The physics of connection and solitude

In the middle of a pandemic, a lifetime of lessons from a parent.

 

If I held a hammer correctly, the way my father taught me, and then swung it down on a rock, the rock would break. I would have caused that to happen. I would have transferred kinetic energy from my arm to the hammer’s handle and then to the hammer’s head and then to the rock. The energy would cleave bonds in the rock, and release sound and heat. My father taught me all that, long ago.

Barbara Lachenbruch, at five years old, with her father, Art Lachenbruch, in Palo Alto, California in 1962.
Edie Lachenbruch

Now he lives in an adult foster home outside Corvallis, Oregon. When I grin at him as he sits in his wheelchair, he grins back. I can cause that to happen, too. But how? There is no law of physics to explain the transfer of emotions, no equation to describe the difference between what I send and what my father receives. I need that equation because that difference, I fear, is increasing.

When I was young, in the hills above Stanford, California, my days were explosions of wonder. There was so much, and then there was even more. My father, a tall and thoughtful man, guided me toward the underlying laws so I could see relationships, not just the individual phenomena. He shielded me from overload, so I could still revel in what was around me. At night, I’d keep him at my bedside, asking question after question.

One night, I asked him, “Why is the man-in-the-moon just a fingernail tonight?” The bed dipped toward where my father sat, as he explained orbits, the sun and the Earth’s shadow. The moon made sense. As he bent for a goodnight kiss, he said, “The same circling of the moon also causes the tides.”

“How does that work?” I asked. He rocked back, the bed dipped again. He raised two fists and described gravity and the tides, how the moon exerts its pull even when it’s below the horizon.

“Sometimes something happens, and you can’t see its cause,” he said. “But if you scratch your head and think about it, you might get lucky and figure it out.”

“That’s the fun of it,” I said.

“I think so,” my father told me. “In fact, that’s a big part of the fun of life.”          

THE MOON CIRCLED THE EARTH, and the oceans were drawn toward it. Many times. I grew older. We kept talking. Over a pot of oatmeal roiling on the stove, my father explained the transfer of convective, conductive and radiative heat. When I learned to drive, he explained friction and momentum. In the garden, tracing fissures in the mud, he taught me that even though cracks are called failures, they can be good things, allowing conflicted parts to go their separate ways.  

Kneeling next to a dried-up mud hole, he said, “Mud shrinks when it dries, which makes stresses. When cracks form, they relieve the stresses. A lot of times, what looks random actually isn’t. I bet the crack started here,” he said, his fingertip on a smooth spot, “where it looks a little siltier. That would make it mechanically different.” He pointed out the dried mud, the right angles in the cracks. The mud made sense.

“That’s boss,” I said.

But some cracks come in at different angles, he explained, showing me one. When I asked why, he said it wasn’t 100% figured out. And in a way I could not define, that idea was the most captivating of all.

“Still,” my father said, “if you know something’s mechanical properties and the forces on it, you can often predict how it will distort,” and he pulled his cheeks in opposite directions, leaving mud prints on his face. “This whole network of mud cracks is an example of how a disrupter at one scale — the weak spot in the mud — can cause a pattern we see at a completely different scale!”

I nodded, but did not yet understand how relevant these matters would become.

MUD DRIED AND CRACKED. Many times. We grew older. I worked through different sorts of problems — how to escape the restraints of my orbit, make use of momentum, and control failures so I could pull away. I discovered there was always another stress after a first one was relieved, and that surficial problems could be traced to causes deeper down. And, just as my father had told me, I could usually see a pattern at one scale before I figured out where the weak spot had been at a smaller scale. Those adolescent problems seem trivial now.

In his old age, my father moved near me, to a small care home in the Willamette Valley with beds of floppy perennials, and beyond them, apple trees, chickens and a cow. I visited frequently. Although we’d shared much, there was always more. One afternoon, we came across an inscription he’d written in a book some decades before:

“To Barbara I pass

This curious source.

Tho’ I took from it much

It’s still there, of course.”

We laughed and laughed, our guffaws reigniting each other’s merriment, like contagion.

Gradually, my father’s senility began to muddle our interactions. After a visit, I would realize how much I had simplified the stories I’d told, how heavily I had guided our conversation. Although we still interacted, I felt a growing solitude. I alone held the details we had once shared. The detail-holding part of my father was dissipating, like radiative heat from oatmeal.

“So we’d better enjoy the present while it lasts.”

But the logic-holding part remained. We talked at length about the metaphysics of time. The past, we decided, was intangible. Our only pieces of evidence that it existed at all were relics — photos, or cracks in the mud. The future was no more than a course we anticipated based on our assumptions of current trajectories, which themselves were problematic because there was no past. That meant the present perches on the cusp between nonexistent pasts and futures. “So we’d better enjoy the present while it lasts,” my father would quip. I felt like I was with him again.

Even as our visits unfolded, a random disrupter occurred — on the coating of a coronavirus on a different continent. A chemical change allowed the virus to alter the physiology of humans. The disrupter jumped scales, affecting individuals, then entire populations.

I shared with my father what I knew about the virus. “It may affect yet another scale,” I told him. “Our society.” He asked for information, in spite of the stack of newspapers and magazines next to his computer, which sat by his television. But the details were not transferring.

The next time I visited, I arranged to meet him outside, even though it was 46 degrees Fahrenheit. I was already sitting in a wicker chair on the dormant lawn when he rolled out the door. He smiled broadly, then continued toward me. I backed away, chair and all, explaining that we mustn’t get close because one of us could infect the other. He heard me, but didn’t follow my explanation. “If you think we should sit at a distance, OK,” he said, amiable as always. “I don’t understand, but I understand you have reasons.”

Then society banned our in-person visits, so we met up via video chats instead. But my father didn’t understand why I didn’t come by. “You’re traveling a lot? You’re really busy?” he’d ask.

“No. There’s a virus. I don’t know if I have it. It would be dangerous to you and the others if I carried that virus.”

“Can you get it fixed?” he’d reply. “What is it you need to fix? Is it your phone?”

We repeated that exchange every few days. I would hang up, seething and stressed. If only I were with him, I’d think, I could mold our discussions, seed them with old events, draw up his memories. I could help him connect them back to his past and his future, sewing them all together, whatever that meant. Then he would still be there for himself. And for me.

I wanted to ride my bike to his home. Wanted to pound kinetic energy from my torso through my legs to the pedals, translating their circular motion to the eccentric path of the chain, to move the cog, to turn my tires along the planar surface that stretched three miles from my garage to his home. I wanted to bang on his window — my kinetic energy converting to a clatter — and pantomime, “Hello,” “I love you,” and “I’m with you.” And I wanted to receive the same messages back.

The author and her father maintain their social distance during an August visit at the senior care home where he lives in Corvallis, Oregon.
Will Matsuda / HCN

But the transfer would not have been complete. My father would have puzzled over my appearance at the window. Then, relieved that I had finally come by, he would have transferred kinetic energy from his arms to his hands to the rims of his wheelchair wheels, rolling them in a circle and propelling his chair over the planar surface from his bedroom to the outside door. Where I would not be.

Perplexed, my father would have rolled back to his room, saddened by my incomplete visit.

How could physics let me down? I tell myself that there must be a discernible cause to his no longer understanding. But I can’t find the weak spot where my stress will be relieved. I can’t find the cause for his failure to understand. I can’t even find the place in me where communication comes out or the place where it goes in. I have sketched and I have pondered. But it’s not 100% figured out. It’s not figured out at all. I have come up empty as a moonless sky.

Barb Lachenbruch is a writer and a retired professor of forestry and natural resources in Corvallis, Oregon. Follow her on Instagram @botanybarb and @barblachenbruch, or on Twitter @barblachenbruchEmail High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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