Disasters, wars, catastrophes, pandemics. All larger than life events. If you’re inclined toward history, you read about them in the abstract and they stand so singular, you don’t consider the day-to-day. No one really thinks that hard about tax policy and roof repairs during the Bubonic plague. No one wonders whether Klaus and Maria’s marriage was seriously on the rocks during the back half of the 30 Years War. No one gives a thought for old Mrs. Jones who had a nasty case of shingles during the during the Blitz. And what about that nice Taino family who were already having a real devil of the time managing the garden pests on a mild October morning in 1492 before a bunch of heavily-armed, diseased conquistadors wandered up the path. These details are not significant to history, but they were to the people living them. And the thing you that you don’t get, until you are the people living them, is that the rest of life doesn’t conveniently grind to a halt in the face of cataclysm. You can stand in gobsmacked horror at the falling skies and dead bodies all you like but it’s not going to stop the mosquitos biting or the wind from blowing or your chronic preexisting health condition from flaring up again or your ninety-three-year-old grandmother’s heart from failing. It can’t stop the 25% of the mostly underpaid population carrying out the mostly thankless work critically necessary for you to wrestle with angels at at home and worry over your mortality at a safe distance. It can’t turn a Tropical Storm back to sea.
The world keeps turning.
By any reasonable measure, I’ve been lucky. I got to flit in and out of news stories, careening around from panic to rage to those moments on the deck when the breeze was right and for a minute I felt the same sort of brief wild-eyed peace with apocalyptic terrors as I did the first time I heard that part of “It’s the End of the World as We Know it” when everything drops out of the chorus except the vocals, an acoustic guitar and a tambourine. I kind of forgot about the fact that the rest of life was still out there, still going on, oblivious to stay-at-home orders, indifferent to pandemic best practices.
I should have remembered. After all, the floorboards on my deck didn’t stop curling up at the edges on March 12 and the leaky bathtub drain didn’t magically start holding water. The ants didn’t light out for the territories on their own and the dead tree in the backyard didn’t stop itself from breaking in half and falling into the garden. My fifteen year old car didn’t stop trembling a bit when it accelerates to over 55 mph. My job didn’t suddenly become infinitely more easy or lucrative. The fibroid tumors that showed up last fall didn’t just evanesce at first chatter of coronavirus. In fact, the largest, once described by my OBGYN as being “roughly the size of an Irish potato” evidently took on the general dimensions of “either a large grapefruit or maybe a small cantaloupe.” Which sounds fairly more whimsical that it feels when it’s just chilling in your uterus like a stubborn biological bowling ball.
I know this because I went to see my OBGYN last week. At least a few of you will undoubtedly view this as careless, but she insisted. Evidently ultrasounds cannot be performed via telehealth. The whole situation was weird. I went masked, sat inside a place that was not my home, yet occupied with other people, and allowed myself to be touched more than I have been in at least ten weeks. It felt both profoundly reckless and recklessly normalizing.
I was given drugs and a “we’ll wait and see.” I came home to the typical raft of irritations bobbing about on the proverbial sea of troubles. My mail was delivered to the wrong house. A tropical storm was brewing in the Atlantic. My cat puked on the bed. People I love were sniping at each other. The frustration-fueled fraying of the whole congenial “we’re all in this together” really started to speed up. Neighbors refashioned themselves into snitches and self-styled experts. Everybody at home seemed to have a problem with Instacart drivers, the people working in the supermarkets, the kitchens at takeout joints—how dare they be so irresponsible, have you seen how they behave—and it made me sad, because absolutely none of those people signed up for this. Our ability to stay home and moralize about whether a cashier is wearing her mask property or the produce stockers were standing too close or the Instacart driver used the exact right amount of hand sanitizer when delivering our drugs/pizza/mail/groceries depends entirely on them thanklessly taking on the bulk of risk, a risk that most of us would be unwilling to share, at least not until many of us (perhaps inevitably, most of us, depending on how long this goes on) lose the jobs/savings/support networks that enable us to be the ones being served and one-by-one replace the essential workers fallen to disease.
And right around the time I’m about to get worked up into a froth that is maybe Marxist or weirdly Republican (because anytime you mention jobs in a pandemic, you have to preface it by saying, “Not to sound like a Republican”), my mother calls and tells me that Nana had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure. She wouldn’t last much longer. Mom was headed back to Virginia.
Nana has a houseful of beautiful art and priceless antiques, but she doesn’t have a smartphone or a laptop with Facetime. If I wanted to see her again, it would require going in person, which I did, by the way, so go on and cast your stones. Nana is like my other parent. She is one of the most important people in my life. I spent part of yesterday wandering around her house, where I have spent countless summers, holidays, weekends and overnights. I talked to her maskless. I hugged her. I held her hand. I crawled onto the sofa beside her and lay my head on her now bony, still hair spray and jasmine-scented shoulder. She still looks beautiful. She’s a glorious, splendid woman, in spite of her faults. Maybe because of her faults. She is my hero. She still laughs and chatters and demands and smiles, even when she’s struggling to breathe. She tells me she’s had a wonderful, beautiful life. I take comfort in her peace, but then she still tells me she’s coming to visit in the spring, “When I’m feeling better. I’m going to come down for the day and see your new house.”
And it breaks my heart.
Nana is dying (and that phrase that still feels like a gut punch whenever I say it). She’s not dying of COVID, but, when in the future, when people are wandering through the cemeteries, looking at the headstones and speculating, “2020. That’s when the pandemic hit, and she was an old lady. That must have been what did her in.” And it needles me, the thought of it, because it diminishes her, her story, her legacy, her hard-won elegance and stubborn grace. Nana is a force of nature. She deserves more words than that. I’m trying to be rational, adult, scientific, polite, uplifting, all the things I’m supposed to be. But right now, I couldn’t give a fuck about the way I sound. And I can’t tell you how much I hate this. Maybe I can. I’m noisy. I have a terrible temper that usually involves screaming and broken things and crying in the space of about thirty seconds.
So far the glasses haven’t been shattered and my neighbors haven’t had to report a banshee. So far.
The universe did not hit a pause button. That’s fiction. It’s pretty sounding but unhelpful. This is not some magical reset so we can take a nice rest and learn something about ourselves. We still have to deal with all the shit we have to deal with, all the same shit from before, but now we have to do it in solitude and uncertainty with an (at least for now) untreatable virus we can’t cure and no concrete hope of resolution. And it completely and unequivocally sucks.
There’s never a good time say goodbye. But holy hell, is this ever a shitty one.
Apologies for the language. As a tribute to Nana, I invite you to do as she does and sotto voce all the four-letter words. Unless, of course, you’re chasing a wasp (no pun) through a formal dining room with a copy of “Colonial Homes” or arguing with a sheepish mall rent-a-cop about why you should be allowed to park your Cadillac in the fire lane outside Thalheimer’s (RIP). In those cases, absolutely feel free to go blue as you please.
I swear I’ll try to write something funny next time around.
Picture today is of the chandelier that hangs over Nana’s bed.
As of this writing, 1,937,486 have recovered from COVID-19.