By definition, a pandemic affects everyone on the planet. Synchronicity has been powerfully present – scarcity (toilet paper, disinfectant wipes, food, money, jobs) and distractions (sourdough bread, home improvement, sports with cardboard fans, political vitriol) afflict us all. As I was ruminating on a post about how we’re all widows and germ freaks now, the New York Times published a piece about declining social skills caused by isolation. Synchronicity.
People are still dying, behind glass, while their families helplessly watch on tablets, speaking final words through phones held by brave and compassionate nurses. This plague makes new widows and widowers every day. There are coronavirus orphans, and babies born during this time are dubbed “coronials.”
I hear fewer people using the phrase “back to normal” lately. It’s sinking in now. After a pandemic, there is no “back to normal.” In that sense, we’re all widows now. Doorknobs and light switches, the sound of a sneeze, offices with sealed windows, crowded concert halls – none of these will ever feel “normal” again, even after a safe, effective and adequately tested vaccine emerges. We’re all germ freaks now. I don’t expect consciousness of sources of contagion to go away for anyone who has measured their relationships in 6-foot circles, or washed their hands for two rounds of Happy Birthday, umpteen times a day. Who of us will ever hear that birthday song the same way again?
We’re all widows now, too, in a sense – grieving for a life that was supposed to be, but has vanished. School will never be the same. “Learning pods” may become permanent for those that can afford them. Those that can’t must send their kids, wearing masks they’ll never be able to keep on over their noses for a full school day, into classrooms where they’ll be seated at desks spaced 6 feet apart, surrounded by plexiglass. What kind of learning is that? Learning that laughter and singing and holding hands with your friends are dangerous? How are these kids going to carry that message into their future lives? There is grief for play and joy, displaced by sterile, lonely, fearful childhoods.
Grieving young adults behave wantonly, in total denial, feeling cheated of their “right to paaaartay!,” risking each others’ lives by packing themselves into illegal or unauthorized gatherings, resulting in colleges and universities reporting thousands of new cases. Dorms shut down, classes go back online. College isn’t what it was supposed to be, and may never be whatever that was again.
I take no solace in knowing that so many people now understand the permanence of grief. In my case, it’s carrying the weight of memories of Mike, the good and the bad, every minute of every day. There are triggers everywhere, especially at home, where we’ve been holed up for six months. It’s not that I think about him all the time – I don’t – but the “presence of absence” hangs around me like a shawl.
The “Lost Generation” emerged from the horrors of World War I only to confront a pandemic of their own, one hundred years ago. They were also faced with a president, Warren G. Harding, who was was pro-business, anti-international organizations, and anti-immigration. Three years into his presidency, Harding died, and his administration was revealed as the most corrupt in American history, up to that time. Harding appointees sold government medical supplies to private contractors, and benefited from loans and gifts in exchange for directing oil leases to cronies in the famous Teapot Dome scandal. The echoes are deafening. Harding campaigned on returning to “normalcy.” He succeed only in proving that there are some kinds of “normalcy” we could all do without. No wonder so many of the lost generation writers decamped to Paris.
Will this present generation, a century later, robbed of innocence by 9/11 and of proms and graduations and big happy weddings by a pandemic, turn into another “lost generation,” living for the moment because they expect the next moment to be worse?
I hold on to examples of these young adults’ resilience, leadership, and compassion. Their zeal for justice, equality, dignity, and environmental responsibility is undeniable. They give me hope.
We widows and germ freaks can’t recreate the “before” in whatever our “after” is going to be, if we survive. But we can learn from all this to be kinder, to respect integrity, to appreciate competence, and to be humble in the face of irrefutable scientific facts. We can move forward together with decency.
Naked Emperors, living in houses of cards, always eventually crumble. In the ashes of the chaos they created, those they duped and those whose worst fears they realized are left to clean up the mess together, and move on.
Hunkering with hope, I remain,
Your masked, sanitized, socially distanced, trying-to-stay-positive-while-grieving-with-Angelic-Daughter,