell ourselves and others. Plus, we’re both nerdy, geeky introverts, more comfortable in our own spaces than in large crowds or social situations. This is our bag. We’ve got this.
And yes, that’s partly true. We still talk every day, multiple times a day, via phone or text or messenger. We still have our long-distance date nights, sharing movies or shows or books together, and then chatting as we curl up in bed, before saying goodnight and drifting off to sleep together. We’re still feeling as connected as we ever have, and enjoying our time at home alone together. But there’s something very different about all this.
I last saw Jacob in February. I headed to Perth for a long weekend, almost a week, in fact, and we saw Amanda Palmer perform her wonderful show, There will be no intermission (complete with intermission). We saw Neil Gaiman talk about his writing life, and answer questions from the audience, and read some of our favourites of his short stories and poems. We both cried at the sheer joy of these experiences. We ate delicious food. We watched some great TV. We went to work – him in his office, me in the library on campus, and we met up for lunch. We held hands. We laughed a lot. We smiled a lot. And then I came home.
Coming home, or saying goodbye to him at the airport after he leaves from a visit, is always the hardest thing. It’s the marker of the start of the longest point between then, and when we’ll get to see each other again. That February night, I thought we’d be seeing each other again in a few months. At the very latest, June when I’d be back for his birthday and Supernova, our now annual tradition, but probably there’d be at least one more trip in before then too.
But then COVID started gaining traction. States started to impose restrictions on international travel. Then borders were closed to interstate travel. Within states, even, there were restrictions placed on regional travel and all other travel that was deemed non-essential, and 14 day isolation periods required after any such travel. And, given all the travel restrictions, airlines are cancelling flights and running only skeleton services, so even if I wanted to head to Perth and could wear the 28 days in quarantine that a trip there and back would land me, I’d struggle to find a flight over.
Let me give you some context. We are in different time zones – Sydney, where I live, is 2 hours ahead of Perth, and it’s a 5 hour flight to get there. It’s also an almost 4,000km 41 hour drive away, so even if I was able to get across state lines it’s just not doable. And now, even despite the slight easing of some restrictions around social movements, we don’t know when things will get back to normal for us. We don’t know when we’ll be able to fly to see each other without worrying about having to be quarantined. We don’t know when flights will be available. There’s just so much we don’t know.
I recognise that we aren’t alone in all of this. So many people have had their lives impacted, and in the grand scheme of things, we’re doing ok. We are physically healthy. We are safe with our respective families. We have jobs, and can pay the bills, and buy the mince and toilet paper that are now starting to appear on the shelves again. And we can continue, like we always have, talking on the phone, sending each other texts throughout the day, chatting whenever possible, and being so grateful that we are lucky enough to have someone with whom communication is so easy. But others having it worse doesn’t mean that our current difficulties aren’t valid or real, because I’ve gotta say I’m hurting like crazy.
It’s not all bad though. The rapid increase of online meetings through platforms like Zoom, and social catchups and virtual game sessions that people are now putting into place, has made us realise that we hadn’t actually utilised the technology available to full effect. Facetime calls used to be a once-a-week or so occurrence, for a special date night, but the rest of the time we’d just audiocall. Now, I’m getting to see his beautiful face far more often – we’ll video chat over messenger in the morning as I’m having coffee and he’s about to head off for a run. We’ll video call during the day, and compare our work schedules, commiserate at how much we hate all the zoom and teams and skype meetings that are now so much a part of our everyday, before blowing each other a kiss and hanging up to dial into another one. We’ll cook dinner together in our respective kitchens, wandering in and out of view as we gather and prep things, and then curl up on the couch together to eat. We’ll video before bed to chat about whatever we’ve just watched, or how our kids are doing, or he’ll read to me. We’re seeing each other, albeit virtually, far more than we did before.
Yes, it’s great that we get to stay so connected. I can’t imagine doing this without the easy access to technology that we have now. But in someways, that’s just serving to heighten for me how far apart we are. When he presses his fingers to his lips, I’m reminded at how long it’s been since I’ve felt those fingers entwined with mine. When I see his eyes crinkle up when he laughs, I’m reminded how long it’s been since I heard that chuckle in person, and felt his whole body shake when he does so – he laughs with his whole body, so enthusiastically and passionately, and I miss that like crazy. And when we hang up on the last call of the day, I’m reminded that the pillow next to me is woefully empty. I’m always happy to hear from him, and to talk to him, but I’m also always desperately sad when that’s over.
I know that this will all change, sooner or later. I don’t know what that’s going to look like. I don’t know whether we as a society will go back to what we had before, or whether all the changes we are seeing around us with bring about some kind of new normal. And I don’t know how long it’ll be before I can fly again. But I know that I’m very glad I’m going through this pandemic with a strong, supportive partner. I’m so grateful that, despite the distance that separates us now, I can feel his presence in my life, even during those times where I increasingly feel his absence keenly. And I’m so lucky have the constant reassurance that even when I’m feeling alone, when the tears flow and I can’t stop the overwhelming feelings of loss, fear and anxiety, I’m NEVER lonely. So that’s something, right? It’s something I don’t ever take for granted.
I know, this is a long, personal blog post. And I know that my target audience for this blog is mainly just me – the few other people who actually do read it are here for book reviews. So I doubt many of you have made it through all of this. But that’s ok, I didn’t really write it for you. I wrote it for me, so that at some point in a few years when I’m doing a tidy-up of my blog I’ll stumble across it, read through this snapshot of life in 2020, and marvel at how long ago that feels, how strange a time it was, and how good it is to be on the other side of it. And I wrote it for Jacob, who mused the other night that, whilst there were plenty of articles about how couples were coping with lockdown, and the impact it was having on relationships, that there were none about relationships like ours. So here it is.
I love you, my Jacob. I can’t wait to see you face again – on my phone screen will be wonderful. In person will be so much better.