On Surviving a Pandemic

The room where I write is flooded with light. Everything is sun-touched and golden. It’s a moment I am writing down so as to keep it, remember it, come back to it. All this light cascading around me and on to me. A room of light. Outside these walls, the world falls apart. A pandemic rages while I read poetry and watch films. People die alone. Their loved ones receive the shattering news on the phone. They cannot touch the dead. They cannot gather to mourn, to talk, to hold one another. The anonymous are buried in unmarked graves. What happens to their names and belongings?

(My mind flashes back over a decade ago to the hospital room where my father lies dead. Light fills the room, it washes over every surface, cleaning away the death. Light is life. The light touches him, but he does not move. I stand beside his bed, speechless, broken, disbelieving. Years later and the light remains most memorable. The light that brought life into a room of death, a room I have never left.)

Cinema is its own kind of light, usually projected in a dark theater of people. Now, the light emanates from a laptop screen in my bedroom. During this pandemic, I turn to films. One after another. Documentaries, art house, true crime, classic Hollywood musicals. I live in the movies because I cannot live in my life as the bodies pile up and the government fails us. I look at the horror, and I look away from it. The looking away guarantees my survival. Before you can bear witness, you must first bear your life.

Often, I think about the before and after of my life. I split my life this way: Before my father’s death, after it; before the pandemic, after it. But there is a part I always forget: the during. That’s the part that does the most damage. It’s the time of pain, of unraveling, of breaking. We are in the during. I live for the after, and I ache for the before when I didn’t know this fear of every surface and of what is in the air.

I think of Carol White in the 1995 Todd Haynes film, Safe. She is a housewife who becomes mysteriously ill and isolates herself because, when you don’t know what’s wrong with you, everything is dangerous. By the end of the film, she’s retreated to a New Age complex and lives in a solitary bunker where she is “safe” from the outside world, but she can never escape herself or her body. She can’t change what’s already inside her: the disease she cannot name or speak, its origins unknown. The bunker offers the enticing promise of protection that comes with its own dehumanization. Carol touches no one, has no contact and no connection. To stay alive, she must give up the very things we live for: love, contact, intimacy, affection. Many of the same things that we have given up to survive this pandemic. To be human is to be frightfully vulnerable, your body so defenseless against disease, accident, violence. There is little protection. Not even a concrete fortress is enough. 

We are all vulnerable, but we are not “in this together.” America is a deeply stratified and unequal country. My family and I are experiencing Covid-19 differently as working class people in the rural South with health issues and no health insurance than a celebrity or someone who works in a corporate position at Google. This virus disproportionately harms minority communities, showing how life in this country is often shaped by race, disability, gender, and class. Even with my struggles, I’m fortunate to have food, a job, a home, and my family.

Will our society meaningfully change after we’ve survived the collective trauma of this pandemic? There are tributes to the heroic working class people on the front-lines, but will their lives be transformed in the aftermath? Will voters decide to give those people a living wage and health care? I hear all the talk of kindness, but I don’t want this pandemic to make us more kind. I want it to radicalize us and transform our ideas about what kind of country we want to be. I want us to be more humane. I want this pandemic to sensitize us to the suffering of others and galvanize us to eliminate that suffering by guaranteeing health care, affordable housing, better wages, and a clean environment for all. That would be a good start.

Right now, things feel apocalyptic, full of death and sorrow, but we must imagine a better world. I think of Carol in her bunker. I think of us all right now in our separate bunkers, and I await the day when we leave them and start the work of repair, of healing. I have known loss. I’ve known the destruction of my life and myself, but I’ve also known the essential work of rebuilding–how your life can deepen and expand in the wounded places, how your grief can connect you to other human beings who are also grieving and hurting. This is not the end of time. This is not the end of the world. But it’s not a beginning either. It’s something in between, in the making. It’s the space between the caterpillar and the butterfly. We don’t yet know what we will become. I hope we are better. For now, my hope must be enough.