Second in an ongoing series, Notes from a Plague-Time
As my favorite American poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “My Friends are my Estate.” Shortly after my husband and I began self-isolating in response to our new plague-time, I reached out to my estate — old friends, old-old friends, new friends — to see how they were doing. Are we on the same page? Are we in the same boat, and what kind of boat is it, and how seaworthy? And how is our inner weather?
On Sunday, Mar. 15, I sent this email, subject line “Checking in with Select Friends”:
Dear All: Just checking in to see how you are doing in this new reality of the coronavirus pandemic. We are self-isolating. Larry feels a bit vulnerable because he got a cold about a month ago and, as his colds always are bad ones, he’s still shaking it off (almost there). He’s such a social animal — he’s Civic Man — but he’s being a good citizen and avoiding social contact, going online. Me, I don’t consider my system compromised because of the cancer; am relying on the fact I rarely get colds or flu. I am still going to the gym, while Larry walks or bikes in our neighborhood.
Strange times, hmmmm…..? It does feel like we are in a new realm….. Lots of ellipses now…..
We worry the U.S. may be in for a battering, not only the economy but deaths, as our health “system” is so woefully underprepared.
Some of you have worried about Washington state as “Ground Zero” of the outbreak. This Guardian article makes an important distinction: We are not Ground Zero but the “leading edge” of what likely will occur elsewhere.
Just emailed a friend explaining why I am not panicking. One, because living with cancer I am already living with a kind of contagion, and I have my methods of dealing with that anxiety. Two, the self-isolation: It’s the natural state for a writer.
Miss the English Premier Soccer League — all games cancelled until further notice — but at least we have Turner Classic Movies. And tons of reading. And writing.
Would like to know your thoughts, your assessment of things, how you are dealing.
Buona fortuna to all of us. To Life!
The response? Geysers of thoughts and feelings — far longer and more effusive, more candid than a regular email. The tone of all fifteen who responded was serious and sober, with no joking — well, except for that of childhood friend JR (I shall use initials), who began by asking, “First I need to know, do you have a more prestigious category of friends than ‘Select’? Is there a ‘Select Preferred’ list, perhaps, or a ‘Platinum Select’ group?” But then, this has always been his way: first a bit of wit, then down to business. How reassuring to hear this old friend’s voice.
About this group: All are “of an age” — in our 60s and 70s, one in her 80s — but all presenting the vigor of people far younger. All but two are retired after careers in the professions — medicine and the helping professions, law, politics, education, business, journalism. (The two of us who are writers are not retired, but are “still at it.”) These friends live all over the country, while one is Finnish, living in Finland. Politically, all are of a liberal stripe, more moderate than progressive.
Remarkably, these friends’ responses break out in four ways. With their permission, I set them forth here. Of course, the picture has darkened considerably in the two weeks since my email, but the priorities and vectors these friends lay out here will, I expect, hold firm and serve as their tent-pole through whatever is coming at us.
ONE: With the coronavirus pandemic, we are indeed in a new realm, a new reality.
All recognize the historic, life-altering significance of this pandemic event. There is no denial or downplaying (and there is 100% disdain for President Donald Trump on these two particular counts). As childhood friend JR wrote, “We’re clearly in the midst of a huge historic event — perhaps the biggest of our lives, for those of us who didn’t live through World War II.” My Finnish friend, UL, calls it “the Era of Corona.” Many call it “dark times,” while two believe we are in — unsettling term — “dystopia.”
Given this unanimous assessment, it’s not surprising that all fifteen of us are self-isolating, starting at the first official recommendation to do so. This is where our Democratic affiliation shows: Polls show Democrats far more than Republicans take this pandemic seriously and act accordingly. Example: Tracking the advance of the outbreak abroad, we restocked our vital meds (cancer, diabetes) well in advance of the outbreak here. (New polls show more Republicans acknowledging the crisis.)
Understandably, those of us living in Washington state poll higher in concern because, for a while, we were the epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S., with the canary in the coal mine being the Life Care nursing home in Kirkland, outside Seattle, where to date 35 residents have died of COVID-19. Acting early on that news, local friend AE and her husband removed his mother out of an assisted-living facility — just in time: Two days later that facility closed itself to all family visitors.
As for the toll expected, several quoted me back to myself: “We worry the U.S. may be in for a battering, not only the economy but deaths.” Tragically, the battering has begun: As of today’s posting, 3.3 million people, losing their jobs, filed for unemployment just this past week — a U.S. record; over 122,000 Americans are confirmed having the virus; and over 2,100 Americans have died of COVID-19.
TWO: In a plague-time, top priority is family — most especially children and grandchildren — but taken to a new dimension.
This priority, if one had children (I do not), is to be expected, but these friends are learning new dimensions of this priority and finding the words to express it. College roommate CB wrote that, if either her son or daughter and her family got sick, “It haunts me that…I cannot go to them,” for fear of spreading disease. CB is the gentlest of souls; I have never heard her express distress before. Other parents express the same fear.
This fear is even greater if their children already have health problems. Cousin LV writes, “I have been so concerned for two of my daughters that have compromised health that I really don’t think as much about me.” Childhood friend CM decided not to “be there” for her daughter’s cancer surgery, for fear of infection; they FaceTimed instead. Her insight: Phoning is essential — to hear the voice. “Hardly ever communicate that way anymore, but emails and texts are just not the same.”
And all the grandparents lament they cannot baby-sit their grandchildren, because they themselves, given their age and pre-existing conditions, are the ones “at risk.” As BS writes, after she got a cold from “my darling granddaughter,” now, “sadly, I can’t see either of my babies.”
In this crisis, these parents see their children with new pride. CW’s son and wife, working from home, tend the children of doctors who staff a hospital: “Community is alive and well,” she says, seeing her own community spirit transferred. JR’s daughter, a deputy school superintendent, is “point person” for remote learning while her district’s schools are closed: “There is no roadmap for that,” he says, adding she’s “undoubtedly the most stressed-out member of our family.” LO’s daughter volunteers as cook at a homeless shelter: “I hope she’ll be O.K. I am proud of her.” A doctor friend and wife wonder if their daughter, doing her medical residency, will be recruited for COVID-19 duty.
Also in this crisis, the parent-child bond for some is changing. PL writes that her daughter and one of her sons both demanded she and husband turn around and return home after learning someone at their destination had tested positive for coronavirus. She writes: “I have never heard my children to be so bearish about protecting us. Switching roles is the new reality.” She adds: Each “has our best interests in mind, the elders that we are. I am overcome by the concern our generation is receiving from those younger. It makes love very tangible.”
THREE: Self-isolation notwithstanding, we anguish at the pain of fellow Americans losing jobs, income, family.
PL continues eloquently: “How fortunate we are to have a perfectly fine house to hunker down in…. That’s unlike the young families who are not nearly as susceptible to the disease as we are, yet are having their lives totally torn apart and traumatized in ways that we can’t imagine.” For some children, there will be “the nightmare of their parents without jobs and/or income. Makes me weep.” JR says he feels “so badly for people who are losing income, closing their businesses.”
These pillars in their community can see the pain coming at their community. CW rues cancellation of a fundraiser that normally brings in $100,000 for a women’s shelter: “A real loss of revenue for those who provide services for the most vulnerable.” Her response: “We need to step up and make donations.”
The pain coming at America elicits harsh judgment of Trump. CW: “I am disgusted with The Orange One’s lack of early response.” KM: “How ironic the Orange Man, who is known to fear germs more than the average person, now has to deal with a pandemic.” For LV, Trump’s press briefings, with medical experts around him, are “frightening”: “They are knowledgeable — he is not; they are professional — he is not; when questions are asked of him, he always makes it about him. This is not helping me or our country.” CM calls Trump “inept and actually dangerous. More lives will be lost because of it, and that’s just SICKENING.” We all grieve the suffering to come.
FOUR: Big question — how to bear extended self-isolation, how to bear our new reality?
Here is where my friends, in brave candor, admit to some questions, some anxiety (and because of their candor, I will not identify who says what).
If the self-isolation must be extended, one friend admits: “It becomes very scary to me when they say it could be July/August before this is all clear.” Another, newly widowed, admits, “I miss having a partner to talk with.” She adds, “So far, mole mode is not bad, but as time goes by, hmmm…..” And another, the most extrovert of this group by far, admits: “If this isolation goes on for a long time, it is me who will suffer first.” Referring to her husband, “I am the more outgoing person of us two. [Husband] is always patient and calm and takes strange situations as they come. Not me.” She concludes: “But there is always the phone! I will talk to my friends on the phone and that way feel I am connected with the outer world.”
And about the prospect of a “new normal” — the dread of living in a virus-infested world — one friend admits to “being depressed,” not seeing humanity organizing itself in defense. Perhaps knowing we really are all in the same boat — and we really need every hand on the oars — will help? Perhaps, out of our collective struggle, a new consciousness lies ahead?
In all this, I got some petting. About my claim that living with cancer fortifies, one friend also living with cancer wrote: “You’re so right, C., about your reason for not panicking. Cancer, once confronted, can do that for us.” But college friend PF chided me for still going to the gym: “You write that you don’t consider yourself at risk. Please ask your MD about that. To be sure.” So, forthwith, I stopped going to the gym (which closed anyway) and now speed-walk in the neighborhood. And from another friend, this: “Carla, you are one of the strongest people I know and I have every faith you will come through this no matter what happens.” I am blessed to front this crisis with Larry, my husband and compagno di vita of 42 years.
Meanwhile, to cope with self-isolation, books will be read, movies watched, closets cleaned, photos finally organized. One friend is using this “quiet time” to learn Spanish; another, Italian. Three express gratitude that the Metropolitan Opera is streaming productions for free. Of course there are ways not to cope, too: College roommate SF, from whom I learned about “being a survivor,” wrote that, while out marketing, when she had just wine in her cart, a man walking by said, “You have the right idea.” Not!
And, of course, while self-isolating, we can use our experience and means to reach out — online — to those suffering in our communities: by supporting hospitals (masks! ventilators!), donating to food banks, doing remote teaching, making a phone call….
Going forward — hmmm, how to go forward in a pandemic, in “a time of cholera,” to echo Gabriel Garcia-Marquez? We will learn how, thanks in big part to good friends. I cannot think of a better way to sign off here than to quote the sign-offs that these friends — whom I am honored to know — used in their closing. Here, a selection:
“Buona fortuna, yes!” “Be grateful and hopeful.” “Fortunately, we have each other. Hugs, er, elbow bumps.” “Stay healthy, please.” “As always, Roomie….to Life!” “I never thought I would actually experience this [dystopia] and not just watch it on TV. Take care and stay out of Corona.” “I am allowing myself to feel hopeful about November….[with] Trump gone and our country saved from four more disastrous years. Stay well during these strange times.” “Sure wish we had Obama in the White House. I hope Larry is over his cold and that you both stay healthy during these uncertain times.” “Please be well. You both matter greatly to a lot of people.”
And finally: “Stay safe and healthy — and in touch. Much love.”
Image: Plague doctor, circa 1656, during bubonic plague, Rome.