I spent much of the first half of 1998 thinking about dying.
Not my dying, necessarily, although those thoughts were almost inevitable. I spent several months reporting a magazine story about a brilliant, accomplished student at my alma mater — the University of Virginia — who had inexplicably committed suicide.
It’s impossible to spend that much time with people traumatized by an unexpected death and not be deeply affected yourself. Every interview I did meant asking someone to talk about the worst and most painful thing that had ever happened to them, about how losing someone you love suddenly can radically alter your entire worldview. It was humbling. It was overwhelming. But it was often inspiring and eye-opening.
I spent many hours during that time with the young man’s mother, who opened herself up to me without reservation, entrusted me with telling her son’s story. At the time, I was a single 20something not that many years out of college myself. We still remain in touch, although I am now roughly the same age she was in 1998, with a son just a few years younger than hers.
And there’s something she told me during one of those interviews that I’ve never forgotten.
We were talking about what she’d learned from her son’s death, how it had changed her.
“You learn that the only thing that matters is who you love,” she said quietly.
I’ve thought of this simple phrase so many time over the years, but never more so than in the last seven weeks, as the coronavirus pandemic has stripped down our existence to its most elemental nubs. What do we really need? Well, food. Water. Shelter. For starters. I am extremely fortunate to have all of those things.
But what about all the rest? The things we thought really made us complete? Right now it’s as if a pin has been pulled from the frenetic balloon that was our lives, and all the air has rushed out in one sad and cataclysmic whoosh. No office. No school. No sports. No stores. No restaurants. No holidays. No. No. No. No. No.
The only thing that matters is who you love.
My inner circle has miraculously been spared the virus’ wrath, for which I am endlessly grateful, though its tentacles have come close enough to inspire a perpetual low-level anxiety. The three people I love most now spend 24 hours a day within the same four walls as me. It’s at once profoundly reassuring and profoundly stifling. We’re alive. We’re healthy for now. We watch Parks and Rec. We bake. We load the dishwasher and empty the hamper. We Zoom. We take walks in the neighborhood and hikes through parks. Things seem at once entirely normal and entirely upside down. But even without all those things we thought were so important, we’re essentially ok. People have endured far worse.
Because the only thing that matters is who you love.
In an essay published last month, Julio Vincent Gambuto mused on the chance the pandemic affords us to reset:
This is our chance to define a new version of normal, a rare and truly sacred (yes, sacred) opportunity to get rid of the bullshit and to only bring back what works for us, what makes our lives richer, what makes our kids happier, what makes us truly proud. We get to Marie Kondo the shit out of it all.
I plan to bring back what works for me. And that means being even more committed to remembering that the only thing that matters is who you love.