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Our dog has a drinking problem. That is, when she drinks water there is something in the way her throat works that causes her to regurgitate some or all of the water soon after. In her younger years she would throw up quietly and move on. As she's aged and as her health worsens, it sounds more like a loud, old man sneezing and coughing and choking at the same time. We are home all the time now, and there is nowhere in the house that she can't be heard.

"Oh, Chloe," we say, adjusting her medications, knowing we will also have to say goodbye to her soon.

We clean up the puddles left behind with one of a constantly rotating pile of "Chloe towels," old bath towels called back into service for mopping up slobber. There are discussions and pointed glances around how long a dog towel is meant to last before requiring laundering. You can refold a towel multiple times to make it last across throw-up events, but woe is the one who grabs a heavily used towel in the wrong spot.

Sleep is harder when there is an old man sneezing and coughing and choking at the foot of your bed. Sleep was already hard. At five years old our daughter has slept soundly through the night for a long time, but before the pandemic my body was only just starting to trust this reality. It remembers the early months of sleepless nights, the early years of figuring out sleep patterns and rituals that might or might not last. It has been listening for the sounds of a child wandering the halls in the night, needing a back rub or a book read aloud or a cuddle back to sleep. It has been saying, "don't get too comfortable" as it waits to be needed again. And now it says "don't get too comfortable" as it reminds me of what's happening in the world.

I pretended for a while that when the election was over we might sleep more soundly. Election day has come and gone but its many ghosts remain to haunt us. The yard signs around us proclaiming "we support a racist, xenophobic, misogynist, lying narcissist bully as our leader" have come down but the people who put them there remain. They are our neighbors, our community leaders, our elected officials. We co-exist, but we don't live in the same world. I am trained to look for common ground and my values would dictate that I avoid contributing to further division, but most days I just feel angry or upset. How could they?

It is hard to see the way forward for my country. All we have to do is swim through the fog of hundreds of years of white supremacy and fundamental disagreements about what's factual and true to find some solid ground. I lay awake practicing my backstroke in my mind. I don't get anywhere, and the fog closes in.

People around us are sick. We watch a neighbor be rolled into an ambulance for a trip to the hospital after the COVID symptoms got to be too much. We blow her a kiss and well wishes.

They thought they were being careful. Everyone says they are being careful. We are being careful. I am being careful as I stand at the take out window at a local restaurant. I am being careful as I peer over the "masks required" sign to watch the workers inside walk around with masks dropped below their noses or around their necks. I am being careful as a man emerges from the dining room without a mask, coughing heavily into the air around me while he walks by. I hold my breath and turn away.

I am being careful by not seeing friends. I am being careful by not visiting with loved ones who are at the end of their lives, to offer comfort or to just say goodbye in person. I feel grateful that my mom's struggle with cancer did not end during a pandemic. I think about the last minute travel and visits, the wandering in and out of hospitals and doctor offices for treatments, the healthcare workers coming and going from her home, the final weeks in hospice. How all of it would have been even more difficult and stressful and risky now. I think about the touch from others that can happen when our bodies are failing — needles, monitors, bandages, tubes, holding of hands, hugs, kisses, embraces — and the gut-wrenching need to minimize or remove that touch altogether in 2020. The loneliness that weighed on our world before feels heavier than ever.

We are grateful to have each other. We are grateful to have our health. We know not to take it for granted. There is health history in our family that means taking our chances with getting the virus is not an option. Sometimes people seem to understand that this could be the reality for others, most times they don't. I know we have a hard time extending our personal sympathies to anonymous and distant segments of the human population. But I've always wanted to believe that when confronted with a fellow human in need, most people will do the right thing. If we saw someone bleeding in the street, I want to believe that most of us would drop what we're doing to help. And if we heard that there was a virus endangering our community, our city, the neighborhoods around us, I wanted to believe people would rise to the occasion and help their neighbors.

It's painful to see how wrong I may be. It's painful to see that "how can we figure this out together?" has been replaced by "what's in it for me?" as the driving question for so many people in so many situations. Over and over again we are offered the chance to act out of kindness, selflessness, concern for the greater good and over and over again we seem to be choosing something else. But of course I've likely been operating out of some nostalgic ideal that was never actually a reality. "Duh" say all the species wiped out by climate change. "Duh" say the people of color trying to survive systemic racism. For all the work I've done to try to be less a part of the problem and more a part of the solution, I'm still embarrassed by my naïveté. There's more work to do. Duh.

Our daughter sometimes asks when the coronavirus is going to be over, mostly so it can stop being such a regular topic of grown-up conversation. She asks why this person or that person isn't wearing a mask. She craves time with her friends. She washes her hands reflexively and gets excited for house cleaning day and makes the best of the many hours we spend together. She takes a breath and gives a class over Zoom her best. We laugh and talk and bond, and it's wonderful. She makes big plans for the time that will come after. She worries about how a vaccine shot will feel. We haven't fully disclosed that there may be two of those shots.

We cross our fingers and hope that she'll forget most or all of this experience, but we know it will always be a part of her.

I reorganize the pantry. I reorganize the basement storage room. I reorganize my closet. I reorganize the files on my laptop. I reorganize the icons on my home screen. Somehow life is still full of messes and piles.

We think about how to make the most of winter as the weather gets colder. Cooking. Games by the fire. Letters and cards to friends. Craft projects. Video chats. Walks in the woods. Harder puzzles. Holiday decorating. New books. All things we'd be doing regardless of a pandemic.

We pause to acknowledge what's left out of the list. The things we'd really like to be able to do again.

"Everything's going to be okay."

A family hug. Some smiles, some laughter.

The dog throws up water and we get another towel.

4 thoughts on “Scenes from a pandemic

  1. Thank you, Chris; I appreciate these glimpses into how you’re experiencing this fraught time.
    In friendship,

  2. We too are missing our families and getting those bear hugs. One bright spot was when we saw you and your daughter walk by in the rain with her cute umbrella. It put a smile on our faces and I had to come out and say hello out the front door and compliment her on her umbrella. Thank you for making our day.

  3. You're not alone. Having a single child during this time has been possibly one of the hardest parts. "Why/when can I see my friends?" Gets asked; a LOT. And not having an answer makes it just that much harder. "Soon, I hope". I do hope she can see her friends again soon. I hope we all can.

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