Some time recently I stopped finding pandemic jokes funny. All I can think about anymore are the thousands of people who have already died, or the millions who have lost their jobs, or the many others who go to work terrified of getting sick. Domestic violence is skyrocketing. The social safety net is in tatters. No matter how funny the joke, it’s hard to laugh at a time of suffering so widespread, of mortality so close at hand.
I fear for my 60-year-old husband, who doesn’t easily shake a cold, and for my 91-year-old father-in-law, our only surviving parent. I fear for my future daughter-in-law, a hospital nurse, and for my three grown sons. The “children” are all young and strong and fit, but there are no guarantees with this virus, so I worry anyway.
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My siblings and my oldest friends call more often now, and I know it’s because they’re worried, too. Every online gathering, every phone call, every just-saying-hey email carries an undercurrent of mortality. Even if we don’t say it out loud, we recognise that our time for checking in may run out. This is not breaking news, of course. We have always been mortal beings, but until life serves up a memento mori like the new coronavirus, people tend to spend each day as though they had an endless supply of days. As though they had all the time in the world to say, “I love you.”
Nobody I know has died of COVID-19, but the death of the legendary singer-songwriter John Prine hit me like a death in the extended family. MrPrine was the moral centre of Nashville’s songwriting community, the generous heart and mischievous Puck of the music world. I’m not a musician myself, and aside from concerts and the occasional sighting in the grocery store, he was a stranger to me. But his music has been the soundtrack of my entire adult life, and I cannot imagine what the world will feel like without him in it. As he put it himself, “To believe in this living is just a hard way to go.”
Long-term effects of collective trauma
We don’t know yet how this living will be changed when the pandemic finally passes. All those jokes about how we’ll be hoarding toilet paper and wiping down cans long after our grandchildren are old enough to roll their eyes — maybe they’ll be prescient in the end. Those of us raised by parents who came of age during the Great Depression will have no trouble imagining the long-term effects of collective trauma and collective deprivation. But will we remember the gifts of this time as well as its terrors? Will we remember this clear understanding of our own precarious lives, the desperate need to make the time we have really matter?
I have loved being in closer touch with my friends. I’ve loved the virtual cocktail hours and critique-group meetings. I’ve loved hearing my husband teaching online — making his students laugh and tricking them into caring about stories that were written in a time so long past it’s unimaginable to them. This is the way my husband spends his days, but in almost 32 years of marriage I’ve never seen it up close before.
Owing to a catastrophic misunderstanding of Apple’s photo taxonomy, I recently managed to delete all 15,000 photos in my iCloud account, including pictures of every family gathering of the past 10 years. I’ve recovered them since, but while I was still on hold with Apple’s helpline, I felt something in me shift. “I guess I can stop fretting about when I’ll have ever have time to sort through all those pictures,” I thought. As long as my people are safe, I could let the photos go.
I first experienced that feeling of release 17 years ago, in the months after my father died. In regular life, as Prine once put it, “It’s a half an inch of water and you think you’re gonna drown,” but fear and grief can change that equation. I remember asking a friend who had lost a child how long that sense of perspective lasts after a tragedy. How soon before I would go back to being irritated by small matters, back to forgetting that every single day is a life-or-death proposition?
“Too soon,” he said.
Maybe it will be different this time. Suffering has been unevenly distributed during this crisis, but the collective nature of this terror might mean that we will remember together what we move on from too quickly alone. Perhaps we’ll finally take in what we know but nevertheless manage to put out of our minds: that life is precious and finite, that we cannot know when the end is coming, that what is beautiful and just and true deserves our focus far more than what’s annoying or inconvenient.
Death on the night of a supermoon
John Prine died on the night of a supermoon. As soon as I heard the news of his death, I went outside to look. I don’t know why I thought I might find comfort in a cold rock hanging in a dark sky. Something about its immutability despite the semblance of constant change? Or the way it lights our way though it has no light of its own to give? I couldn’t say.
The moon was shrouded by clouds, but the wind was blowing, and the clouds were scudding across the sky at a good clip, so I stood still and waited. After 25 years in this house, I know where to look for the moon, even on a moonless night, and I didn’t have to wait long before a break in the clouds offered a fleeting glimpse. It was exactly where it has always been and where it will always be.
I hope that bright, bright moon is what I remember of this hard time. Not the jokes and surely not the fear. Just that bright moon, and John Prine, and gratitude for the chance to love everyone I love again tomorrow.
— Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.