I can let my hair go gray! I haven’t seen my hair in its native state for two decades. I can catch up on my 23 episodes of This is Us and, coincidentally, my 23 episodes of Call the Midwife on my DVR. In what is the opposite of binge watching, I watch these shows a few minutes at a time. They grab your heart, pull it out of your chest and stomp on it.
That was what I thought I’d write about. It would be a zippy and funny way to talk about the “leisure” that “social distancing” has given me. But the time for cheap laughs has passed. There are too many people in pain: economic, physical, psychological. Anxiety, like a chilling fog, has seeped into every aspect of daily life.
At the beginning, which was not even three weeks ago, I was taken aback by the undercurrent of economic panic that bubbled up in people who’ve worked for years at their job: a tennis pal who worked at Delta, the secretary at my Edward Jones office, my yoga teacher.
The scope of the suffering was sinking in. The guy who cuts my hair, exactly half my age, what will he do when nobody is getting haircuts? The tennis pros at my club – one of them just bought a house, for God’s sake. Tanya, at Pure Harmony Spa where I never have time to get massages. Can the Royal Chinese BBQ, my favorite restaurant, weather this? The owner of Left Bank Books said, “We don’t want loans. We need grants.”
Childcare is a major issue, especially for workers who can’t work from home. Some daycare centers are closed too. Even parents who have a trusted babysitter increase the exposure risk, albeit a small one. Several of my friends who are in the high-risk, geezer bracket, have become main caregivers for their grandchildren. One of them has traveled to Chicago to do just that. This too is not perfect. They worry about catching the virus from the little ones. They fear making the kiddies sick.
“I don’t want to get sick. I don’t want to be a vector and sicken my family.” Those words play in my mind like a catchy tune. Below that is real dread. Gasping for air seems like the worst way to die. I am claustrophobic. I fear suffocating. I will only go snorkeling if I have a grip on Bill’s tee shirt the whole time in the water.
This is my first time to be an at-risk person. I have my own grocery shopping hour! Even so, I only go to one store and get groceries that last more than a week. When I told my son Alex in Virginia that Bill and I were canceling our trip to see them, even without saying anything, Alex’s relief transmitted through the phone.
At times, I fear the worst. That would be if a member of our extended family got really sick or died. Alex and his wife work at the UVA hospital. Julie works in a medical office. Nicole is a lab tech. Kevin runs a Walgreens. Kristy is a chiropractor. Those jobs seemed very safe … until now. And who would think Scott would be on the front lines as a grocery store worker?
Whenever those thoughts crash into my consciousness, I brush them aside with a shrug. There’s nothing I can do. But like pesky flies, those thoughts keep circling back. As I write this, five thousand families have already suffered this fate. If someone I love doesn’t make it through this pandemic, I will be bitter at Donald Trump for the rest of my life. His poor decisions have cost us dearly.
To control the spiraling anxiety, I do what I always do. I read a book. I decided to vicariously suffer such a loss. I read William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows, a novel about a Midwestern family during the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic. The book was published in 1937, not twenty years after that scourge. Maxwell (1908-2000) was an editor at the New Yorker for 35 years as well as a novelist and essayist. Maxwell’s mother had died of the flu. He was ten.
The title They Came Like Swallows refers to a W.B. Yeats poem about Lady Gregory, one of the founders of the Abbey Theater. The great writers of the day — George Bernard Shaw, John M. Synge, Sean O’Casey, and Yeats himself — all found welcome in her home. Yeats compares the way the writers gather around Lady Gregory to the swallows that come every year.
In the book, the lives of James Morison and his two sons, Bunny and Robert, all revolve around their wife and mother, Elizabeth. The flu sneaks into their lives, first as newspaper articles and local gossip and then as school and church closures. Robert can’t understand why his mom won’t let him join the pickup football game.
In general, influenza is backdrop to competition for toys and mom’s attention between the boys, travails at school and sports; getting ready for a new baby; the WWI Armistice; family disagreements among uncles, aunts and cousins. Everyone in the family gets ill, but at different times. Elizabeth and James both come down with it in Chicago, where they went for her complicated pregnancy.
She dies of flu a few days after the baby is born. Robert feels guilty that he had let his mother into Bunny’s sick room when it was his job to keep her out. James feels guilty that he had taken his wife aboard a crowded train to Chicago. Each believes that he was the vector. James’ devastation is complete.
James “went on up the stairs …to the bedroom which Elizabeth and he had shared, and saw her dresses hanging in the closet, and was struck blind and almost senseless. When he could, he shut the closet door quickly, and pressed his forehead into the long cool mirror which was on the other side.
and brown velvet
and the faint odor of violets.
—That was all which was left to him of his love.”
I finish the book, exhale deeply and return to my life of boring social distancing interspersed with crushing dread for the future.
Tell me: How are you coping?