I keep telling myself I should write something about this coronavirus pandemic, offer up some words of perspective or advice or simply as a personal record. But just when I think I know what I want to say, things change. Suddenly. Drastically. Irrevocably. The world keeps shifting on a flooding tide of disease and death, incompetence and greed, and I don’t know what to say.
Tomorrow, next week, things will be different again.
With that in mind, the following is a montage of sorts, false starts and re-starts of a blog post that kept morphing over time into something else. It feels like it spans an eternity, but I started writing this just over two weeks ago.
Overload is a real thing. Turn away if you need to. Maybe no one needs to read this, and that’s fine.
Maybe I needed to write it.
March 12. It’s 8:09 AM and I’m standing at the back screen door, listening to the birds that have been relentlessly chirping their morning songs for over an hour, feeling the crisp cool air on my face. Watching the waning moon arc its way across the insufficient camouflage of a pale blue morning sky. I hear the distant drone of cars from a busy road several blocks away, not muffled by winter-bare branches. The relentless normalcy abruptly broken by the distant siren of someone’s commute gone wrong.
I haven’t yet gone to bed, night owl that I am, and I’m tired. No, more than that. I’m weary. News of a worldwide pandemic is horrifying, but it seems distant, almost unreal. It’s been a long week of stressful, unbelievable events. Even more so than the week before. And the week before that, the month, the year, before that.
And yet. Listening to the sounds of morning, both natural and man-made. I find hope. Life does go on.
People who don’t read the news, or who do and don’t care, or who care but can’t afford to change their lives. It all goes on.
We prepare, but are never ready.
March 14. I find out that a dear friend has died today of an aggressive form of cancer, mere weeks after being diagnosed, and I am gutted. I had taken on the role, voluntarily, of obtaining updates on her health from 2700 miles away and now must notify our group of mutual friends about this awful news. I am as humbled by their trust in me to do this as I am destroyed by the need for it.
March 16. Or so. I’m adding these dates in retrospect and my memory is suspect. I’ve lost track of time and days. I make note instead of numbers infected and dying, closures and restrictions. Early numbers say 26 confirmed cases, with only 100 people tested, in my state of 10 million people. All schools in NC are closed until at least mid-May.
We are advised but not required to stay inside now, in my county, due to the spread of this virus, and suddenly I feel compelled to go out. Me, the virtual hermit, who rarely goes anywhere.
Contrariness, sure. But also I think it’s a primal instinct for survival: we sense a threat and know there’s safety in numbers. We’re stronger together than alone. Band together or perish. A feeling reinforced by messages that we can get through this together if we all, as a group, follow guidelines. Except togetherness, in the physical sense, is not a strength in this case.
Not wanting to venture out, my normal state of mind, is an entirely different thing than not being allowed to. The primal urge to do something in the face of a threat is strong, yet we’re told to essentially do nothing.
“Surely there’s some prep to be done, some steps to take in advance, some action I can take. ”
“No, just stay home.”
“But what about—”
“No. Stay home.”
“I should stock up on ALL THE THINGS.”
“You’re making it worse. Just. Stay. Home.”
[Note: I picked up my usual online grocery order on the 12th and again on the 27th. Other than that, I haven’t been out of the house.]
I’m fortunate that I’m pretty well stocked up year-round. Living in the mid-Atlantic region, we’re vulnerable to hurricanes and winter snow/ice storms and spring/fall thunderstorms and tornadoes. I’m so used to being prepared for the worst, it seems oddly reassuring to realize this current disaster doesn’t come with roof repairs or the loss of electricity. I’ll still be able to cook, to use the A/C or heat, won’t have to worry about food going bad in a relentlessly thawing fridge or freezer.
It’s anti-climactic in very real and unsettling ways. And yet, this threat is far more deadly. How do I reconcile this dichotomy? This realization that what I’ve always prepared for is not, in fact, the worst-case scenario.
March 21. Days later, my worries have now coalesced from a general, “OMG, we’re all doomed,” to more specific fear for the people I love. I realize they all fall into categories of the most vulnerable.
My elderly mother who has dementia and lives in a care facility; two of my sisters whose immunity is compromised by various health conditions; another sister who is at risk due to her job in education; my son whose industry is considered essential and has daily contact with an assortment of people, his wife who works in education and even more exposure; my daughter who is five months pregnant, her daughter who is almost two, her husband who is a physician in a hospital; a niece and nephew and their spouses who live in large cities in the northeastern US (NYC and Boston); another niece and her family who live in a midwestern metropolitan area and have been exposed to the virus, some of whom are showing symptoms, but can’t get tested.
I watch the numbers of cases and deaths increasing in other areas of the country and wonder how long it will take to spread, what path it will take. Our numbers here are still low, but testing is pitifully insignificant.
March 25? I’m guessing at dates now. I read stories online, healthcare professionals telling of people dying alone, begging for a chance to say goodbye to loved ones who, for their own safety, aren’t allowed to be there. Tales of doctors and nurses using their own cellphones to facilitate unbearably wrenching goodbyes. I can’t help but think about how that would feel, if I were the one dying alone. Or how much worse it would be if I were not the one dying, but the one not allowed to be present and give comfort to a loved one in their final hours.
I cry, daily. Not sobbing, just random streams of tears running down my face without warning. Sorrow for people I don’t know. For things that haven’t happened and might not ever. For the sickness and death I feel certain will touch my life and leave an indelible mark before this is over. For the loss of innocence and sense of safety, experienced in past generations, newly revisited in ours.
March 27. My county has issued an official stay-at-home order, effective the 28th. The next day, our governor issues the same order state-wide, effective Monday the 30th. I feel relief and gratitude for this willingness to make tough, unpopular decisions.
March 30. We’re using the language of war. Interestingly, we’ve skipped back past decades of more “modern” warfare and are referencing experiences of WWII, an event most of us weren’t alive to witness. Sacrifices, shortages, rationing. Price controls, interrupted supply lines. Investors have turned to the bond market, albeit not officially War Bonds. What’s next, savings stamps? A no-strike pledge from essential labor?
I’m reminded of the letters my Great Aunt Mabel, an Army nurse, sent home from the Pacific theatre during WWII. From one dated June 12, 1943:
“We have a grand bunch of girls on nights and the five of us on this one ramp get together at three o’clock for coffee. We would perhaps perish without coffee to keep us stimulated so when you have to go without it sometimes just remember you are helping me keep vigil in the night.”
I hear friends talking about planting “Victory gardens.” Others are sewing surgical masks to donate, sharing patterns, comparing materials and techniques. It makes me think of women during WWI rolling bandages, back before we had the technology of machines to do the task.
But lack of technology is not our problem, now. Lack of leadership is.
This feels like war. For some of us, too many of us, the virus is the enemy. For more of us, the enemy is the indifference and cruelty and greed of petty-minded, ego-driven men.
I wonder how many more times we’ll be forced to fight that particular enemy, that underlying conflict of every war. How many more of us will die before we are wise enough to confer power solely on those people who don’t necessarily want it, who accept it only reluctantly as a means to effect change for the greater good.
March 31. As a marker, numbers as of this writing:
A local news site [WRAL.com] reports slightly higher numbers, as of 6 PM:
1,524 confirmed cases in NC
157 people hospitalized
10 deaths of NC residents
2 deaths of non-residents passing through
Again, in a state with 10 million residents, that number of tests completed is insufficient to the point of being criminal. Thanks entirely to lack of test kits provided by the federal government.
At times, my thoughts turn selfishly inward, as they tend to do. I look at my current writing, the work I have chosen, and wonder what’s the use. It all feels trite and worthless. At the same time, I acknowledge that I read and even depend on the writing of others, their lovely fictional escapist worlds, and recognize the incalculable value even during trying times when I can’t quite focus on the words. I know I’d be even more lost without those stories.
Dare I hope to provide that for someone else? Can I bear not to try?
We’re living in uncertain and changing times. Dangerous and unpredictable and infuriating times. Every day brings a shift and schism from what we thought we knew and once considered unshakably normal.
This pandemic will change us, the entire world of us, in ways we can’t yet possibly imagine. Intentions aside, the extent to which we might be able to direct or even influence that change is unknowable. I feel equal measures of regret and relief that my recently deceased friend won’t be witness to it, along with a sick sense of dread about who might, who will, join her in that stasis in coming days.
And yet, along with the fear of loss, I also wonder about possibilities. Given this rare opportunity of upheaval and chaos within which to either redeem ourselves or make things inextricably worse . . . will we?
I don’t know how to wrap this up with a tidy conclusion. I don’t have insight or wisdom to offer in the midst of this storm. I don’t know what comes next.
We’re currently witnessing both the best of us and the absolute worst of us, and I’m trying to believe the best will find a way to prevail. I despair, but I haven’t lost hope. I mourn, but I find strength in that which endures. I do what I can, knowing it’s not enough.
And I try to have faith that maybe — for the person waiting alone and scared and fearing the worst, for the person seeking a temporary respite from bleak reality — what I and countless other writers do and the stories we tell might possibly, in that dark moment, mean everything.
So I go back to work.