I’ve always liked how the French talk about missing people. “Il me manque”, they say, which means, “I miss him”. But the construction is different: literally translated, it’s “he is missing to me”, as though a crucial part of you has been removed – a limb, a scrap of your soul. Somehow, it conjures a greater depth of feeling than our way of saying it.
In the time of coronavirus, many of us have learned what it means to miss a person. It feels like years since the Queen addressed the nation and made reference to We’ll Meet Again by Vera Lynn, a song that has been replayed endlessly since. I have found this almost unbearable to stomach, not because of my latent republicanism and aversion to jingoistic war nostalgia, but because when he was about six, my brother, who is autistic, became obsessed with Lynn, and would play her CD over and over (yes, it was fun times at our house). Another song to add to the list of songs that make me leave a bar or shop – the comfort being I’m not going into many of those at the moment.
There’s an art to missing someone, I have come to discover. In order to manage it, you try not to linger too long on the reality. I’ll write it quickly (imagine me saying it in one long-breathed sentence): Ihaven’tseenmybrotherfornearlyayearnow. For reasons practical, medical, financial, circumstantial – all of which, let’s be honest, can simply be placed under the umbrella of “viral” – I have not seen my brother, who lives in a care home, since Christmas Day 2019.
Over the summer, it looked as though, briefly, it might be possible: a socially distanced walk along the riverside, maybe. But I could not take the chance of bringing the virus not only to him (and his fellow residents), but to my mother, with whom I would need to stay in order to see him.
Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people are in similar situations with their loved ones, especially now that many care homes are not allowing visitors. It has been a year of separations. Many of us are learning what it means to miss someone. A close friend is currently stuck here while the woman he loves is on the other side of the world. Another has been struggling alone with her newborn, when she always thought she’d have her mother there to see her through. Yet another has had to endure the knowledge that her brother is battling a life-changing disorder thousands of miles away, unable to go to him. I picture us all, walking around with our missing pieces, trying to find a way to live with their absence.
There are things that help. If you’ve read, for example, If This Is a Man by Primo Levi, you might reflect that humans have been through far worse than this. War, torture, famine, dictatorship: all crises of separation for millions of families. A friend of a friend scoured 70 refugee camps across Europe to find his mother. When you miss someone you love, historic patterns of human migration make instinctive sense. Would I cross the Channel in a leaky dinghy for the chance to see my brother, had we been separated by war? Yes, absolutely, in a heartbeat.
In comparison, sitting in our separate homes, safe, is not such a great burden to bear (or so I tell myself). I have lived abroad twice, and missing people is part of that. We are lucky that, in 2020, we have access to so much technology, that we are privileged to be able to see one another’s faces. With someone like my brother, who has profound communication difficulties, FaceTime is of limited use. It is not a replacement for being there, but nevertheless it does help with the missing, a little.
My way of coping is through compartmentalisation. I have been adept at this since leaving home, when I cried for a week in a tiny attic room in a foreign country, floored by an unpredicted deluge of emotion (I had skipped off with scarcely a backwards glance). Older and wiser, and no longer embarrassed, I realised that I had been reeling. From the experience of being a young carer, from leaving our little family, which had been through so much, from poverty, from the guilt of leaving my mother alone, from living with and loving my brother – the maddest, hardest, most rewarding, intense experience of my life. It felt as though I had staggered away from a disaster zone and was clutching the one remaining wall for support.
Since then, I have learned to hold the missing in a box, the lid of which I occasionally open and then close again in a flash, just enough to feel it, briefly. Because it isn’t all terrible, the missing. In many ways it’s a privilege to love a person that much, to have access to such a spectrum of deep feeling, to feel a new emotion. It’s life-affirming, as well as desperately sad.
There’s a word in Welsh, difficult to translate, that has become a bit of a meme: hiraeth. One translation is “a longing for where your spirit lives”. It means a feeling of homesickness, but possibly for a place that no longer exists. It’s a multi-layered term encapsulating feelings of longing, nostalgia, and, if you like, patriotism.
Covid has taught me that my spirit lives with the people I love. Missing them has meant experiencing a shifting in priorities, a reassessment of how I want my life to be, an acknowledgment of the human relationships that define it. Many people do not learn this lesson until it is too late. To learn it now hurts like hell, but it’s also a tender, bittersweet, intensely human privilege.