Self-isolation: it used to be what hermits did, or eccentric millionaires like Howard Hughes, hide themselves away in caves or isolated mansions, dependent on the state of their wallets.
Now though, we’re all doing it. And why? Because a microscopic particle we cannot see is trying to invade our bodies and kill us, like something out of some 1960’s Hammer horror movie starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.
Last week I took my wife to Paris. A romantic second honeymoon, perhaps, or a night at the opera? No, I took her to the Charles de Gaulle airport to catch one of the last flights out of the country headed for the United States.
We’ve lived in France for five years, but eighteen months ago she became ill. It was diagnosed as ovarian cancer, stage three plus, they said.
I was told she would die. Not straight away. She underwent intensive chemotherapy followed by a major operation that removed much of her inside. Then there was more chemo. She lost all her hair, was on umpteen pills every day to control the nausea and devastation wrought on her body by the chemo and all she’d gone through.
No, she wouldn’t die straight away, maybe in a year, or maybe two if she was lucky. I found myself mourning her loss while she was still alive, wondering when it would happen; when the lurking cancer cells would erupt once more in a final deadly surge of multiplication.
Then, out of the blue, came the reprieve. A mutated gene was discovered in her cancer cells. There was a new drug that would take out that gene and stop the cells from reproducing. The odds of her having a recurrence would be drastically reduced. There was a strong chance she could live out a normal life just by swallowing four pills a day.
Why was I not hysterical with happiness? For a full year I had expected the woman I loved to die very soon. The doctors had been specific. Her chance of recovery was virtually nil. They didn’t tell her that, but they told me. Now, it seemed, that threat was removed. Why was I not dancing with joy? Why was the only feeling I had one of vague disappointment, coupled with an intense sense of guilt for feeling that inexplicable emotion?
For weeks I wrestled with a sense of self-loathing that I could feel such a negative reaction. I knew it was illogical, yet I could not get past it. The only reason I could determine was that I’d been mourning the death of my dear wife for a long time, living with the knowledge the cancer would kill her, and her living presence now seemed unreal, as a ghost denying me closure.
We began to drift apart. She never left the house except for visiting the hospital for checkups. She needed a bedroom of her own, so we slept apart. She would watch television, or read, in the living room. I spent more and more time upstairs in my den.
One day she turned to me and said simply, “I want to go home to America.”
She knew I would never go back there. Fifteen years in the United States left me determined I would not set foot on its shores again. I was settled and content to live in France. She, I learned, had never been happy to leave America. And so it was on Thursday last we stood together for the final time, clinging to each other in Charles de Gaulle airport, not wanting to separate but knowing we must accept the inevitable, even as the tears ran down our cheeks.
Eighteen years of marriage cannot be snuffed out like a candle flame. We still love each other, of that there is no doubt, but the culture difference finally won out. She’s an American; I’m a European. She cannot live on my continent and I cannot live on hers.
We will continue our marriage though it will be entirely by phone and video chat. We have self-isolated, only in our case it has not been entirely due to that microscopic particle we call Covid-19.
Like many throughout the world we are now confined to our homes, our individual homes, and provided we’re spared the ravages of that virus, we both know that one day the tears that insist on welling up will dry, and life will move onward again.
Until then our self-isolation will continue, though maybe for long after the coronavirus is finally defeated.