April 28, 2020
Thunder rolls from the west into Pottawatomie County. Emmylou Harris is playing. Emmy and I have spent a lot of down time together through the years. I like solitude. I’m used to it. I need it. But something is different this time. What is it? Can’t name it exactly. Maybe it’s this. I want to choose solitude. That’s it! I want freedom to come and go as I please, without the tyranny of unmasked macho men staring me down. My choosing has been interrupted.
I’m lucky. I’m surrounded by blue April sky, green oaks, prairie grass dotted with wild flowers. Every Oklahoma bird passes through my property. I live in rhythm of birdsong. But even this, somehow, seems different. I’ve got a freezer full of venison. I’ve got a chainsaw, a tractor and plenty of outside chores to balance reading essays from (hopefully quarantined) literature students. This isn’t so bad. I think compassionate thoughts as I hear daily BBC reports of the virus from around the world. Still, this isn’t too bad.
Then an interruption. Interruptions are always difficult, but they can be paralyzing during a pandemic. We try to adjust, as we must, just get used to a new “normal,” then the string snaps. Interruption!
I’m in line at the Aldi grocery store. People are behaving responsibly. My son FaceTimes me from Austin. My daughter-in-law is about to have an emergency C-section. The word “emergency” doesn’t click. My son is giddy with anticipation. In a few minutes he will be a dad. I will be a grandpa by the time I check out and get home. Interruption! I don’t hear from him for over an hour. Something is not right. I feel it.
Long story short. I drive like a reckless fool through the night to an Austin hospital. The baby is in critical care. My son needs me. What can I do? Suddenly the sinister nature of this virus is trying to choke us. We can only camp out in the parking lot. We pray like desperate pilgrims. Everybody we know is praying. Diverse perceptions of divinity, caring together because of love. Hindus and Muslims are praying, along with Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Pantheists, all of us are in anguish because of love. This, it occurs to me on a laborious night in an Austin parking lot lit with unbearable light, is the true purpose of prayer. God is not our tip-inspired waiter. Prayer is not getting. Prayer is the heart in anguish. That’s the word — anguish! When we reach the limit of human knowledge, the end of our capabilities, when there are no words. I can only look at my son and say, “This is your destiny! Go in there and love your son no matter if he lives or dies. Even if he has brain damage, we will love him.” I have never spoken this way before. It occurs to me the miracle is that so many strangers are coming together in grateful humility. Anguish resolves in humility.
But we can’t touch. Can’t hold. Can’t kiss — anyone.
Long story short. I’m back home. Baby is good. Very Good! I am full of gratitude for doctors and nurses, human beings who worked twelve hours at a time to help so many of us make it through. Even the leading cardiologist in Texas slept on an office couch — hadn’t seen his own kids in weeks. I am just starting to get past the shock, starting to reflect. I realize what a profound respect I have for nurses!
I think about my students. Are they OK? Where did they go? Are they working “essential” jobs? Are they reading? Will they turn in their final papers? What is the point of analyzing literature during a pandemic? But I know I need them, probably more than they need me. Normally I like solitude. I use it to prepare for the crowd. I need the crowd.
A few days ago I woke up angry. Even the physical work of my chainsaw and tractor and fence-mending did not abate my anger. These stages of grief, I surmised. They hit all at once, don’t they? They are not necessarily sequential. Certainly not logical. They interrupt like a rude punk. Anger! Who is in charge? How can the greatest “exceptional” country in the history of civilization not have masks for nurses?! Damn idiot politicians! Screwing the worker every chance they get. And all I can do is stew in my big blue chair as night falls, listening to birds, Mozart and Emmylou.
I want to be touched. I want to touch. I want to hug and be hugged. I want to dance. I want Paul Austin to buy an appetizer of quail with a dry martini at the Winston. I want Hank Jones to light up a cigar. I want to kiss and be kissed. I need community. We need each other.
We need community. We need to believe. I want to squeeze my son and daughter-in-law, hold my grandson. And you have people you need to touch as well. Touching and believing are always vital and always connected.
Like me, do you need to find something deeper, something worthy? Some thread to follow out of the abyss? Like me, do you need to face a fear or two? Maybe that is the ironic gift of the virus. I thought about that in this poem:
After a Shock
I’m trying to get back
to normal, but
there is no normal
to get back to.
We have it so good,
thus we are in peril.
We are afraid
of what we fear to fear.
Like me, in your grief, do you need to look fear in the face?
I also think this: Mother Earth is sick. It is our fault. It is not, as the racist president says, the fault of Chinese people or bats. It is all of us. Our toxic habits have made Earth sick. Maybe we need to use this time to figure out what we do wrong, and how we could change for sustainable good. Something, I suspect, we know deep down, but often are too afraid to admit.
(Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a series of pandemic diaries by Oklahoma writers. Read the rest of the series here.)