Friday March 20, 2020: in which L dies; the spring equinox arrives; Italy deaths peak
A week or so ago, a friend, R, whose wife has been in an assisted living facility, commented that he didn’t know if he would see her again.
I’m not one of those people not taking COVID-19 seriously, probably because I’ve been sick for the better part of two weeks, and not being able to know if I’m infected, I have been self-quarantined with my husband, whose dry hacking cough makes it prohibitive to go outside without causing a panic. I knew from the news that the old and infirm and compromised are especially vulnerable; I’m worried about my parents in their eighties, half a country away. Still the comment by R made a quiet splash in my heart that rippled out with significance, reaching those of us still safe on the shore. Surely things weren’t that bad, I thought, though I knew her frailty, though I knew in Italy things are, in fact, that bad.
Of course things aren’t just bad but disastrous. Italy reached yet another peak death toll today, losing 627 people, with most of these people dying alone in an ICU without the comfort of their families, loved ones, or friends, only the nurses and doctors to weep over them. The entire states of California, Illinois and New York have been ordered to ‘shelter in place’ to prevent the same thing from happening here. Jobless claims jumped one million in less than 48 hours. In India, the prime minister urges 1.3 billion people to self-quarantine.
There are some segments of society who are shocked by it; others who have been personally experiencing the slow-moving disaster that hollowed out the American middle class are, if not more prepared, then less surprised to discover yet another disaster on their horizon. When you live month to month, disaster crouches around every corner.
The disaster that befell R’s wife happened years ago; R’s tender telling of the story of how she ended up in a nursing home – though, at fifty, she was three decades younger than the average resident – was featured in the New York Times column Modern Love. For awhile, R lived there with her, and shared sweet stories of his elderly neighbors. That’s how I met him, reading these stories on a blogging platform called Open Salon, which for a long time operated like a secret garden for writers. It’s shut down now, the victim of more prosaic disasters – human trolls, a lack of a business model. But the friendships I made there persisted past the platform, many moving from online to real life. We’ve held meetups in Las Vegas, (now eerily shuttered, the famous Bellagio fountains dry), Austin, and New Orleans. Together we’ve mourned the deaths of parents, of husbands and wives, daughters and sons. We share recipes, stories, and pictures (the picture on this post is from an Open Salon friend in Maryland, from her daily walk). We’ve celebrated births, and witnessed transitions: of jobs, of marriages, of countries, and, especially, of health – strokes, brain tumors, cancer, suicide, heart failure have already claimed a dozen friends. Some of these friends were supported by loved ones but not all of them. When R wrote in Promises That Can Bend Without Breaking of one of his last lucid conversations with his wife, “We agreed that staying together was the most important thing,” I felt suddenly blessed for the love in my life in a way I hadn’t considered before.
I’m very grateful to have this online community at this point in the world. Just this past January three of these virtual friends visited my reality and we held a writing salon in my living room. We talked of disasters great and small, environmental and political, but the coronavirus still felt like something that maybe wasn’t going to happen here. Looking back, of course, William Gibson’s prescience was on display: the future was already here, just not evenly distributed. The virus was making its silent way across the country even then, and while we read each other poems and short stories, the good people of Santa Clara – where there is a cluster outbreak of nearly 200 as of today – were already symptomatic.
For R, Open Salon was a place to write about what was happening to his wife and his life, showing us how, in his words, a burden shared is a burden halved. There are questions we think we’ll never ask: “What will we do if you don’t remember who I am?” There are answers we never think we’ll hear.
Yesterday was the vernal equinox, when the plane of Earth’s equator passes through the center of the Sun, the way some news will pass through the center of your heart. It has brought the earliest spring to the US in more than a century, a harbinger, maybe, of the fact that life will forever look a little different for all of us
Reader, she died. I was awake when the notification from R popped up. A picture of her, pretty and smiling, behatted in the sun, in the middle of some adventure. The epitaph makes me want to be a better person than I know myself to be: You were, he told her, so brave and caring.
“Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky,” Camus tells us. His fictional account of plague exposed the bone white truth: all human beings are vulnerable to being randomly exterminated at any time: plague, cancer, car crash, microbe. Knowing that none of our lives are exempt from a premature end, makes each minute of life precious. Knowing as a species we’ve created enough wealth and security to protect and defend each life makes each life our moral obligation to save. The fact that we have not been living as though these truths are real does not mean we cannot do so going forward.
A week ago, a lifetime ago, I read an article about the universe still expanding and why this matters. The scientist explained that the past is always with us (it’s not even the past, as Faulkner notes) because the speed of light is not instantaneous; when we see the light, we see it as it was a split second ago. As we make our way through the coronavirus event, will we see the light of how things are, how the world is…or will be remember it only as it was a split second ago? Will we recognize the opportunity to reset the world?