With full awareness of the emptiness of the metaphor, I was determined to turn a corner. I was going to set aside my worries and rededicate myself to writing and music, and maybe discover a little optimism hidden in somewhere in my outlook. After examining the subject from every angle I could, I’d decided for myself that it was safe for me to get back on my bicycle; if I was going to catch the coronavirus, it wouldn’t be by taking a ride in a quiet part of town. I would arm myself and get outdoors.
But yesterday it rained, and it was Hilary’s turn to feel blue. It came on her all at once: one moment, she was struggling with the camera on her laptop, planning to make a video for her classes, and the next, she was overwhelmed. None of her worries were unreasonable. What if she needed cancer treatment and the hospital was unable to provide it? What if our friends lost their money and had nowhere to go? What about all of the small businesses and little enterprises that had be come so integral to our daily experience — would they get the capital to reopen, or would we never see them again? What if institutions crumbled away, and we were faced with an economic collapse that would deny her the medications she needed? Even after the immediate threat passes (when?), how hard will survival be?
I tried my best to be reassuring. Sloan-Kettering, I said, had made it through the first wave of the crisis; they were sufficiently well-endowed to make it through the next. Her doctors were dedicated, and they wouldn’t give up. Even if there were supply shortages, they’d find a way. New York and New Jersey had always rebuilt — we knew how to take a hit, and we’d put the pieces back together again. No matter what, we’d stay tight. I read her a chapter of Silver On The Tree aloud. I reminded her of her bravery, and told her again that she was my hero. Eventually the fears subsided. We got up, steadied ourselves, watched a bit of a Harry Potter movie. Then we both returned to work.
Earlier in the day, with the rain rattling the windows, she’d proposed a radical plan: instead of talking about the coronavirus straight through the day, we’d wait until four o’ clock in the afternoon, limit ourselves to an hour of discussion, and then, immediately thereafter, read a book together to change our mood. We’ve spent so long coping with the immediacy of the crisis, and that couldn’t be good for us. We needed a strategy for stepping back. Other people we know who don’t live in New Jersey have disengaged from the news, or they’ve chosen to radically alter their media consumption habits; they’ve erased applications from their phones, lost themselves in video games, or conspiracy theories, held their breaths and clenched their fists, tucked themselves away in corners to ride the storm out. Could we do something — anything — like that?
It wouldn’t be easy for us. Even with the television off and our phones tucked under pillows at a safe distance away, the whistling of the virus on the wind is still audible. Yesterday I learned that my cousin, who’d been one of the first in the state to get sick, had to return to the doctor. She was told that the tightness in her chest was anxiety, which was a relief, because so many of the people who’ve fallen ill have had difficulty kicking their symptoms. After a false dawn, the health of Hilary’s friend and colleague at the University has once again deteriorated, and she’s been forced get herself an oxygen tank for home use. The trajectory of coronavirus illness is a cruelly jagged line. People believe they’re getting better, and suddenly they’ll wake up worse. We don’t yet know the long-term effects of falling ill, or whether antibodies are sufficient to rid peoples’ systems of the virus altogether. All of that makes the future difficult to model, and hard not to obsess over.
Expectations for work have changed, too. A second spike in cases may drive the fall semester online. Hilary has adapted to virtual classes, but they’re an inefficient application of her talents. Her peculiar magic requires in-person contact to work. The semester she spent sidelined because of daily radiation treatments was hard for her to endure. Straight through chemotherapy, she taught — I’d bicycle to school to pick her up, arrive early, and watch her through the window of her classroom door, scarf over her shaved head and weaker from the chemicals than she wanted to be, but always in firm command of the lesson. And this, I realized, was the only therapy for her: she’d come out of the class energized, with observations about the text, or a story about an engagement she’d had with a student, looking forward to the next day, and never backward at what she’d endured. Me, I have peeked at the weather report, and I know that it’s going to rain again tomorrow. But today, the sun is shining. We’re going to turn that corner together.