Sunday Essay: Distance

Isolde D. Amante

SOCIAL distancing is hard, even for an introvert.

Twice in the past week, I had the elevator all to myself at work and I realized I actually missed hearing snippets of other people’s conversations — the same conversations I used to inwardly roll my eyes at because these seemed so petty.

I used to think: Look, you have more cells inside you than there are known stars in the Milky Way —that is how amazing you really are — and you want to spend part of your finite time gossiping about what a co-worker on the sixth floor is wearing?

Now, I miss those moments a bit.

I even miss the almost-daily selfie a friend used to post on Instagram, which used to annoy me before the Covid-19 crisis compelled her to focus most of her energy on work. She works in health care. When all this is over, I will remind myself to see each selfie as her own way of celebrating her life and beauty and good health — without entertaining the thought of sending her articles on the dangers of narcissism.

Social distancing is tougher at home, though.

Placing the back of my mother’s soft hand against my forehead has never felt more important. That’s one little ritual I have not given up yet, but we’ve surrounded it with some precautions. We’ve made it a strict rule to scrub our hands and forearms with soap and water from a garden hose before we can even enter the house.

I have had to repeatedly tell my mother no. No going out with me on a quick drive for essential groceries. No more going to church on Sunday mornings or sitting with her prayer group on Wednesday nights. No more coffee dates or community meetings, for now.

Last week, she found a cable channel that airs the services of Christ’s Commission Fellowship and on Sunday we sat (far apart) and listened to Pastor Peter Tan-Chi, who is excellent and empathetic. We plan to do the same thing again today, as the church my mother has attended for more than 30 years is cancelling its Sunday service for the first time ever.

I understand these changes are necessary. At a rational level, I know that keeping our distance from one another will help protect ourselves and those we love from Covid-19.

Understanding it doesn’t make it much easier.

I can’t explain to my 22-month-old niece why I have to turn away from her and change my clothes and scrub myself down before our nightly ritual: sitting side by side so we can eat some fruit and I can listen to her say her newfound words out loud.

She cannot say “Agay!” (Ouch!) and exclaims “Atay!” (Cebuano for “liver” but also a common swear word) instead. This makes me laugh every time, so of course she then runs around the living room yelling, “Atay! Atay!” She did that again this past week, while my mother met via a Facebook group call with other officers of our homeowners’ association. Finally, one of them couldn’t help but ask, “Who is that swearing in the background?”

Reader, sometimes I feel the urge to do that, too.

When I think about all the plans I’ve made for the year and range that against this rollercoaster of a first quarter we’ve had, I want to run around yelling my niece’s accidental swear word.

But there are people whose spirits I must help lift and, obviously, better uses of my energy and attention. So I fight the urge and focus on something more productive instead. There is always something else, something more helpful we can do.

I am grateful for how lucky I am. The spaces where my life mostly unfolds these days — the home my mother fought for, the workplace I am finding my bearings in — they are more than large enough. It is possible to find that balance between keeping a safe distance and cheering each other on.

Not everyone has this privilege.

And that’s what breaks my heart these days.

Not the bickering on social media, because I understand that’s the way others prefer to vent. Not the blind fanaticism of some of my friends, because that’s their choice.

It’s knowing there’s a gulf between the way I live and the daily struggle that millions of Filipino families endure and there’s not much I can do about it.

That’s where the real distance lives.