I can never spell “February” right. Perhaps I’ve been pronouncing it all wrong. Strangely so, since February is my birth month. Shouldn’t something more important be better remembered? Or would only the closest be the most elusive? Auto-complete is the best thing happened when it comes to February. I type f-e-b and it willingly takes over, like how you would finish my sentence, infer my thoughts, express my feelings, better than I could ever do. I get attached to such a benevolent tool, one that rises to help, whenever I’m feeling incompetent.
This February, while unspellable, had been richly textured, engendering a legion of events: from a pandemic that started right in the center of my hometown, locking all my family in for over 40 days, and counting, to a useless relationship push, to a job leave. Every one of them evinces how the powerless are affected by the decisions of the powerful, for good or ill. A decision to lock down a city, a province, for the greater good of a country, a world, a human race, is not too much grander, or any more righteous, than giving up on a slow running partner. The leaver is always right, the left behind forever in wonder, missing either the moment to ask “why,” or the right to call “stop.”
So it was all too fast, like doctors starting amputating my arm before I can recall fully consenting to it. I know it’s a bad arm, but, maybe a hint before starting the operation, maybe a pause for goodbye? “I will leave you two alone so you can say your goodbyes.” The veterinarians always say.
The realization that we are all just utterly powerless, “was like the blow of a sledgehammer, yet it was curiously calming as well.” (Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.)
It’s hard to downplay—even if you want to—the weight of a change, as the sheer fact of changing is too noticeable. For that reason, this unusually long but still shortest-of-all February had become a rite of passage of sorts, one that we all need in our midlife to catalyze a certain transformation, of a pompous asker into a solemn giver, a raving attention seeker into a quiet supporter, of acting callous into acting conscientious. It is the series of events that help us feel done, settled, sedimented. And if ever, help feel all clear, pure and perfect, decided and justified, just the way we want.
Until I get there, though, I will have to be fine. 99.9% I will be. But I do think about the .1%. What about the tiny chance that I’m not fine? One wouldn’t want to bet on that, I often think, if the stake is sufficiently high?
Turns out, one man was behind the scheme of talking me out of flying to Wuhan before the situation had gone bad. Why would you do so on a seemingly low chance? I asked. He explained to me in math: risk = probability x loss. The loss was simply too high. Hence I was at the same time manipulated and cared for. While in another scenario, no amount of threatening can make one change his mind. Who holds the power had been crystal clear. It is the leaver—either already left, sort of left, or about to leave.
I am bewildered by the mad myth of events that cooccur (why is there no “cocur”?) and recur (when there is “recur”?); the world is bombarded with coincidences and fortuities more than I had known. But as always, events fade and feelings remain. The human element of it is what matters, what I care, and the only thing surviving the cruelty of time, extant in memory. I had always taken novels that weave personal affairs with historical, worldly matters as made-up, unnatural, an artifice of creation. Clearly I had underestimated their generalizability to our regular life.
Unless, I had become distinct enough to appear in a novel; a novel has started writing itself around me. I am the same time a character and a reader, acting and observing. At times too consumed by ephemera—I had found myself recounting our conversations verbatim, and other times remiss. One afternoon on a therapist’s couch, I remember thinking, You must remember this, because this in its exact form would never happen again. Another afternoon, beneath the sunbeam of a poetry, I felt my faith disintegrate. It was never a strong faith: the type that feels like your fingertips tickling the very end of a balloon’s string, which is about to drift out of reach. But a faith nonetheless: to be part of someone’s solution. Ironically it only unfurls to reveal that I am actually part of the problem.
In this novelistic setting I found myself always snapping in and out of the present, catching words and sentences without remembering much of the context. In one of the research meetings: “Open loop is a special case of close loop.” In an exercise class: “Your arm is an extension of your back.”
But also not.
A joke I heard four months ago keeps recurring in my head:
“What do you call a pile of minerals in the ground that belongs to me?”
What a healing word. One advantage of the leavers is that none of the feelings are imposed by others. I don’t have to be made sad; I can just be sad on my own will. The sadness is mine. And the frail dignity. The liberty to depart and the freedom to return. All mine.