Pay No Attention to the Blogger Behind the Curtain…

Consider this fair warning: In the coming days, I may start blogging a little more frequently. Why? Because I’ve got to get this nonsense out of my head.

I mean, sure, I’d love to post things that entertain whoever might stop by. But the entertainment value of these half-formed (and probably malformed) thoughts may be about the level of slowing down to gawk at an automobile accident. If I hadn’t already named the blog “GhostWriter,” I might be tempted to rename it “mental train wreck” or something along those lines.

Anyway, the idea is to get out of my head a lot of weird ideas and unworkable notions, in the (likely vain) hope that they will make room for better, more sensible thoughts. I don’t know how often I will post, and though I make no promises as to quality — they may be well-written or hastily scrawled, cogent and sane or the ravings of a near lunatic — I will try to produce “good words” for all you “good people” who visit.

But I’ve got to get this nonsense out of my head. 

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Broken Cups of Happiness

A couple of weeks ago, I talked with my daughter Stephanie about happiness, and I likened our capacity for happiness to a cup constantly filling and being drained. I suggested, however, that the cup of happiness from which we drink is, unfortunately and all too often, broken and leaking. Thus our capacity for happiness changes from time to time, most drastically with great losses or injuries or failures.

When we are young, after the initial shock of being separated from the warmth and leisure of the womb, our capacity for happiness seems almost boundless. Witness the innocent and all-consuming exuberance of a laughing child, and the difficulty we sometimes have as we grow older letting ourselves feel and express such joy. This is not to say that every child has the same capacity — it is almost certain that each of us has a cup of a slightly different size and shape, such that our capacities for happiness differ person-to-person — but in youth the cup seems more frequently to overflow.

As we grow, that cup of happiness which was so large and so easily filled gets damaged by life. Chipped. Cracked. Even shattered.

(Image by Hans Braxmeier, from Pixabay under Creative Commons.)

The greater the loss, the more grievous the injury, the worse the failure, the more damage our cup of happiness takes. Even if only chipped along the rim, every break means it cannot be filled as full as before — and those rough edges can cut our lips as we try to drink again. We may find ways to patch the holes or fill the cracks, through some gain or remedy or success, but if our cup of happiness has been badly broken it will rarely hold as much, as safely, as it did before.

And here’s the point I made to Stephanie: Even though our capacity for happiness may be less, that cup can still be filled to its new capacity. Because of that, sometimes, almost miraculously, we find that we are simply as happy as we can possibly be — that we can still pursue things that fill our cup, drink it down and let it fill again, and live good and pleasant lives.

In my personal life, I look back on various things that chipped and cracked my cup of happiness. In the aftermath of Jill’s death,* I might’ve said that my cup had been ground to dust. But I find now that my cup has been patched. Even though I wasn’t sure it could or would ever happen, I’ve had times recently when my cup of happiness has been full — and I can look forward to its being filled again and again as time goes by. It may not hold as much today as it did a few years ago, but I can enjoy it to its new limit.

This metaphor implies something else, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear: specifically, that the people we meet carry cups of happiness that have been broken by troubles they’ve encountered in their own lives, troubles about which we may know little or nothing. And the things we do, with them and for them and to them, can mend their cups a bit … or damage them more, perhaps irreparably. Few of us know what wounds people have already sustained, what fractures and fissures mark their cups of happiness that we might carelessly reopen; fewer of us are emotional surgeons, who can injure intentionally in order to heal eventually; and very few of us indeed are psychological potters, able to present others with new, unbroken cups of happiness.

For my part, I am immensely grateful to everyone who has helped me mend my cup. And I am unfathomably sorry for every time I have damaged someone else’s. May God forgive me.


*See my series, “Unprepared for Regret”, which ended with Unprepared for Regret, Part X: Farewell, My JillianFacebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Unprepared for Regret, Part X: Farewell, My Jillian

Fair warning: This will be a long post — as in, short story length. It’s the last in the tribute series to my late wife, Jill Rinehart, who died in the early morning on this date in 2019. All the entries (linked at the bottom, if you’re interested) form a record of my grief and my struggle through it, and though I know the struggle will continue, it’s time for this series of posts to end.

I wrote this in sections over a fairly long period of time. As a result, it may come across as a little disjointed….

My Jillian

I started calling Jill “Jillian” when we were in high school, and I was the only one to do so. She signed her name “Jill” to everyone but me, and once or twice when other people called her “Jillian” she either corrected them herself or asked me to do it. It was my special name for her, and no one else’s.

Yesterday: A Day of Remembrance

Yesterday, I relived parts of Jill’s last day, in an attempt to remember and honor her. That day in 2019 was difficult but not entirely bad … but then it gave onto the worst day ever.

Yesterday was a fine, beautiful, blue-sky day — much as it was last year. I walked the pup around the soccer fields, as I’d done that morning when Jill went to her doctor’s appointment (which I should have gone to with her, but she didn’t think she needed me to). In the afternoon, I took Twix with me to the NC Art Museum, since that’s where Jill had gone to relax after her appointment freaked her out, and we spent a little over an hour walking the grounds and chatting with Stephanie.

In the late afternoon, I went to the restaurant where the two of us had supper; I ate alone, with Jill’s picture on the table across from me. And as the sun was setting Twix and I walked the last walk the three of us had taken together at Bond Park. I recalled, as much as I could, what we talked about and how we joked and cut up and generally had fun, neither of us knowing that would be the last time we would ever walk together. Christopher met us at the end of the walk, and we talked a while about his mom and how much she meant to us.

Later in the evening, I went up to Jillian’s art studio, because that’s where she had gone that night a year ago. She had spent the remainder of that evening making example pieces for a Halloween-themed tic-tac-toe set (with its own little tin) that her class was going to make the next day. She had shown the pieces to me, including the little clay Jack-o-Lantern, before she baked them to set the clay, and put everything in the tin before she came to bed that night. It had sat on her studio desk ever since, but last night I finally opened the tin and played a game of tic-tac-toe with the set she had made.

When bedtime came, I laid on her side of the bed for the first time ever, just to feel a little bit closer to her. I prayed to sleep through midnight, which thankfully I did, and not to dream of her last gasp; and, truth to tell, I prayed a little bit that I might not wake up at all, just as I had done in the early days of her being gone. But wake up I did, to finish this tribute.

I wish I could have dreamed of her, looking back at me as she walked up the steps to the next world. I hope when my time does come that she will extend her hand back to welcome me.

(One of my favorite pictures of Jill, taken at Brookgreen Gardens in 1982 by her brother Jeff Briggs. She’s wearing her prom dress, and I love the playful way she’s looking back at the camera. I imagine her walking up those steps into Heaven, and looking back to say that everything’s okay.)

Where I Am Now

I am lost and I am found. Weak and weary. I tried to reach outward, failed, and have been collapsing inward.

On the advice of counsel — i.e., my therapist — for most of the past year I’ve tried to catalog pleasant memories of my time with Jill. Where I’ve succeeded, it’s because we had many good times together. Where I failed, it’s either because I’ve let some bad time overshadow the good or because (as I’ve mentioned in previous installments) my memory is not as reliable as my imagination.

I know it’s unrealistic to wish that I could recall every movie we saw together, every dinner we had, every time we hiked in the woods or walked on the beach or did anything where we talked and laughed and enjoyed one another’s company. I’m grateful that there were enough of those times that they begin to blend together and don’t stand out from one another.

Of course I’ve enjoyed looking at photographs she took when we were together, and even though my memory of the specifics may be faulty I can recall enough to know that we enjoyed those trips, those evenings in the park, those dessert treats, those simple pleasures. But I also know there were times I missed, and I hate having missed them. For instance, I look at the hundreds and hundreds of pictures she took when she went on outings by herself, on what the author of The Artist’s Way called “artist dates,” and while I know she enjoyed and was energized by those outings I find myself wishing that I could have gone on many (if not most) of them with her. And if I dwell on that kind of thing too long, regret piles on regret.

I just still miss her very much. I find it difficult to express how much I miss her — more on that later — and how badly I still wish she would be waiting for me when I get home, or how badly I wish I would look up to see her pulling up in the driveway, or how badly I would like to wake up in the morning and know she was there and have to sneak downstairs to let the dog out to avoid waking her up too early.

Memorable Moments

Where my memories have been weak, over the past few days I’ve tried to recharge them by re-watching some videos from when our children were young. Jill had done so last year in advance of working to make them into digital movies; she only ever completed one test movie, but it’s nice to think that a lot of her down time last year included revisiting those memories.

I’ve been a little bothered by watching segments in which Jill filmed the children while I wasn’t there. Some made sense — for instance, they spent the day at the beach at Vandenberg AFB while I was at work — but some hurt, like the Easter egg hunt I missed because the Air Force had sent me elsewhere for that weekend. I hate that I missed those moments, though I realize that it would have been impossible to be available for all of them. But I also miss the moments we did have together, and even more the moments we could have had.

Before I started the video watching (which I haven’t finished yet), I also read through the journals I kept for a few years. They weren’t diary entries — most of the notes were snippets of articles or stories I was trying to write — so I didn’t record very many details of the days, and when I did it was usually because something had gone wrong. Reading them was not altogether pleasant, then, but I did discover some entries that made me smile:

  • 3 December 1993: A note about walking down the street and having a streetlight go out reminded me of a specific memory of walking with Jill down the sidewalk at Clemson when we were students. We had been approaching Riggs Hall (with Tillman Hall at our backs), and I decided in a fit of exuberance to swing around one of the light poles in somewhat the same way Gene Kelly did in Singing in the Rain. But as soon as I did it, the light went out! That took us both by surprise, and we laughed together and ran down the sidewalk for fear of being caught. And from then on, from time to time we would walk past a light pole and the light would go out, and we would laugh together at the memory.
  • 22 July 1994: I wrote that Jill, who loved to build our fires when we went camping, “threw some old potato chips into our campfire and we watched them flame up from the oil they were fried in,” after which we discussed which brand of chips would work best if we needed to build a fire quickly.
  • 2 March 1995: “I am so happy, so pleased with the love and care Jill puts into our lives. For Stephanie’s birthday cake she used Lion King decorations; for Christopher’s she used miniature trucks and tractors. She is a wonderful wife, a great mom. I can’t do enough to show her how much she means to me.”
  • 13 March 1995: “I may not write many of the stories I’ve got rattling around in my skull, but I think afternoons like this one — playing Frisbee with Stephanie and Christopher and Jill — may make up for it.”
  • 20 March 1995, when I was traveling on temporary duty: “I do so enjoy the little notes Jill leaves for me in my luggage; if she traveled more I could return the favor more often.”
  • 3 August 1995: “Read an old letter Jill wrote to me — she found it today in her cleaning up for our move. I am still surprised that she fell in love with me.
    “I’m glad, but I’m still surprised.”
  • 19 August 1995, while I was in training for that next assignment: “Jill, Stephanie, and Christopher are safe in Colorado Springs — thank God for Alexander Graham Bell’s magic machine. If only I could send my arms with those electrons and give them a hug.
    “I can hardly keep my thoughts straight: I think of how loving Stephanie is, how much fun Christopher is, how beautiful and caring Jill is. I miss them so. I want to come home and have Steph and Chris run to hug me — I want them to seek me out wherever I might be to show me their latest creations or tell me about something that happened that day. I want to stop Jill on her way to do something and give her a hug — she complains when I do it that it’s just to annoy her, but I think she needs those hugs as much as I do. I like hugs.”
  • 22 March 1996: “Just back from comet gazing. Hyakutake looks pretty good, even through a pair of binoculars. I’m not sure if Stephanie and Christopher could really pick it out, or if they just said they could so they could get in the van. Jill enjoyed it though — I am very fortunate to have a wife who enjoys the same things I do — when we got back from our jaunt (we had driven eastward to get away from most of the city lights), she lay on the front lawn to look at it some more. (It was visible here at the house after all, but not as bright.)”
  • 9 June 1996: “I often wonder how I got where I am. How was I able to convince my Jillian to marry me, and how have we been able to build a (relatively) stable family? How have I been able to enjoy this level of success in (and out of) the Air Force? The short answer is, I don’t know.
    “I certainly feel blessed.”
  • 25 June 1996, after a couple of difficult days: “Our night on the beach was close to being perfect. The moon had set, and the only lights came from stars and beach houses — most of the houses were dark, and the brightest lights were diffused glows of condominiums to the north and south. Where we were and where we walked, we enjoyed the darkness; reflected glow from the shallow water framed our footsteps.”
  • 4 July 1996: “The four of us sat on the blanket, playing rock-paper-scissors while we waited for the fireworks to start. Fireworks and Frisbee, root beer and rice crispy treats, a blanket in the grass — in such moments, few and far between as they are, I can forget the rest of the world and allow myself to be happy.”
  • 15 June 1997: “So insignificant they may seem to an observer, they are priceless to me: the little touches, the holding hands, small expressions of intimacy, but vital and important to me.”
  • 16 January 2001: “I realized the other day that sometimes I’m afraid to admit how much I love her. Even to myself. The magnitude overwhelms me, and I’m afraid to think about it for too long.”

Some entries were not so sweet, though, and made her loss and my grief even more palpable:

  • 19 September 1995: “Why do I torture myself?
    “Why do I play these scenarios in my mind?
    “I should not ask why, the answer is too clear: fear. I am afraid of that which has always unnerved me, that thing that happened once, long ago, in another time, another place. I am afraid of losing her, of not getting her back. Maybe it is a function of missing her, wishing I could touch her, hug her, rub her feet, brush her hair. I force myself to take deep breaths to slow my heartbeat — my evil imagination is working overtime.
    “It doesn’t matter which scenario plays — they all leave me breathless, gasping, sweating, shaking. I swallow down the nausea; I wish my intestines would unravel. Sometimes it is death. In the course of hoping she is safe I encounter the fear that she is not, until that fear takes control and I hear the telephone ring, the voice on the other end with horrible news. The tears I fight are real enough. Sometimes it is my death — a near miss in an automobile or a news report or whatever, and suddenly I see her receiving the word and I want to hold her, tell her it’s not true, dry her tears and kiss her eyes and make it all right again. But I cannot, and again I fight my own tears. Sometimes they win.
    “In these imaginings I lose her forever — I feel as empty as a balloon….”
  • 19 November 1995: “What is it about a woman’s tears?
    “What is it in me that wants to conquer them, overthrow them? That wants to hold Jillian so tightly my arm starts to ache, that wants to wipe away or kiss away those tears — but that is not enough.
    “The tears are not the problem — the stress and pain pushing out the tears is the real problem. And unfortunately I am more part of the problem than the solution. I am caught in a bizarre and unintended hypocrisy: treating and causing the symptoms at the same time.
    “Would that I were wiser.”
  • 9 February 1996: “A photograph cannot hug you back. Pictures never call your name. They are mute, lifeless reminders, silently echoing empty promises.”
  • 19 June 1997: “Jill says she is getting tired of my insecurities. She has no idea the depth to which they run.”
  • 25 July 1997: “Lord, hear my prayers, see my tears.
    Do dreams really come true? I want to believe they do, they have — her love for me, my love for her, our love for each other seem too much like a dream that came true, too good to be true. Why can’t I accept it?
    “I want to trust you. I want to abandon myself, but I hold on to myself too hard. I want you to make me whole again.
    “Lord, please send this message to Jillian while she is away: please let her know how much, how fervently, how completely I love her. Please let her know I am still in love with her. Please let her know how much I miss her, how much I need her, how much of a blessing she is to me, how sorry I am for always hurting her, how badly I want to make things right again.
    “Thank you for listening. Lord, please fill me with your love, with your spirit, with your peace.”
  • 27 February 1998: “A thought occurred to me while driving into work this morning: how sad it would be to die at work. Sad to die anywhere, that is (I seem to be over my latest thoughts to the contrary), but especially sad to die, say, at one’s desk amid the day-to-day mix of tedium and stress that is the work world.
    “Better, it seems, to die at home amid the day-to-day mix of domestic tranquility and strife. Why? It seems better to die among those you truly love, to be able to have your last thoughts of them and maybe even tell them how much they mean to you, than to die miles away from them among people who are mostly only acquaintances rather than friends.
  • 2 July 1999, when the family was on vacation while I was working, an entry that rings truer than ever in my grief: “This morning, in the all too brief moment before I woke fully, I could almost believe Jill was there with me. It seemed, for that instant, that I could have stretched out my arm and put my hand on her — but then I was awake, the moment passed, and I was alone. Maybe more alone than before.”
  • 29 August 2007: “Things keep happening so fast, it seems — days full of activity (which is good), but little time to reflect (not so good)….
    “Daily now I pray that my family will have good days at school — Jill teaching (that is, helping the teacher) at Chesterbrook, Steph at UNC-G, Chris at Green Hope — and I wonder if I’ll get to go back to school myself someday. I think I would like that, but it’s not going to happen anytime soon. Not with the budget so tight that I may have to borrow money to pay the tax bill next month.
    Things certainly haven’t worked out the way I thought they would since I retired. Maybe they never do, and maybe that’s okay.”

No, things haven’t worked out the way I thought they would. And I can say with certainty that it’s not okay for me.

How Much I Miss My Jillian

In truth, I cannot express how much I miss her. I don’t want to overstate the case, but the simple fact is that I do still miss Jill, and I suspect I always will to some degree. I know I want to always remember all the best things about her. I hope that makes sense.

I thought maybe I was getting better — “better” is not really the right word — over the summer, or that I was getting more used to things, because the periods of sadness had started coming less often and in many respects had been stinging less. It had become a simple fact, that I just missed her, rather than something that controlled my reactions or dominated my days.

The last two weeks gave the lie to that. Partly, that’s been because (as mentioned above) I’ve immersed myself in scouring old journals and watching old videotapes for any mention of good times we had. I’ve been able to laugh at things we said, and smile at the way she took care of the children, and let her voice wash over me and feel the love I had for her. What a marvelous experience! The still pictures we downloaded from her computer or I scanned in from old photographs, the artworks on the walls, the clothes in her closet or books on her shelves, lack that immediacy, that impact.

Instead of trying to quantify how much I missed Jill, early in 2020 I started making a list of things I missed about her. I added to it over time, until now it is quite lengthy. In general, I miss the things we did together, and the things she did for me and the things I did for her. I deeply miss the security of having a partner in life, or at least the feeling of security that I had because I had a partner.

Some of the many things I miss about my Jillian, in alphabetical order because I couldn’t figure out any better way to sort them:

  • Brushing her hair
  • Buying her flowers as a surprise, whether I put them in a vase or hid them in the refrigerator for her to find them, and hearing her reaction (usually something like, “Oh, pretty!”)
  • Going light-looking at Christmastime (from very early on, when we went to see the lights at the Hammock Shops in Pawleys Island), or going to any special holiday celebration — a play, a cantata, the “Lessons and Carols,” anything
  • Going out to breakfast with her on Saturday mornings — we had a rotation of local places, some of which she gave her own names to — or going out to eat with her anywhere, whether for a casual meal or a formal affair like an Air Force Dining Out
  • Helping her when I could, whether with her work or around the house or wherever (which I don’t feel I did often enough)
  • Holding her hand
  • Hugging her — including interrupting her when she was headed somewhere or in the middle of some chore (it irritated her some, as I noted in a journal entry, but I think she still appreciated it)
  • Kissing her hello or goodbye or for no reason whatsoever, and often with a double kiss for emphasis
  • Laughing with her, whether at a TV or improv show or at something one of us said — even when it was inappropriate, like during communion one Sunday morning at Springs Community Church in Colorado Springs: As we took the bread, we both sniffed at it a little bit and Jill leaned over and said it smelled like tuna, to which I replied, “Yeah, it’s the loaves and the fishes” … she sat there for a second or two, and then she started to chuckle, and then we both put our hands over our mouths to keep from laughing too loud … it was terribly irreverent, but it made for a memory we recalled several times in the years since
  • Listening to books on CD on long drives, or reading to each other — and when Steph and Chris were old enough, having them read to us
  • Listening to the ideas she had about her art classes, and her listening to any oddball suggestions I made
  • Looking at her artwork — for instance, having her come to the railing outside her studio and hold up something she’d just finished for me to see
  • Opening the car door for her, or opening doors for her when we went somewhere
  • Opening the front door for her to welcome her home, from school or work or the store — and telling the dog, “Mama’s home!”
  • Playing games — whether just games of Scrabble or Rummy between the two of us, or larger games with family and friends
  • Rubbing her feet
  • Saying “I love you,” and more than that, hearing her say it — something we did several times every day we were together
  • Sitting in the same area together, whether on the couch watching TV, or on the front porch enjoying the sunshine, or anywhere we could talk or laugh together
  • Smelling her cooking
  • Smelling her perfume (she never used much)
  • Talking about things we wanted to do or places we wanted to go
  • Talking about what we had read or seen or done that day
  • Telling her about my story ideas or letting her read my lyrics-in-progress, and hearing her feedback
  • Walking with her — with or without dogs, in the neighborhood, in the woods, on the beach, in the mountains — which may be why that last walk we took together became so important to me
  • Washing her back
  • Watching her bathe
  • Watching particular things with her on television — for instance,
    • The Big Bang Theory, and laughing at ourselves because the show makes fun of nerds and we were both nerds
    • The Amazing Race, and talking about the places we might visit and whether or not we would be able to complete the challenges … and whether or not we would still be together if we tried to do something like that, or if the pressure of it would tear us apart
    • House Hunters International, usually before we went to sleep, and talking about the places we might want to go (and the places we would never want to go), and which house we thought the people should choose — the DVR in the bedroom is full of over 200 episodes I haven’t been able to watch
    • and some additional shows that she liked more than I did, like Survivor or Dancing With the Stars — I didn’t watch them regularly with her, but I tried to catch them once in a while just to be close to her and talk about the things she liked

I suppose anyone who had a good, long-lasting marriage could make a similar list, and can relate to the sudden absence of things that might individually seem almost insignificant, but together were absolutely priceless.

That Regret for Which I Was Most Unprepared

In the first “Unprepared for Regret” installment, I included this in the list of regrets:

… things I’ve learned about that I didn’t know, that at times during our marriage she was unhappy or dissatisfied or depressed: specifically, for not having clearer vision and more wisdom to see what was wrong and know how to help; for being self-absorbed and ignorant … not uncaring or unconcerned, really, but stupidly blind to her needs

The more I’ve learned from letters she kept, the more I’ve come to realize that the regret for which I was most unprepared was her regret — that she at times regretted marrying me or being with me. Dwelling on that has come very close to destroying me over the past months. Every time I think about her being sad, or ever wishing she was somewhere else, I feel as if my heart is going to implode.

I have no way of knowing how many times over the thirty-four years of our marriage that Jill wished to leave, or how far she might have gone in planning to leave. I know that one time a friend wrote to warn her about the worst-case scenarios in divorce, and another time her parents wrote to her about going back to live with them when Jill felt I was smothering her. Why she didn’t leave, I’ll never know.

Fifteen years ago, for instance, Jill gave me a choice — an ultimatum — between her (and the family) and the Air Force.

That story starts with Jill calling me as I was getting ready to leave work. (I was working out near Dulles Airport that day, instead of in the Pentagon.) She said she was out in the area, and asked if I’d like to meet her for an early supper. When I got to the restaurant, she said she had an overnight bag in the car and reservations at a nearby hotel if I was interested — but that first we needed to talk.

And talk we did. She was tired of the strain the Pentagon assignment was putting on the family and our relationship, and told me very clearly that if something didn’t change I would come home one day and she and the children would be gone. My reply was simple: At the first opportunity, as soon as I was eligible to retire, I would put in my paperwork. Because she and the family were more important to me than my career.

But the point is that my Jillian thought about leaving me, thought her life would be better without me — or at least without that version of me.

Let me be clear that I have never thought of myself as perfect in any way. In the manner of all of us being our own worst critics, I probably magnify my faults in my own sight (I am very close to them, so they appear large, and I scrutinize them quite often), but I know my faults are legion. But facing my imperfections has been easy compared to facing what I now see as the abundantly clear imperfections in my marriage. I’m not sure if I thought our relationship was unassailable, or if I believed that her devotion matched mine, but to find that at any point she earnestly desired to leave — that she had any regrets about being with me — has been a heartbreak far beyond that of losing her.

I was utterly unprepared to learn that.

And, yet, despite whatever misgivings she had, she stayed with me. We worked out the things I knew about, and she somehow worked through things I didn’t. She remained my wife and my life partner, in the best sense, in the sense that she stuck around when she could have left.

And then suddenly, unexpectedly, a year ago she was gone, and I lost every chance to apologize or make amends for how I had hurt her.

All I Ever Wanted

It’s strange that I didn’t find the words to articulate this until yesterday.

You may think that I’m about to write that Jillian was “all I ever wanted” in a woman, or girlfriend, or wife, but that’s not exactly it. Who’s to say that someone else might have been just as good a partner, just as good a friend, just as good a mother? No, the thought I had yesterday had more to do with our relationship as a whole, than with her as a person.

So here’s the indivisible bit at the core of my relationship with Jill: All I ever wanted was for her to be proud to be my wife.

Not necessarily proud of me as a person — as an Air Force officer or writer or whatever, as a husband, as a man — though that might be part of it. Not necessarily proud of our children, though she had every reason to be (and was more responsible for their good qualities than I ever was). Not proud of what we had in terms of our house or material possessions, because while we did okay we remained contentedly middle class.

No, I wanted her to be proud to stand by my side. Proud to sign her name “Jill Rinehart.” Proud to introduce me as her husband, or for me to introduce her as my wife.

It was a crushing blow to learn, as I mentioned in the previous section, that she sometimes regretted being married to me. But I think at least sometimes — during our better days, and I hope particularly during our later days — she was able to be proud of our marriage.

I wish she were here, so I could ask her, but more so that I could do whatever it would take to make her proud.

I always said I would do anything for Jillian. And maybe what I’m doing now counts for that. Maybe trying to honor her by writing these words, or by posting our best memories on Facebook, count for that. Maybe my tears, maybe bearing the sadness and the pain and the grief, are part of what I pledged to do for her. But would they make a difference? I don’t know.

Better Life

I believe that my life was better because Jill was in it, and I hope that most of the time she thought hers was better with me. I think we made a good team, and I hope she would agree.

I believe my life would be better if she were still in it, but I don’t know if hers would be better if she were still here. She was very afraid something was going to happen during her surgery or her recovery — we talked about it the day before she died, but I only recently learned that she had also confided her fears in one of her best friends. Maybe the surgery would have gone well; I have no way of knowing. But even if it had, the recent virus hysteria would have been very difficult for her, and she might have been miserable for the past year — or even taken ill from it. It may well be that losing her a year ago meant that we didn’t have to see her suffer. That’s hard to accept, but I suppose it would be a fair trade.

I admit that I’ve wondered from time to time if everyone else’s life might have been better if I had died instead of Jillian. It would have been hard on her: she would have had to postpone her surgery from that Wednesday because she would have been making the kind of arrangements that we made for her. I’m sure she would have had good support, but I know that she was not confident in handling the household finances on her own. And then the virus scare still would have come along to take its toll. I suppose she would have had her own regrets to deal with, her own moments of doubt and distress. And while I think the children would probably do better with her than with me — a mother’s love is so much more enveloping and affirming than a father’s love — I would not wish for her to carry even a fraction of the grief that I’ve borne.

So here I am, trying to figure out how to go on with life. I’ve gone through with some of the home improvement projects Jill and I had planned to do — replaced the siding on the house, replaced the old back deck — but for the most part they only remind me that she’s gone. They look great, they’re very well done, and I loathe the thought of enjoying them without her.

I continue to miss her and to wish that she were here, not as a way of denying that she’s gone but simply because of how much I loved her and continue to love her. And in a very selfish way, I wish she were here so that I would never have learned that she had ever been so unhappy with me.

Farewell, my Jillian. I hope you are happy — happier — the happiest you have ever been, or could ever be. And I hope to see you again, and when I do to hear you say that you love me.


Previously in the series:
Unprepared for Regret
Unprepared for Regret, Part II: Valentine’s Day
Unprepared for Regret, Part III: Jill’s Last Day
Unprepared for Regret, Part IV: The Day Jill Died
Unprepared for Regret, Part V: Six Months Gone
Unprepared for Regret, Part VI: Our Anniversary
Unprepared for Regret, Part VII: Hollow Birthday to Me
Unprepared for Regret, Part VIII: Independence is Overrated
Unprepared for Regret, Part IX: Forever Autumn?

P.S. If you’ve never read it, you can read Jill’s obituary here.Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Unprepared for Regret, Part IX: Forever Autumn?

(This post should be the next-to-last in the tribute series to my late wife, Jill Rinehart. I plan to close this record of the grief I’ve struggled with, on the anniversary of her death: 19 October. All the entries so far are linked at the bottom, if you’d like to read through them.)

A year ago yesterday, I took the pup on a walk. Twix and I walked down part of the Cary greenway system I’d never been on before, and some possible song lyrics came to me. I remember crying a bit as I sang them, but by the time I fished my phone out of my pocket to record them I no longer had the words quite right. What I thought of as the chorus, pieced together from the snippets I recalled, went something like,

“And I apologize for every time I’ve hurt you or done you wrong
And I know I can’t make up for them in this simple song
Things I wish I’d done differently come upon me like a curse
All the times I hurt you, the embarrassments and worse”

Obviously it would need a lot of work to get it to scan better and take out the repetition, but as noted, I know it’s not what came to me at first. At the time, I actually dictated, “It is very difficult to remember what I said before, especially when the dog wants to keep walking.”

I don’t remember now what I was thinking about, and I never showed those notes to Jill. I don’t know which I regret more, but clearly even before she died I regretted having caused her any trouble.

But that was a year ago yesterday.

Today is the first day of autumn. The autumnal equinox. Daylight and night are equal, at the equator. Things are supposed to balanced.

But they’re not all that balanced for me. Not quite yet. As this graphic, shared by a friend on Facebook recently, shows, widowhood is not exactly known for inspiring balance in our lives:

(I’m not sure who made this “I’m a Widower” image, but it gets the point across even with the editorial mistakes.)

But I have hope that balance will be restored.

The title of this entry comes from my favorite song from Jeff Wayne’s musical version of The War of the Worlds. “Forever Autumn” was sung by Justin Hayward (of one of my favorite bands, The Moody Blues). And when Jill died last October, as autumn was reaching its crescendo here in North Carolina, I thought it was both poignant and fitting:

“The summer sun is fading as the year grows old,
And darker days are drawing near,
The winter winds will be much colder,
Now you’re not here.”

And many times in the past eleven months I thought it might even be prophetic:

“A gentle rain falls softly on my weary eyes
As if to hide a lonely tear
My life will be forever autumn,
‘Cause you’re not here”

If you had asked me in the early days after she died, I would have said my life truly would be forever autumn without Jill — or that if it ever proceeded into winter it would be “always winter but never Christmas” (as Narnia was for a time in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe).

I don’t feel that way so much anymore, and at times I regret it. At times I think I should carry that torch a little higher, for a little longer — but it’s a dreadful thing, and I’ve been grateful to be able to put it down, even for a little while.

In many ways I feel as if my heart and my life have been pieced back together haphazardly: the shape is about right, but there are gaps, missing pieces. Some of the pieces might be around here somewhere — in a drawer, in a coat pocket, in a long-unopened box — but I fear that some of them have been pounded to dust underfoot, or by the weight of failure, or in the grinding gears of doubt. Would that the cracks might be filled with gold, like Japanese “kintsugi” or “kintsukuroi” pottery, but I’ll be lucky to fill them with plain red clay.

I need the cracks in my heart to be filled, though, and I have begun to do so, which is why I put a question mark in the title of this entry. People like you have been instrumental in helping, with a piece here or a bit of filler there, including one special person who has helped me see that my broken-but-mending heart may be whole enough to love again. So I don’t feel quite so strongly anymore that “my life will be forever autumn” because Jill is gone.

I still have a ways to go (as we say in the South), and autumn will still turn into winter, but I have hope that winter will eventually turn to spring again — and that I will welcome it instead of regretting it.

Thank you for all you’ve done to help me along.

Previously in the series:
Unprepared for Regret
Unprepared for Regret, Part II: Valentine’s Day
Unprepared for Regret, Part III: Jill’s Last Day
Unprepared for Regret, Part IV: The Day Jill Died
Unprepared for Regret, Part V: Six Months Gone
Unprepared for Regret, Part VI: Our Anniversary
Unprepared for Regret, Part VII: Hollow Birthday to Me
Unprepared for Regret, Part VIII: Independence is Overrated

P.S. If you’re interested, you can read Jill’s obituary here.Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Unprepared for Regret, Part VIII: Independence is Overrated

Today we observe Independence Day — the day our Founders signed the Declaration they had voted approval of two days prior, claiming for themselves and for us “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This year, however, I think perhaps independence (and particularly personal independence) is overrated. Not unimportant, certainly, but not all-important. So I will observe the day — put out the flag, sing some patriotic songs, fire up the grill — but I doubt that I will celebrate it as eagerly, as deeply, as I once did.

(Before we go further, a reminder: This post is another in a series that has been a tribute to my late wife, Jill Rinehart, and a record of the grief I’ve struggled with since she died last October. The previous installment was on my birthday. All the entries so far are linked below.)

In the spirit of the day, here’s a picture of Jill and me on the 4th of July in 2017, touring the Chickamauga Battlefield after a pleasant visit (and lunch!) at my boss’s house:

(With Jill at the Chickamauga Battlefield, 4 July 2017.)

Can you guess why I might think independence is overrated?

Because, having lost my life partner with whom I had spent over 34 years of marriage, I haven’t found my resultant “independence” to be all that enriching. As Scripture says,

And the Lord God said, “It is not good for the human to be alone. I shall make him a sustainer beside him.” (Genesis 2:18, translated by Robert Alter)

Better than independence, for me, was interdependence. Mutual support, mutual respect, individual freedom within the structure of our relationship. We were each independent to a certain degree: Jill had her teaching and her art and her plants, and I had my work and my writing and my music. But we also worked together as a team. We planned, set goals, and accomplished things together. And I miss our togetherness, our partnership.

As a result, finding myself personally independent has been a struggle. I suppose in some respect it’s been frightening, but in a much deeper respect it’s just been lonely. I’ve said before that I don’t always like who I am without her, because she made me a better person — or, if she didn’t exactly make me better, at least she inspired me to work to be better.

Speaking of being better: Before I close, will you permit me a brief digression in these politically tumultuous times? (If not, you can just skip the next paragraph.)

Our society is pretty fractured at the moment. I’m disappointed that we haven’t been able to develop and sustain the kind of friendly, supportive social interdependence that a strong political union should manifest. Some people seem to believe that’s become impossible. They may be right; but I hope for better. So with that in mind, let me say: Black lives do matter. If you are black, don’t ever let anyone tell you differently. But, more to the point of personal independence and interdependence: Your life matters. You, reading these words right now. Your life matters. Not because you may be black or white or some shade in between; not because you’re of the Zulu tribe or the Celtic tribe or the Navajo tribe; not because you are from the North or the South or the East or the West; but simply because you are unique in the world, a rarity in the boundless expanse of creation, made (so I believe) with the image of God stamped upon your soul. Your life matters — to me, at this moment. I wish that message would catch on, and that more people would feel comfortable sharing it.

In the end, I think it’s important to maintain a degree of independence, but more important to cultivate interdependence with those we love and trust. It may be hard if there is little (or no) love or trust, and maybe those three things — love and interdependence and trust — are related and build on one another. That’s probably a topic for another day.

For today, though, in keeping with the series theme, I regret any and every time that I have squandered love or trust — because they are difficult to regain.

And I wish you love and trust, and a high degree of interdependence that helps you be better than you might be otherwise. Because, I say again, your life matters.


Previously in the series:
Unprepared for Regret
Unprepared for Regret, Part II: Valentine’s Day
Unprepared for Regret, Part III: Jill’s Last Day
Unprepared for Regret, Part IV: The Day Jill Died
Unprepared for Regret, Part V: Six Months Gone
Unprepared for Regret, Part VI: Our Anniversary
Unprepared for Regret, Part VII: Hollow Birthday to MeFacebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Unprepared for Regret, Part VII: Hollow Birthday to Me

This series has been a tribute to my late wife, Jill Rinehart, and a record of the grief I’ve struggled with since she died last October. The last installment was three weeks ago, on our anniversary. All the entries so far are linked at the bottom.

Today, as noted in the title, is my birthday.

Truth to tell, and also as noted in the title, it feels a little empty. From what I’ve learned, that’s natural for those of us who are grieving.

With respect to this “Unprepared for Regret” series, I won’t go so far as to say that I regret being born. I will admit that quite a few times in the past eight months I’ve considered that I might like to die, myself — most recently, in fact, around 11:30 last night. Yet, here I am.

Then, as I walked the dog this morning, I thought that there’s nothing inherent in or special about my birthday that causes me much regret with respect to Jill.

Obviously, I regret that she’s not here to wish me a happy birthday, just as I regret that we weren’t able to go on another adventure together like the one we took between our anniversary and my birthday in 2010:

(With Jill on our 25th anniversary trip to Kauai, June 2010.)

Doesn’t she look happy? I believe that trip was one of the highlights of her life, and I’m thankful I was able to take her.

Over the past couple of days I’ve looked at birthday cards Jill gave me through the years, from funny ones to serious ones, some in which she wrote heartfelt notes and others in which she did little more than sign her name. I could trace some of the ups and downs of our marriage in the cards, and I regret that the collection seems to be incomplete. I don’t know if more cards are waiting to be discovered in a box somewhere, or if I failed to keep them. I don’t suppose it very much matters.

Then, this morning, I thought about the journals I kept from late 1993 through about 2008, and I decided to look at the entries around my past birthdays. That may have been a mistake, but what’s done is done.

I regret both that I didn’t start journaling earlier and that I eventually stopped making entries altogether. I was never that consistent about it — sometimes I made multiple entries a day, or wrote several pages at a sitting, and sometimes I went days without writing anything, or only wrote a sentence or two. Most of the entries I made on or around my birthdays are pretty mundane, though some are troubling and add to the hollowness of today.

  • 1994 (the day after I had written down what I said to Christopher, that if it didn’t get dark we wouldn’t be able to see the stars, which I later wrote into a song): “Today is supposed to be a milestone of sorts. It feels more like I’ve slipped or tripped and I’m being trampled by other runners in whatever race this is. My problem continues to be emotional altruism, in which I spend so much time and effort trying to keep others happy I end up neglecting my own happiness and forgetting the impossibility of pleasing everyone all the time.
    “I suppose this is one result of having never really grown up.”
  • 1995: “Jamie called to wish me a happy birthday, and asked me if I was invisible to young girls yet. I think I must be; I explained that when I’m in the airport I am much more the watcher than the watched….”
  • 1996 (an entry that seems contradictory): “Uneventful day — happy birthday to me, traveling across the state and visiting with everyone we know.”
  • 1997 (five separate entries that reflect my depression and the strain it was putting on our marriage):
    1. “She [Jill] avoided answering my question yesterday, which was itself an answer. She does not know — and, unknowing, drives another stake through my heart.”
    2. “I wish I could put my brain to sleep, so as not to think of these thoughts or dwell on these memories.”
    3. “I wonder sometimes what I can do to help her be happy.
    “I wonder if she has ever been happy, with me that is.”
    4. “If I think she sees the situation through rose-colored glasses (‘old news,’ to her) or by the light of the torch she carries for him (she, the decrier of women who continue to love men who are bad to them), then it is only because I see it through the black glasses of hatred and fear, by the light of the demons who torture me with the truth and whose voices of mistrust torment me incessantly.”
    5. “It was supposed to be a simple dinner – why must it remind me of another dinner so many years ago? Why did he insist on taking her out, and why did she agree to go? What did they talk about, reminisce about, laugh about? Was the conversation strained, and full of awkward silences, or light and ebullient and happy?
    “Did she kiss him goodnight, or more, or less, and did she wish the night had ended differently?
    God, you have damned me to remember things I would rather forget, and forget things I ought to remember.
    “I hate this.”
  • 1998, no entry.
  • 1999: “Today I am old enough to serve as president of the United States, half of my allotted to threescore-and-ten.
    “But it was a beautiful day, and I am sunburned and stuffed. A good day.”
  • 2000, no entry.
  • 2001 (about to return to the US from Thule Air Base to go house-hunting in Virginia): “And the adventure continues. Only about eight hours before I see the family! What a great birthday present.”
  • 2002: “What a contrast, between standing on the bow of the M/V SeaLaunch Commander this morning, watching the lights of Long Beach get bigger and brighter and closer, and sitting here on a 757 en route home. That was quiet (little wind since we’d slowed down) and peaceful as we slipped by the oil platforms — much different from the drone inside the plane, but different is not necessarily better.
    “I’m going home — happy birthday to me!”
  • 2003, no entry.
  • 2004, no entry. However, on the 25th of June, I wrote, “Probably should have recorded some insights on the milestone recently passed, except that I didn’t have any. It’s not insightful (or not in a good way) to forget that it’s your own birthday….

I certainly haven’t forgotten that it’s my birthday this year. I’m not sure I could, as pointed and painful as the days can be sometimes. I ache to hear what I will never hear again: Jill telling me happy birthday, or that she loves me. And reading through those journals, I regret all the times I made it hard for her to love me.

Nevertheless, I’m grateful to know that there are still a few people in the world who are glad that I was born, and if you are one of them please know how very much I appreciate you. In these days of near-constant social and political turmoil, I think it’s good to remember that our most meaningful interactions are singular, one-on-one, and that how we relate to the individuals we know means more than what we think about those we don’t know. As I was walking this morning, I remembered something that Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago, that made such an impact on me that I wrote it down in my collection of quotes: “Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart — and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well.”

I’m going to put that into practice today. As much as I am missing my wife, I am still grateful: that my children will come over later for supper and maybe a game, that I will have a birthday greeting or two on social media, that I have a home and a dog and a job and wonderful friends and family.

Hopefully I can fill the hollow space inside me with gratitude.


Previously in the series:
Unprepared for Regret
Unprepared for Regret, Part II: Valentine’s Day
Unprepared for Regret, Part III: Jill’s Last Day
Unprepared for Regret, Part IV: The Day Jill Died
Unprepared for Regret, Part V: Six Months Gone
Unprepared for Regret, Part VI: Our AnniversaryFacebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Rowing Through Fog

Submitted for consideration, a metaphor about grief:

Feel free to share it with anyone who might need or appreciate it, with my compliments.


Related Posts: the “Unprepared for Regret” series …
Unprepared for Regret
Unprepared for Regret, Part II: Valentine’s Day
Unprepared for Regret, Part III: Jill’s Last Day
Unprepared for Regret, Part IV: The Day Jill Died
Unprepared for Regret, Part V: Six Months Gone
Unprepared for Regret, Part V: Our AnniversaryFacebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Unprepared for Regret, Part VI: Our Anniversary

This series has been both a tribute to my late wife, Jill Rinehart, and a record of the grief I’ve struggled with since she died this past October. The last installment was on the semi-anniversary of her death (all the entries so far are linked below), and while today’s post commemorates a much better day, it still has not been easy to write.

Thirty-five years ago today, I married my high school sweetheart, Jill Marie Briggs. Here’s my favorite picture from that day — I’ve kept it in the same frame for the last 35 years, and proudly displayed it in every office I ever occupied:

(Jill Briggs, shortly before she officially became Jill Rinehart.)

When Jill died last year, we hadn’t made up our minds about how to celebrate this anniversary. We’d talked about traveling, possibly visiting friends in Maine and seeing eastern Canada, possibly finding another tropical island to explore — but no doubt whatever plans we might have made would have been thwarted by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Of course, she didn’t make it this far.

We were married for thirty-four years, four months, and eighteen days. That sounds like a long time, and maybe it was, but to me it wasn’t long enough. Whether we measure it in years or some other way — 412-1/2 months; 1794 weeks; 12,558 days — it could never be enough.

I would like to be able to say that I remember our wedding day as if it were yesterday — Jill said so, in a Facebook comment just last year — but for me the cliché does not hold true. As I’ve noted in previous posts, I do not have very detailed memories of the events of my life. I have what I have come to think of as a “headline” memory, in which I remember that things happened but not necessarily very much about how they happened (or the conditions under which they happened).

And right now, today, I wish very strongly that my memory worked differently.

I have thumbed through our wedding book, as well as the additional photo album Jill put together of the rehearsal dinner and the ceremony and the reception, in hopes of stirring some fuller memories — but it hasn’t worked. When I was in Murrell’s Inlet a few weeks ago, I thought about stopping by the church to try to get an impression of what that Saturday afternoon was like. Perhaps I might then have been able to recall and recount more humorous details, or some sweet stories, but I’ve got next to nothing.

The night before, we rehearsed at the church and had supper at the Plantation House — one of my family’s favorite restaurants in Pawleys Island, that doesn’t even exist anymore. Afterward, Jill spent the rest of the evening with her friends — Evelyn Davis Booth, her matron of honor, and Mary Thompkins, who would sing a special song to open the ceremony — and I spent it with my friends: Jamie Brown, who would have been my best man except that I had asked my dad to do the honors, and Brad Rothell, who would also sing a favorite song. Neither Jill nor I wanted any kind of raucous bachelorette or bachelor parties; quiet evenings with friends were — and remained — more our style.

No wedding is without its problems, I guess, and I remember that Jill and my mom had a bit of a quarrel over how the flowers were going to be arranged at the front of the church. I don’t remember if Jill had already set them up and my mom moved some around, or if my mom took it upon herself to set them up without consulting Jill, but I know for sure that not long before the ceremony Jill came along behind my mom and moved the flowers the way she wanted them — which is as it should have been! It was a source of moderate friction, and something Jill brought up from time to time, but of course I sided with my wife-to-be in terms of making sure she got what she wanted.

Otherwise, the day — and especially the ceremony — is fuzzy in my memory. I know that I didn’t hear either Mary or Brad sing, because they were done before I entered the sanctuary. I wish I could call up a vision of Jill walking down the aisle, or standing by my side, but all I really remember is smiling a lot because I was marrying the girl of my dreams.

(Jill and Gray Rinehart.)

As with the ceremony, I don’t remember much about the reception, either. I have vague impressions of the room and the snacks and the people, but no clear recollections. I do know that Jill and I handed out the lyrics and played Michael W. Smith’s song, “Friends,” to thank everyone for coming. So much of that song is poignant to me now …

But we’ll keep you close as always
It won’t even seem you’ve gone
‘Cause our hearts in big and small ways
Will keep the love that keeps us strong

… Though it’s hard to let you go
In the Father’s hands we know
That a lifetime’s not too long to live as friends

Hard to let go? That doesn’t even come close.

After we left the reception, I remember that Jill and I stopped at a car wash and cleaned the “Just Married” shaving cream and soap off the car. And I recall that some of our friends — some of my Air Force ROTC fellows and their significant others — saw us and stopped to yell at us (playfully) for doing so.

But what I remember most about the entire day is being very happy. Insanely happy.

And what I regret, on this anniversary day, is that I rarely — and possibly never, adequately — told Jill just how insanely happy I was to have her as my wife.


Previously in the series:
Unprepared for Regret
Unprepared for Regret, Part II: Valentine’s Day
Unprepared for Regret, Part III: Jill’s Last Day
Unprepared for Regret, Part IV: The Day Jill Died
Unprepared for Regret, Part V: Six Months Gone

P.S. If you’re interested, you can read Jill’s obituary here.Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Estimating Our Coronavirus Risk

I am not an epidemiologist, nor am I a medical person. I am, however, experienced with risk assessment and analyzing risks from my days as the Deputy Director of Safety and Health, and the Systems Safety Program Manager, at the Air Force Astronautics (nee Rocket Propulsion) Laboratory at Edwards AFB, California.

In the field of rocketry, dealing with toxic propellants of various kinds as well as massive amounts of flammable and explosive materials, risk assessment is serious business. We strove to understand the risks associated with our operations and to mitigate them as much as possible.

In the years since I left the Rocket Lab — I will always think of it as the Rocket Lab, “the Rock,” no matter how many times they change the name — I’ve had ample opportunities to analyze risk in other contexts. Today, let’s consider the SARS-CoV-2 virus, frequently called the “coronavirus” even though it’s really one of many such viruses.

Risk, in general, may be thought of as a combination of the potential for a bad thing happening and how bad the results are expected to be. In rocketry, we characterized it as probability times severity. For instance, an event that would damage an expensive piece of equipment would generally be considered less severe than an event that would injure a person, but the overall risk to the project might be similar if the first, damaging event was much more likely to happen compared to the second, injurious event. In each case, we analyzed the risks in order to figure out where we might apply physical and procedural measures to reduce it.

The risk presented by the SARS-CoV-2 virus is a little different because the severity of the COVID-19 disease is a given. Still, it seems to me we can conceptualize the risk in useful ways by assessing the probability of developing the disease and even that of catching the virus.

First, using reports that mortality associated with COVID-19 seems to be related to patients’ ages and whether they suffered from ill health, I took a stab at a matrix showing the risk of dying from COVID-19. Assuming one has actually been infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, it seems reasonable to say the risk of dying from COVID-19 rises with age and the number of complicating factors, as shown:

(Estimated risk of dying from COVID-19, having contracted the SARS-CoV-2 virus.)

Thus, as the doctors and epidemiologists have said, the older we are and the more health problems we have, the higher our risk and the more diligent we should be in protecting ourselves. Makes sense to me.

But what’s the risk of actually contracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus?

That’s a more complicated issue. Certainly one must be exposed to the virus, but every exposure does not result in infection. And every exposure is not the same.

For instance, the emphasis on Proximity Avoidance (my preferred term for “social distancing”) neglects how long we are in close proximity to one another. I have seen people step off the sidewalk into a thoroughfare in order to avoid spending a second or two within the recommended six-foot distance, because they apparently believe that the briefest encounter will result in infection. I’ve also read complaints about the practice of holding doors open, for the same reason.

Realistically, however, the risk is not just a function of distance but also of time. Spending a few seconds passing someone on the sidewalk is not as risky as standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them for several minutes. So if we assume someone near us is carrying SARS-CoV-2 and neither of us is wearing a mask, the risk of contracting the virus from them based on both distance and time probably looks something like this:

(Estimated risk of contracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus from encountering a single carrier.)

Other factors could come into play, of course. Passing in a tight hallway is likely a bit more risky than passing on a greenway. And if at least one of us is wearing a decent (i.e., fluid resistant) mask, most of those blocks marked “high” probably fall to “moderate” risk levels.

As we move away from one-on-one encounters to the possibility of encountering groups of people, the risk picture becomes more complicated and harder to illustrate in a simple matrix format. Both time and distance remain factors in how risky it is to be around people, and if we add to them the numbers of people and whether they are masked, we need to simplify things a bit in order to account for so many factors. The assumptions remain:

  • The closer we are to a carrier, the higher the probability of transmission
  • The longer we spend in the vicinity of a carrier, the higher the probability of transmission
  • The more people nearby, the higher the probability that one is a carrier
  • Masks that catch droplets reduce the risk but do not eliminate it

We can combine time and distance by dividing the duration by the amount of separation. Thus, the longer we spend in close proximity with someone, the higher the value. As shown in the matrix above, spending a full minute six feet away from someone is probably about the same risk as spending ten seconds only one foot away from them.

We can also combine the group size and masks (or “barriers”) factors. In this case, we can divide the number of carriers (or presumed carriers) we encounter by how many are wearing masks — and whether we are wearing one. So if we are masked and encounter a single person wearing a mask, the “carrier/barrier” factor would be one presumed carrier divided by two barriers: 1/2, or 0.5. Likewise, if we encounter four presumed carriers at once and only one of them (plus us) are masked, the factor would be 4/2, or 2.0. The higher the value, the higher the probability of exposure.

Putting those factors together gives a risk estimation that looks something like this:

(Expanded estimation of risk of contracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus.)

Folks may quibble about the values I chose for each axis, or whether a particular intersection should be rated differently (e.g., as “moderate” instead of “low”), but the real question after all of this is, how much risk are you willing to accept?

And the question after that is, should you force anyone else to accept a higher or lower risk than they are willing to accept?

In my last blog post, “Home of the Scared,” I noted that the fears associated with the SARS-CoV-2 virus are not new. “Fear was already rampant in our risk-averse society, albeit at something of a maintenance level, in terms of how tentative many people have become in their day-to-day lives. But people with vested interests applied the scary virus as if it were gasoline to more general fears that have smoldered for years.” It’s been all too easy to inflame those fears, because neither the media nor the recognized experts have presented this in risk management terms. Rather, many commentators and observers have emphasized the dangers of COVID-19 — i.e., its severity — rather than the probability of contracting it, to the point that “… a moderate danger like SARS-CoV-2 has brought some people to the point of near panic.”

Now, even though it’s been shown that moderate risk-taking results in greater satisfaction with life, neither fearlessness nor recklessness are especial virtues. Fear in itself is not a bad thing, nor is it a negative trait: It’s a natural reaction to extant threats. But while the inability to sense a threat is a deficit, and refusing to acknowledge a threat is foolish, it’s better to consider threats realistically and to take reasonable steps to reduce their risk — all the while accepting the simple fact that life without risk is impossible.

P.S. Don’t forget to order your Proximity Avoidance T-Shirt….

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Home of the Scared

If I had a magic wand, I would make you less afraid. Not foolhardy, just less apprehensive of the world and the people around you.

I grew up learning that fear was a thing to be conquered, not a thing to which we should capitulate. FDR, for all his faults, famously said, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” Frank Herbert gave us the “Litany Against Fear” in his novel, Dune: “Fear is the mind-killer…. I will face my fear.” Yet, somehow, instead of learning courage in the face of fear, many people today seem to have become paralyzed by fear.

Some claim to be tolerant of others but demonstrate fear of opposing ideas when they shout down anyone who disagrees with them. Some claim to “speak truth to power,” but cower in “safe spaces.” And now, many not only hide away in fear of the SARS-CoV-2 virus but they demand that others sequester themselves as well. Fear has led some of us to become subjects of the state moreso than citizens of it: subject to the state, happy to trade our freedom for a little security … or the illusion of security.

Leaving off for the moment the unfortunate fact that some people regard the entire song as problematic, have we reached the point where these United States need to replace the last line of “The Star-Spangled Banner”?

In some respects, we reached that point a long time ago.

(Image: “fear,” by Sean MacEntee, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

This diatribe against fear, for instance, has been percolating in my brain for over a decade as I observed us, as a society, growing more and more fearful.

A dozen years ago, I read a book review entitled “Mill is a dead white male with something to say” in which Tessa Mayes interviewed Richard Reeves, a biographer of philosopher John Stuart Mill. The review began,

‘Harm’ is a political buzzword of our age. The spectre of harm is used to justify smoking bans in public places (to protect people from the harm of smoke), ‘anti-stalking’ measures against people who get involved in shouting matches with their partner or a workmate (in the name of protecting individuals from ‘emotional harm’), censorship (offensive words are said to ‘harm’ our self-esteem) and opposition to consumerism (apparently it ‘harms’ the environment).

All sorts of activities, from boozing to gambling to sexual relationships, are now said to involve harm – either to the person carrying them out or to people caught up in these whirlwinds of harmful behaviour. And thus, it is argued, government intervention into these intimate areas of our lives is not only justifiable, it is necessary.

To that list, we may now add such things as trading in non-state-approved items, traveling to non-state-approved places, congregating with non-state-approved people, and so forth.

The review pointed out that Mill

had a view of men as capable and energetic, who, when given the chance, could progress to become serious and even ‘heroic’ individuals. Thus, he had a quite narrow view of harm: in his view, it would take quite a lot to harm individuals who were possessed of free will and very often grit, and therefore he argued that only clear cases of harm could justify restrictions.

Today, by contrast, individuals are viewed as weak and vulnerable. The term ‘the vulnerable’ is used to refer to whole swathes of society. We are considered to be easily damaged and fragile creatures who must be mollycoddled by political leaders, social workers and health practitioners in order to keep our self-esteem intact. So almost everything is seen as ‘harmful’ to us today.

And how much more so when faced with something like SARS-CoV-2 that is demonstrably harmful? Something that mathematics predicted would harm millions, most especially “the vulnerable”?

It was not deemed sufficient to erect barriers to protect the “easily damaged and fragile” among us — the elderly, the infirm — when it seemed that medical facilities would be overrun with patients. Instead, political leaders and especially the media turned to a suasion tool that has proven far too useful: fear. Not that the fears associated with the SARS-CoV-2 virus were especially new. Fear was already rampant in our risk-averse society, albeit at something of a maintenance level, in terms of how tentative many people have become in their day-to-day lives. But people with vested interests applied the scary virus as if it were gasoline to more general fears that have smoldered for years. Carefully constructed and almost constantly negative reporting about the virus magnified those fears into quiet terror.

And people who are frequently (if not constantly) afraid are not likely to object to limitations on their liberties.

The difference between Mill’s view of harm and the popular view of harm today is the difference between a view of mankind as generally good and capable of freedom, and a view of mankind as weak and degraded. So where Mill emphasised the necessity of liberty, today many officials and commentators talk about the ‘dangers of unadulterated liberty’.

For Mill, any half-decent conception of the state had to be considered in line with individual liberty and social progress. As he writes in On Liberty: ‘A State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes, will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished.’

But why are we so afraid?

I submit that many of us are afraid because we abandoned faith. By abandoning faith, we abandoned hope in an afterlife, and by abandoning hope in an afterlife, we have come to fear death itself as the ultimate evil. Not to have a healthy respect for death, not to disdain it and to seek to postpone it because life itself is grand and glorious, but to fear it above all things.**

In his book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield noted that the Spartan King, Leonidas, said the highest virtue of a warrior was “contempt for death.” To count death as nothing, as unworthy of notice even though it is inevitable. Why is that important? Because if you don’t fear death, you won’t fear much of anything; in contrast, if you fear death too much, you will fear practically everything.

You may not admit it. But every fear stems from the fear of death. Believing in an afterlife is the surest way to overcome that fear, and such belief was the root of the fearlessness of mankind throughout history. But when more and more people began to disbelieve in an afterlife, once they came to fear death and to dread the very idea of it, they naturally began to shy away from anything too risky.

And those who deeply fear death do not understand those with contempt for it.

Not everyone can muster true contempt for death, can master that ultimate fear, but that ability in the face of predatory threats made relationships and status and roles much clearer in the past. We lack that kind of tangible threat these days. The SARS-CoV-2 virus, as dangerous as it is, does not pose such a threat — if for no other reason than that we cannot sense it directly.

When predators lurked outside, when their eyes shone in the dark beyond the firelight, when the dawn revealed the blood and mutilated corpses of the unwary, the weak and fearful naturally appreciated the strong and brave. We have been so long without a real existential threat that the weak have become less fearful, and the strong seem to have become less necessary. Some of the strong and good still protect the tribe, and we ought to be thankful for them. But we seem to have reached the point that the weak have grown comfortable enough that they feel justified in mocking the strong. That, I suppose, they may consider enlightenment.

Many years ago a popular brand of clothing featured the words “No fear.” That sentiment is lacking these days. Not only does almost everyone seem to be afraid, but many of us express our fears quite openly and surround ourselves (virtually) with those who share or at least bolster our fears. In some respects we appear to be a generation steeped in fear — and whereas our society used to wrestle with tangible fears like those of nuclear annihilation, we have given free rein to so many ephemeral fears that now a moderate danger like SARS-CoV-2 has brought some people to the point of near panic.***

Previous generations cultivated what the British called the “stiff upper lip,” but today we might well be a culture of quivering lips. Perhaps rather than the age of information, what we live in is the age of angst. Enemies need not bother terrorizing us anymore. We are already afraid. Not all of us, necessarily, but enough of us.

And, as I said at the start, if I had a magic wand to wave, I would use it to decrease our collective fear so we might once again lay claim to being the “land of the free, and the home of the brave.”

*It is probably prudent to note that some people have been laying claim to rights without any emphasis on assuming the responsibilities that go with those rights. But, that’s a topic for another post.
**I recognize some degree of irony in my talking so blithely about death and having contempt for it, while still subject to deep and sometimes soul-wrenching grief.
***In a future post, I hope to look at the SARS-CoV-2 virus through the lens of risk management, in hopes of showing that there is less need for panic than some people think.

P.S. While on the subject of the virus, don’t forget to order your Proximity Avoidance T-Shirt….

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