Without an end in sight, what are you counting except being alive?

People don’t seem to be numbering the days anymore, I’ve noticed, no longer tagging their quarantine Instagram posts #Day27 or whatever. I suppose this is because it’s no longer wry. I suppose because counting days off loses its appeal when you don’t know how many more days there are to come. Without an end in sight, what are you counting except being alive?

I’ve been at home now for quite some length of time. It would be a lot of days, if I counted them. The last time I took the subway was to go to Manhattan for a painful biopsy I have every six months. It was negative, so that was good. My doctor, a woman who treats people with very serious illnesses with great calm, seemed stressed. I’d never seen her seem stressed; sometimes I ask her very stressful questions and she always has calm answers. I suppose we all had a moment when we knew in a personal way that this was going to be a very big problem, and that was mine. Maybe if I’d known how long I’d be at home I would have made more of my biopsy outing. Maybe I would have savored it. 

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It had also been quite a lot of days since I’d left my street. We don’t take B anywhere now but the backyard next door. For a change of scene, we set up a tent for him in the living room; we build forts out of his emptied milk cartons. I got a large clear plastic bin to fill with uncooked rice for him to dig around in after I watched a video on Instagram of a woman recommending letting toddlers dig around in a large plastic bin filled with uncooked rice, but we haven’t done that yet. We only have forty pounds of rice. I don’t think the woman filmed the video during the pandemic.

This afternoon, however, I went for a long walk on my own. The weather was beautiful, the kind of weather you want for an Easter Sunday even if it’s not a day that you mark as special. When E told me to go for a walk on my own — yesterday he took a long bike ride, at my urging — I said, I don’t want to. I didn’t want to because the more days I stay at home the more I feel afraid of strangers, like I’m a child again, like it’s not safe to go somewhere without a chaperone. 

But E pressed me, so I put on my jaunty-printed mask — the print is jaunty, the mask is not, the mask is depressing like all other masks — and a too-heavy coat and I walked 10,000 steps, down to the Victorian houses in Ditmas Park and back. It was so beautiful and so sad. I stood under a cherry tree for a moment and looked up and watched the blossoms sway, but then I got moving. Standing still, with the possibility of an approaching stranger on a sad walk of their own, seemed unsafe.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about a time in 1987 when there was a big snowstorm in my hometown, Schenectady, in early October. Maybe it was an ice storm? I had to look the year up because I didn’t remember it that precisely. But I do remember that most things shut down, and we didn’t have any electricity in our house, which I believe meant that we didn’t have any heat and definitely meant that we did not have any capacity to cook food. What I remember in the most crisp detail is that my dad went to get takeout from McDonald’s because it was one of the few places in town with hot food that was open, and that was because their cooking was powered by gas. 

At McDonald’s we bought hot chocolate for me and coffee for my parents, and also — and this is no doubt why it’s seared in my memory — a cup of hot black coffee for my brother, because he was allergic to dairy. This is what makes me suspect that we didn’t have heat in our house, because why else would any parents buy a cup of coffee for their eight-year-old son? 

Now, I think about that cup of coffee while I look at B and wonder how traumatized he will be by this experience, to what degree he will carry it with him for the rest of his life, and I think, Gosh, my parents must have felt under extreme duress when they gave my brother that cup of coffee. As I recall, he didn’t drink it. He didn’t like the taste. But he turned out OK. Many of us do, in some shape or form.

JHE

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My friend Ellena’s book BLUEBERRIES is out now, and it’s exceptional. That’s my tip for you.