The Last Day of “Social Proximity”

Jon Hales playing the bagpipes overlooking the Ogden Valley and Ben Lomond Mountain.

            ONE night a couple of days before social distancing commenced, my elderly father called me–he was out for a walk trying to get space from my mother, who was volubly upset that their trip to Italy had been cancelled. When I found out he was walking by the river near his home, at night, ostensibly to tell me about the turkeys nesting in the trees, I knew something was wrong. He has some health problems, as does my mom, that make them emotionally vulnerable; in his case, that can mean forgetting to eat or take his meds.

            Clearly, anxiety had clearly begun to invade their lives.

            I was worried enough that the next day–a bright sunny day, and my first day of spring break–I called to find out their plans. They were driving from Amesbury to Stoneham to drop off their taxes. Without telling them, I drove to Stoneham and waited an hour outside their tax guy’s office until they drove up. It was nearly rush hour by then, so I asked what they planned to do afterwards, and my mother said they were driving to Woburn to do another errand.

            What errand? I wanted to know; the traffic was likely to be horrid.

            To drop off a plastic food container that someone had lent them, she told me.

            I said, “You’re going to spend this beautiful afternoon driving in suburban Boston traffic to drop off a 59-cent piece of plastic?!”

            I convinced them to follow me to my house where they sat on the porch watching the birds; my dad helped me fill my feeder. Then my mother drank white wine and my dad, Limoncello; their distress about the cancelled trip to Italy abated. We decided to go out for Thai food at a place they like.

            As we got out of the cars at the restaurant, a man jumped out of a truck parked nearby and burst into a bagpipe rendition of “O Danny Boy”–just a guy in a parking lot, sending this plaintive dirge up into the dusky blue evening. I didn’t know what we were in for, then, but now it seems as if he were somehow heralding the days to come.

            After dinner I hugged and kissed my parents goodbye, and they drove away. I am pretty sure that was the last familial outing they had–almost a month ago. A day later, the pandemic sent us all inside.

            I’VE thought a lot about that day, how we waste time with stuff that is unimportant when we could be listening to birds or better yet, to music–real or imagined. How we could be present to one another in the quiet that Wendell Berry calls “the peace of wild things.” Those bagpipes were a glorious gift, as was that brief time sitting outside, in the sunshine, less than six feet from my parents.

            Who knows when I’ll get to sit that close, or hug them–or hug anyone–again?

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