I was on my way to my parents’ house in southeastern Ohio, with its black-eyed susans, its quiet and odorless oven, its screened-in porch and bookshelves and marbled counters. Jorge was deep in the Oaxacan mountains under a shawl of mist, digging a grave with a group of sweating villagers, while the whole pueblo pooled in his house to make food and light candles and talk and remember. We were in our worlds, separate, their distinctions clearer than ever.
I had woken up that morning in Pittsburgh, sunshine streaming through the blinds, ceiling fan in a lazy twirl, lawnmowers already revving through their geometric tidying. A text message from Jorge was waiting on my phone. It was a video of the village band playing at two in the morning at his parents’ house, in honor of his mother. The mournful, sonorous sound of horns streamed from the darkness of his terrace through the streets and into the porous houses, the open-walled kitchens. I watched it while our two-year-old played Legos in her room, while downstairs the dog stretched in her bed. I watched it from the safe, antiseptic pleasantness of our middle-class U.S. life, and my heart ached; I wanted to be there. In that distant American morning I was overcome by the feeling of being left out. I am his wife, I thought. I should be by his side. For his sake, and also because what would people think if his wife wasn’t there? What would they assume about me, about us? What would I miss out on forever, and what kind of divide might this create?
At the same time, amidst the sleep-deprived haze of caring for a toddler while also grieving and supporting a grieving spouse, I felt relief. I knew how much Jorge’s return to Oaxaca would alleviate the pain and anxiety of his mother’s death, the guilt of living so far from home. I knew how essential it was that he clutch his brothers and sisters, weep with them, dig the grave, sing the songs, say the prayers, stay up to the point of delirium talking to villagers and eating tamales.
This is one of the most painful realizations of new parenthood: While your child is with you (and they are almost always with you) you cannot experience total unmitigated presence in any situation. At least 77% of your heart and mind will be all caught up in whether or not your baby is about to trip on that step, or if she is hungry or tired or sad, or where and how long she’s going to sleep, and this whether or not you consider yourself a hands-on parent, this whether you are conscious of it or not. It is simply impossible to turn off the perpetual body-brain pulse of child-child-child-my-child.
This means that for at least the first several years, parents forgo a direct witnessing of the world, witnessing instead their child discover it. But it also means, more painfully, that sometimes one parent sacrifices the experience so the other can live it fully. It means a careful and lonely partitioning of Adult Experiencing, so that little of it can be done in tandem.
If both of us had been there, no matter how completely I would have taken on the role of caretaker, Jorge still would’ve had to worry about where we would sleep, what we would eat, the boiling pots of stew set like toddler booby traps around the patio. He would have had to tailor part of himself to us, our small family, its demands and customs and interactions. He would have had to operate with the perpetually divided brain that characterizes adulthood: Part of me is here, and part of me is with my child, my spouse, my job, my creative work, my dreams.
My gift to him was distance, and the clarity of one self. He could be the boy who grew up in the pueblo and came home. He could be his mother’s son. Only that, for seven days. And because Mexico does grief like no other country—“if there’s one thing Mexico absolutely rocks, it’s death,” I explained to my dad—he could sink himself into the crying and the laughing and the singing and the processions and the caldos and mezcal and velas late into the night, a haze of people, fog, flowers, and smoke.
It hurt to stay behind. I wanted to say goodbye to Rosa too, to cry over her body and thank her for all she has taught me about grace, empathy, and sacrifice. I wanted to be one of the Santiagos in spirit and presence. I wanted to be immersed in the ritual of mourning, to remember an essential Mexico that I haven’t been able to experience in the same way since the birth of my daughter. I desperately missed those years that Jorge and I spent traveling around Oaxacan mountain villages, sleeping on rough woven blankets in tiny rooms, waking together to sip champurrado from gourds. For most of my 20s and into my 30s, intimacy seemed the core of any long-lasting relationship: two bodies huddled in the twin bed, shared spit around the gourd’s rim, life lived in tandem.
But after the birth of our daughter, and these hard and incredible years of moving back and forth between countries, struggling for balance in our careers and adult lives and family responsibilities, I have come to understand both intimacy and marriage in new ways. Sometimes, intimacy isn’t closeness but distance. Sometimes intimacy is being someone’s background: It is not being there and letting them be there instead. It takes a terrifying amount of trust to do this: I will step back now and let you leave me, let you be who you are without me. What if the other person hops in the back of a pickup and disappears into the Mexican jungle and marries some gorgeous black-haired vixen in a hand-woven dress and never again has to sort the recycling?
The obvious chiding moral here is that people need their space, etcetera, etcetera, but that’s not really my point. My point is not that space is a necessity to be tolerated, like kale in an otherwise totally respectable breakfast sandwich. My point is that, especially in a marriage with children, there can be an unexpected empathy and intimacy in separation. Each partner has experienced the acute loss of self and the dramatic reorientation of parenthood, and so when one person gets a chance to embody just one identity— writer, son, athlete, artist, traveler—each understands the sacrifice and the relief. I know Jorge so well by now, ten years in, that I can clearly imagine him sobbing in his sister’s arms, washing the dishes, unfolding a tamale and eating it without the use of a single napkin. Picturing him doing this brings me the same kind of joy I see watching my daughter chase bubbles, a vicarious experiencing of full presence. He is grateful and I am grateful for his gratitude, and such goes the dynamic of separation, which in spite of my fear of dividing, unites.
The moment Jorge’s mother got sick, the next phase of our lives unfolded before us. We sat across the kitchen table and stared into each other’s eyes.
“Our parents are going to get sick,” I said. “It’s going to be really hard.” I have an innate writerly tendency to vocalize the obvious. Jorge nodded. Our relationship had already gone through two major stages: the twenties stage of dancing cumbia until 4 a.m. at El Central and carousing around Beijing, the early 30s stage of becoming parents, and now I felt us falling into this stage of familial responsibilities as if a door had opened and we’d gone tumbling over the threshold into thin air. But I also felt a new and deeply reassuring togetherness. We are from different worlds, different countries, we have very different familial obligations. This apartness had previously seemed slightly threatening or lonely or sad or cold, something to be reconciled or surmounted. Yet now that our daughter has shown us the meaning and depth of commitment, its sometimes near-shattering demands and its inexplicable heights, I saw the permanence in our differences: the bones of us beneath our changing flesh.
We can’t be everything for one another all the time; sometimes love is acute and immediate and sometimes it is diffuse, it is background. Sometimes it is not the embrace but the waving goodbye, 3 a.m., “I’ve got this.” Sometimes it is just carrying on and waiting, 6000 miles away, all that space of diners and prairies and highways, of mountains and monuments and borders, a gift I can finally give after all this time.
Eventually Jorge descends the escalator at the Pittsburgh International Airport to an embrace and a toddler instantly doing backflips off his chest, to the Jorge-shaped slot in his small family that is always there even when he is not. I remember his smell and his hair and his skin and out we walk into the steamy peach light of Midwestern summer.
“I wish you would’ve come,” he says, and I know he means it and he is also grateful I didn’t, and this togetherness-apartness, this dual meaning, is our new intimacy. “DON’T TALK MOMMY PAPI!” the toddler bellows, cutting off any potential moment of misty tenderness. For this one time we obey and sing, “B-I-N-G-O” until our throats are hoarse, until we’ve crossed all the bridges and gone through all the tunnels and the toddler is satisfied. The fifteen pounds of coffee Jorge has lugged northward fill the car with the scent of longing and mourning and grief I did not witness, and the perfume of absence lingers on our clothes for days before it is finally absorbed once more into the laundry and the riverbank scent of August and the sweet, ordinary passing of our shared days.