Somedays the wind is howling around the mountains. Other days, the sun is pointing out every new bud in the forest. Even when it’s grey and the back section of our trail is more pond than path, though, at four o’ clock, at least one kid and one adult will ask if we’re all ready to walk. Our walks have attained the ritual sacredness of communion, and, even though they are peppered with swear words when the boys argue about whose turn it is to chase the frisbee into the increasingly green rosy-bush, there is serious communing going on.
The walk around the house is about a tenth of a mile. Thing1 has a goal of getting his parents to do 30 laps walking and then running. I’m treating it as physical therapy for my ankle and, on days when my lungs allow it, have managed 10 laps with a few passes through the garden to talk to the peas and carrots. The Big Guy, waiting for a knee replacement, is less focused on the number of laps than on just walking with the boys.
The kids will do two laps for each of ours, deliberately tossing the frisbee into the woods or at each other’s heads. Thing1 and the Big Guy will talk car repairs. Thing2 will talk music and life.
We don’t see each other for most of the rest of the day. Thing1 is finishing up classes from college online until late at night. Thing2 has class in the morning and then has creative projects. I write and study, and the Big Guy reads. There’s an implicit understanding that, while we are locking down, we need to have our physical and mental separate corners.
Vermont’s governor is slowly relaxing restrictions that have helped keep our infection rate down, but, with high-risk people in the home, our family won’t relax the current routine until we see evidence of a prolonged absence of a second or third wave of infections. As the rest of the state returns to normal, I’m grateful for these organically grown rituals that keep us close but not constricted, knowing they’re about to become even more important.
Pneumonia benched me well before Covid-19 invaded neighboring New York State, but my son’s severely compromised immune function was already forcing considerations about whether and how to keep working at the residential school where I teach.
Our school immediately implemented Herculean measures to reduce the likelihood of infection. The experiences of other assisted living communities across the nation, however, suggested that any infection, once introduced, would spread rapidly. I love my school kids, but knew working during the pandemic might mean living away from my family. When my body turned on me, I was almost grateful to surrender the decision and took a leave of absence as our family settled into the stay home directives that, while not all that new for most Vermonters, felt like a different normal.
When I started considering family safety, the virus was sweeping through cruise ships. There were a handful infections in Washington state, and the media zeitgeist was proclaiming that the virus “only” endangered the elderly and people with chronic illnesses (about 157 million people in the US), as if that made it more tolerable.
One night early in March, however, I caught an interview with Yale physician, Nicholas Christakis, predicting the trajectory the infection would soon take. Identifying schools as disease vectors (as any parent or teacher weathering flu and strep season can attest), he advocated nationwide closures. “Flatten the Curve“ hadn’t been coined, but he was articulating the strategy: slow the spread, reduce the load on the healthcare system, and improve the odds.
As March and the pandemic progressed, Christakis seemed like Cassandra delivering disturbingly accurate warnings, heeded only when case numbers and fatalities began to skyrocket.
I remember marveling at extraordinary examples of solidarity by people from all walks of life filling my Facebook feed when Americans did adopt the social distancing guidelines already in place in Europe. There were some doubting the seriousness of the disease or disregarding how their continued mobility might endanger others, but videos of people making masks, entertaining each other, organizing school services and lunches for kids and families were brief testaments that we were all at least trying to be in this together.
Then the economy, already wobbling under volatile oil futures and markets, imploded. Poorly maintained government safety nets struggled to expand and accommodate millions of newly unemployed people. Suddenly the stay home directives were not just about flattening an abstract curve, they were about individual rights, paychecks, and haircuts.
I don’t have much sympathy for people screaming for haircuts, but at least 40% of adults in the United States don’t have $400 on hand to cover an emergency. That means a lost paycheck could easily translate to a lost roof or food. In regions that have not yet seen spikes in the numbers, the prevention can easily seem worse than the disease.
I had just started programming in 1996 when I first saw a program crash because an end-user had tried to enter the date ‘2001’ in a two-digit year field. We fixed that particular issue pretty quickly, but as we went through our other programs, we realized how many applications were vulnerable. Y2K work wasn’t just bread and butter for the next few years, it was steak and caviar.
That New Year’s Eve, I brought home a laptop to login to work and monitor for any SNAFUs. As midnight rolled around, I wondered if many programs would fail. Would the “major” systems around the world make the jump successfully?
The next morning, there had been a few hiccups but no apocalypse. Newscasters seemed almost disappointed that more things hadn’t gone wrong, glossing over the fact that the millions of programmers who had been updating systems for the previous three or four years had made that possible.
Right now, people are being asked to accept hardships to make sure that as much of our worrying as possible is for ‘nothing’. Some people, even offering themselves as sacrifices, are willing to play the lottery and advocate for reopening the country. With one journal, however, suggesting that school closures alone prevent “only” 2-4% of Covid-19 related fatalities (2000-10,000 lives depending on projections) and new reports of hospitalizations and fatalities among younger, healthier people, reopening the “country” is a lottery that will trade lives for paychecks.
But too many missed paychecks can also cost lives.
Some (including me) would argue in favor of securing the social and digital safety nets to enable as many people as possible to stay home longer and reduce illness and contagion. People advocating the alternative, however, do have valid concerns. Safety nets are expensive. Any vaccine could be at least a year away. There’s no confirmation, yet, that surviving the disease confirms permanent immunity, meaning that this could be a question of thinning the herd rather than building herd immunity. Stay home directives could be simply delaying the inevitable.
Less than a century ago “The Lottery”, by Shirley Jackson, depicted a modern version of a “brutal ancient rite” taking place in some version of Bennington, Vermont. Townspeople drew lots to determine who would be sacrificed by stoning to ensure a good harvest. The New Yorker and Jackson received mountains of complaints and abuse from shocked readers who could not countenance the idea of even fictional human sacrifice in a modern setting.
We aren’t choosing lots or stoning people to death, but in the end, we are being asked not just what we personally are willing to surrender for the economy or a flatter curve. We are being asked who we are willing to sacrifice to achieve either goal. How many and which people are disposable?
On our very micro level, I know I would give my life to keep my kids safe and fed. I also know it’s easier to be a martyr than a problem solver. At some point, the pandemic and the economy will force us to ask the tougher question of how to balance Thing1’s health (and life) against my need to work, against Thing2’s right to go to school and grow. When do we “reopen”? We’ll find some answers in logistics. Other answers will require making ethical choices far more difficult than drawing lots.
It started with a writing prompt a few days ago. Write a scene with no more than four characters that happens in one room. It was a good assignment, but at first it took me to some very dark places before I remember I was in control of this story. I don’t have to go there.
I’ve tried to treat the last month of Sparkling (and, at our house, often smudged) Solitude as a gift of time, but, as many people are finding, worrying about loved ones, finances, and the world of suffering happening beyond our driveway more than dulls the sparkle. As I wrote, I realized that, while my own respiratory issues have kept me off the frontlines but not terribly fearful, Thing1’s nearly fatal history with a chronic illness that makes him particularly vulnerable has caused more anxiety than I like to admit.
My prompt response grew into a story about a family cursed with endless time and a dark choice that might save their firstborn. The scene grew out the worst night of Thing1’s illness, but, in the story, the husband and wife debating their children’s fate begin to fall apart, and I couldn’t figure out how to put them back together. I had written myself into a corner, but, as I took a break to finish cleaning the pantry, I remembered that during that seemingly endless night, the Big Guy and I had not fallen apart.
We had pulled together.
We may have squabbled briefly about how fast the ambulance would arrive in a blizzard or if the emergency room would do anything we weren’t already doing or if we could even get there. We had nothing but bad options as our firstborn faded on the couch. In the end we did the only thing we could do. Pulling ourselves together as a team, we decided everything and every phone number until there was nothing else to try and Thing1 started to improve.
That night wasn’t a gift. Thing1’s illness hasn’t been a blessing in disguise. Those challenges were crucibles so hot we sometimes felt our resolve begin to melt, but when that heat abated, hope solidified around our family, forging an infinitely stronger bond.
So now I’m back to my made-up husband and wife, still at a terrible crossroads with endless time and a horrible illness and choice in front of them. There is a temptation — for the sake of art – to finish tearing them apart. There is the option to treat the endless time and choice as a curse.
A few weeks before exams, Thing1’s school sends around a mailer that lets parents fill out a greeting card and select an assortment of “healthy” candies and snack foods to get through the rigors of studying and testing. Most of the letters from Thing1’s college are pleas for money for one reason or another, but this one always gives me the giggles.
The first mailer instantly had me mentally grumbling, “When I was your age we used to walk 50 miles in the snow without any care packages to take our exams”. College these days seems a bit like summer camp but with amenities like all night cookie delivery and bubble tea joints on every corner (and, in the case of Massachusetts, actual joint joints on more than a few corners).
Care packages seem more than a little redundant.
But this week there’s something I didn’t have when I was his age. In addition to the suppressed immunity I never had at any age, Thing1, who has faced his mortality more than once in the last two years, is hearing all the same news we are about the new Corona virus going around.
The new virus which has people suddenly washing their hands (who were these people who weren’t buying hand soap before last week?) and giving Vulcan “Live long and prosper” greetings instead of handshakes is the next thing we’re worrying about for him.
Thing1 takes things in stride, but his school has decided to keep dorms open over spring break to encourage people not to travel. His hospital has reported cases and is discouraging scheduling of new surgeries, including the next one he needs, in anticipation of an increased case load. I know that, despite his ability to take life’s little challenges one day at a time, this virus and all its potential implications are at least in the back of his mind.
Most of the time, COVID-19 news interests but doesn’t overly worry me. I’m mostly healthy. Thing2 is abundantly healthy, and the Big Guy is a rock.
The implications for Thing1, however, are on the top of my mind when I think too long about this new virus. So, even though I’m going to remind him that, back in the dark ages, we had to study for exams by candlelight and write our essays on bark using charcoal when we were his age, I’m sending him a a little care in the form of some hermetically sealed candy and snack food.
And there will be at least one giggle when I hit send.
It’s my second week of being bed or chair-bound as my foot recovers from a total overhaul. It’s been really inconvenient, but, ironically, it’s give me a chance to take a different kind of walk with one of the best people I know.
This time last year I was still writing mostly about Thing1’s journey with Ulcerative Colitis. We thought, at the time, that journey was almost over and that he was starting a newer, more adventurous one. Then his body recently reminded us that a diagnosis of a chronic illness is a permanent one.
His chronic illness is classified as a disability. It took me a little while to really understand why it’s classified that way, but as I watched his disease derail a year of his education and govern so many other major and minor life decisions, I gained a better understanding of how invisible illnesses can cause impairment. It wasn’t until the last two weeks, however, that I understood how that feels.
As someone diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I can sympathize and empathize with some of the impacts of invisible illness. Depression can impact your ability to function at work and your ability to parent effectively. It does not, however, turn the simplest activities, such as showering, into activities that need extra equipment or preparation. It doesn’t keep you from reaching the microwave. It does not have you planning your schedule when you might want to go to the bathroom next, let alone how to return to work.
Thing1 is less than half my age and wrestled with all of these issues and more in the last few years. These questions have determined where he would live and if he would go to school on any given day. They are determining if he may miss yet another year of school and when he will begin his adult life.
Spending a few weeks navigating the activities of daily living that are usually take for granted has been a pain in the neck, but it’s also given me a chance to walk with T1 in a whole new way.