How books, and both of my hus­bands, com­forted me dur­ing the pan­demic

Diane Cole writes that she found ways to read with her late part­ner and her cur­rent spouse

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - Diane Cole is the book colum­nist for the Psy­chother­apy Net­worker and the au­thor of the mem­oir “Af­ter Great Pain: A New Life Emerges.”

My cur­rent hus­band, Phil, also en­joys read­ing in the same room to­gether with me; him­self a wid­ower, he is not jeal­ous of Peter’s ghost.

In 1970, dur­ing my fresh­man year of col­lege, the man I would later marry gave me an ul­ti­ma­tum. “We need to make sure we can read in the same room to­gether,” Peter told me. As stu­dious types who car­ried our lit­er­ary am­bi­tions in the book-filled back­packs on our shoul­ders, our self-im­posed test would be a silent night at the li­brary lounge, no con­cen­tra­tion in­ter­rup­tus al­lowed.

We passed, thus paving the way for us to spend the next 29 years read­ing to­gether in one room af­ter an­other, in one city af­ter an­other, and fi­nally one hos­pi­tal room af­ter an­other, un­til he no longer had need for any room in this world. He died just three weeks shy of the year 2000, sev­eral months short of the mile­stone age of 50.

Two decades and count­ing later, I am now re­mar­ried, and our son is grown. It is prob­a­bly no co­in­ci­dence that my cur­rent hus­band, Phil, a li­brar­ian and chem­istry pro­fes­sor, also en­joys read­ing in the same room to­gether with me; it is an ad­di­tional gift that, him­self a wid­ower who of­ten read in the same room to­gether with his late wife, he is not jeal­ous of Peter’s ghost. And so, I like to joke, I of­ten can be found read­ing in the same room to­gether with both hus­bands: with Phil, in per­son, and with Peter, cour­tesy of the many books he left be­hind, his pres­ence chan­neled through his scrib­bled notes and margina­lia.

Then, in March, when the pan­demic shut down New York, where I have lived and read for the past 40-some years, Phil and I looked up from our books and out our win­dows to find our vi­brant city trans­formed into what looked like an aban­doned stage set of it­self. In the months since, we’ve cheered the stir­rings of life that have resur­faced and keep grow­ing. And through it all, our shared read­ing habit has kept us go­ing, per­haps never more so than when I started ex­pe­ri­enc­ing covid-like symp­toms in the sec­ond half of March. The fever, cough, con­ges­tion and gas­troin­testi­nal dis­tress were all wor­ri­some enough to war­rant call­ing the doc­tor, but be­cause they were not de­bil­i­tat­ing enough to send me to the hos­pi­tal, I was left to wait out the symp­toms at home.

I re­flex­ively looked to our book­shelf for words, ideas, sto­ries, sen­si­bil­i­ties that could help guide me through the un­known ter­ri­tory ahead. Many of the ti­tles are clas­sics, and in that sense they are age­less; but their ac­tual age, as mea­sured by their pub­li­ca­tion dates — some merely 20 years old, oth­ers dat­ing back an ad­di­tional 20 years or more — shows in their yel­lowed pages, bro­ken spines and some­times musty aro­mas. But in my imag­i­na­tion, Peter has not aged. I see him loung­ing with a book in one hand, a pen (usu­ally red, like the color of its ink) in the other, mark­ing up one page be­fore he turns to the next.

On the shelf, I spied a beloved copy of “The Ara­bian Nights,” which my son and I had read aloud each night as we waited through Peter’s fi­nal hos­pi­tal­iza­tion, and then af­ter his death. The saga’s prom­ise of yet one more night with yet one more story had al­lowed us to hope for Peter’s re­cov­ery, and when we could no longer hope, to con­sole us as one day of grief passed into the next.

But the coro­n­avirus was no fairy tale, and I won­dered what Peter, and Phil, could of­fer for com­fort as nei­ther my symp­toms nor the pan­demic showed signs of abat­ing. It was prob­a­bly the bright-red color of its spine that drew my eyes to our paper­back copy of “The Sto­ries of John Cheever.” Its cov­ers front and back fell off as I dis­lodged it, and in­di­vid­ual pages sep­a­rated from the spine with each one I turned, my eyes moist­en­ing from the dust let loose. How could I pos­si­bly read — in this case, reread — a book as badly dam­aged as the city of New York seemed?

I quickly found my an­swer. On the first page of Cheever’s pref­ace, Peter had un­der­lined the fol­low­ing pas­sage with his trade­mark red pen: “These sto­ries seem at times to be sto­ries of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard the Benny Good­man quar­tets from a ra­dio in the cor­ner sta­tionery store, and when al­most ev­ery­body wore a hat.”

The words be­longed to Cheever, but in high­light­ing them, Peter had pro­vided the frame through which to read these sto­ries: as a time-bound vi­sion of a New York now gone, a place that might seem as fa­mil­iar yet strange to New York­ers to­day as the changed form the city had now taken on. This city was no dif­fer­ent from the rest of our trans­formed world. It would con­tinue shape-shift­ing for as long as the pan­demic lasted.

But how long would that be? I asked Phil, an avid reader of sci­en­tific lit­er­a­ture, for his best guess. Sur­pris­ingly, he opened the Book of Psalms and read out loud: “He counts the num­ber of the stars, to all of them gives names.” And then he told me this story. In 1987, sci­en­tists ob­served the ex­plo­sion in outer space of one of the clos­est su­per­novas ever recorded, emit­ting bil­lions of years of starlight all at once. The spec­tac­u­lar blast had de­stroyed that star, but where was the new neu­tron star that the sci­en­tists had ex­pected to emerge af­ter­ward? It took more than 30 years be­fore sci­en­tists fi­nally spot­ted it, hid­den in the dust and de­bris the su­per­nova had left be­hind. His point, Phil ex­plained, was not that we might have to wait 30 years but that un­cer­tainty was the nat­u­ral state of the world. Whether it comes to hunt­ing down an un­seen star or emerg­ing from a pan­demic, our best weapon is the same: pa­tience.

And en­durance, I added. And so I turned the pages of both the books be­fore me, as well as the news­pa­pers that had piled up dur­ing the two weeks of my re­cov­ery from my pre­sumed case of covid, and read on — and on, agree­ing and dis­agree­ing, whether with Peter’s scrawled commentary or with Phil’s com­ments out loud, in our on­go­ing story of read­ing in the same room to­gether, and what­ever fur­ther trans­for­ma­tions our city and our world un­dergo.

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