The Corona Correspondences
March 23, 2020
We weren’t supposed to meet like this. We were supposed to meet in Nashville next month at a benefit for a local literary organization. I had all sorts of plans for that trip: a pretty dress, a date with a friend to go hear Hayes Carll play some music. Our names were already on a list. Plans! My life was so full of them. When my book came out last year, my publisher created a Google Doc with my tour schedule. Every morning, I’d wake up and consult it to see where I was supposed to be, what I was supposed to do.
But since I’m much more a creature of paper and pen, I also kept an old-fashioned Filofax in which I’d fill in the upcoming weeks. March: San Antonio, Steamboat Springs, Los Angeles, New York City, Paris. April: Philadelphia, Nashville, Sydney. And so on. I’m not sure what this says about me, but I don’t like to cross things out on my paper calendar. It offends my sense of order. So, over the years, I’ve devised a system. I take mailing labels and cut them into strips. Then I take these strips and cover over the canceled events. Et voila! Order is restored.
As I begin to write you this letter, it’s late afternoon in Connecticut on the kind of perfect early spring day when the birdsong is just a bit . . . chirpier, and the branches of the maple tree out back are beginning to redden. A few daffodils and snowdrops have pushed their way up through the soil. They don’t know it’s meant to snow tomorrow. They don’t know that the number of confirmed novel coronavirus cases in our state is now at 233, with the assumption that there are many, many more people who are infected, contagious, and haven’t been tested. They haven’t studied the flatten-the-curve graphs. Out my window, a crow caws.
Let’s back up a moment. Three weeks ago, a friend who knows that I lead a writers’ conference in Italy texted me. You’ve seen? She attached one of the first pieces about the outbreak in the Lombardy region, in the north. We, I smugly wrote her, were going to be in the south.
This same friend, who knew that I had upcoming travel, urged me to buy pajamas to wear on the flight, and then discard in the airport bathroom after disembarking. She strongly suggested I get a mask, and not just any mask, but the N95 one. And Hefty bags, she said. Cover your seat with Hefty bags.
I was irritated with this friend.
There is no order. I know this, of course. I have observed myself for much of my adult life as I’ve tried to dance with uncertainty, deny it, push it away, only to have plans upended, loved ones fall ill, hopes dashed. I meditate each morning, and when I sit with my eyes closed in lotus position, I try to watch my mind as it races from thought to thought like a cooped-up puppy. Most of our minds do a version of this racing. The more melancholy of us tend to lean back into the past. (Regret, recrimination, longing, grief.). The more anxious among us trip forward into the future. (Anxiety, worry, agitation, terror.) No one who knows me would be surprised that I fall into the latter category.
Now it’s the next day. I’m sitting in a big leather chair in my library at home. Ice pelts the rooftop. The daffodils and snowdrops are nowhere to be seen beneath a film of white. With me in my home are my husband and college sophomore son. Jacob has returned from London, where he was spending a semester abroad. All through January and February, he would FaceTime me from the Tube, pubs, clubs, various European cities. A quiet alarm was sounding in the background as I saw his beautiful, young, happy face on my phone’s screen, but I ignored it. Wash your hands, I told him. Stop touching your face. Two Wednesdays ago, he went to a production of Hamilton in the West End, and afterward, to a blues club. On the double-decker bus home, he saw the news about the travel ban, the NBA season cancellation, the announcement that Tom Hanks had the virus. That night, he booked a ticket home.
My husband Michael had cancer last year, and not just a little bout—a terrifying, life-threatening diagnosis that entailed seven months of treatment and radical surgery. He survived, and seemingly in a gift from the universe (if we believe in gifts from the universe) a film project he had been working on for five years came together like magic, with a stellar cast, fabulous producers. He was in LA, in the midst of that rarest time in the life of a filmmaker: a green-lit film. The one-year anniversary of his diagnosis was that same Wednesday. I posted about it on Instagram, earlier in the day. Last year, a nightmare. This year, a dream, I am embarrassed to say I wrote this. Why embarrassed? Embarrassed to believe? To hope? To trust even provisionally in a future?
Michael’s film shut down with seven days left to go. He packed up, his crew broke down sets, stored props, his actors flew home to their respective families. They’ll finish, everyone says. But this, even this, becomes small, the tiniest of tiny, personal concerns, when set against the backdrop of this pandemic. I bolt upright at 4:30 each morning—I hardly need to even look at the clock any more—and think about Italian bodies piled into churches; health-care workers and how frightened they must be; the woman who cuts my hair at a downtown salon in New York City, who is a single mom; the friends with small businesses that don’t translate to a virtual platform. The divide between essential and non-essential. I also think about all the people out there who still think this is a hoax, or a political ploy, or that it doesn’t apply to them. My husband texted today with a nurse he became friends with during his ordeal. The New York City hospital ward where he was treated has now been turned into COVID triage. “What would have happened if I’d had the surgery now?” he asked the nurse. “You would have been in another ward. And you would have been scared shitless,” she said.
So far my two men are symptom-free. They are self-quarantined, and the three of us are practicing that new phrase that already feels tired: social distancing. I even sent our dog to his groomer because I was afraid his fluffy white fur (oh how I miss him) could be a vector. Vector! Also a word I’ve never used. Amazing the way language springs up around catastrophe. I long to wrap my son in my arms. I long to kiss my husband, to lean my head against his shoulder. That 4:30 a. m. feeling? It’s grief, I realize. Grief, because our world is changing. Grief, because chaos rules. Grief, because the world is vibrating with pain.
And still, outside my window, it is very beautiful at the moment. I wish you could see it. The tree branches are stark against an off-white sky. The picnic table and benches are covered with two inches of snow that will be melted by morning. The ice has formed intricate patterns on the window panes. This too, the great meditation teacher Jack Kornfield often says. A mantra for our times: this too, this too, this too.