Ad Infinitum in America: How Our Story Is One Story
This op-ed was written early in 2020, shortly after the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was not picked up anywhere, which I like to attribute to a glut of such articles. A timely piece (as journalism is), I retired it but decided that I could share it with the world somewhere–here on my blog would do.
The voice on the radio told me to share my pandemic story and asked where I was right this moment. I snorted. Here I sat, head pressed back against my headrest in an identical way to the be-specked, middle-aged woman in the car beside me. I watched out of the windshield as a gowned and masked medical worker approached my window and signaled for me to roll it down. I turned NPR down to a soothing whisper as I did the surreal: submitted to a Covid test.
My daughter, at fifteen, had been mildly obsessed with the idea of this test, for weeks. For her, that was where the fear of a pandemic had come to land: having a wire shoved up one’s nostril and twirled around. For me, the fear, because my husband was working a Covid unit, was that one of us would die before the summer.
The nurse standing next to my window, with her elbows on the plastic sheeting she had draped over the window casing, was very sympathetic. She looked almost guilty for the inconvenience, but I’m no sissy. I did as she said: tilted my head back and took a deep breath through my mouth. She threaded the wire swab up my nose and I felt a stinging, powerful urge to sneeze. She stood there, twirling it around and the sensation only amplified. I noticed everything: the discomfort; the white tent that reminded me of ET and South Korea and Cloverfield; the swiftness of things, how I didn’t know this morning I was going to be tested; the other people lined up in cars behind me, each of them with their own journey to get here of all improbable places; the other workers robing up, their hair falling out of messy pony tails to brush against the plastic of their face shields. I breathed as instructed, letting my eyes water naturally, and laughed.
It is day 48 of the stay-at-home order. It is day one of home isolation, and I write in my journal: “I have discovered two more things about myself. I am not to be trusted with money under intense stress and I laugh when I just don’t know what else to do.” I laughed, too, when they announced that schools would be closed for a month. I laughed when the air conditioner broke. I laughed when the fridge broke. And the printer. And then I puffed up a little in pride: I am no longer the young person who lashed out in anger under duress. I am a more mature woman who pulls up her pants and—when she doesn’t know what else to do—laughs.
I have been tested. I am “under investigation.” I have a million, strange questions. Can I go get food from the kitchen or do my kids have to bring it to me and leave it like bags of burning poop on a neighbor’s doorstep—abandoned quickly? How often is it safe for me to walk the hall to use my private bathroom, aka. the powder room? Should I launder daily? How many chores will my children tolerate texted to them before they ignore me? How scared is my twelve-year-old, vegged out on the Xbox? And am I going to die? Or is my husband going to die and leave me moorless and distraught?
My story is populated with questions and people who aren’t many in number but who take up a space in my life that defies their numbers. I have a story that got me to a Covid-19 test, over and through months of small things, which I journal meticulously: March 15, “The frenzy of the last two days seems to have dulled to a shocked calm;” March 16, “Each day is a day of surprises mixed with boredom;” April 15, “Yesterday disappeared into a haze of turtle adoption;” April 10, “I was attempting to make Easter happen. Against all odds, I found a ham nugget.”
There are millions, billions of these stories. And as soon as we started calling this thing “pan,” we acknowledged our stories have a sameness. Whereas many of the world’s tragedies have been focused like a laser by their pure localness, we stand amazed by the scope of this shadow. Technology, too, has brought us into each other’s pain, confusion, doubt, gratitude and anger in a way that is new.
NPR was right. I do have a story to tell. It’s probably similar to yours, even though some things about it might be worlds apart. History is unfolding, in every country, state, city, and home. And it contains blood and sweat, boredom drool, tears, and even laughter, because between us all there are infinitesimal occasions when we don’t know what else to do.