I keep trying to write you this letter and getting stuck at “dear girls.” I want to talk to you about coronavirus. But also, I don’t want to talk about it at all. I want to pretend that it doesn’t exist, that the world isn’t upside down. For the first time ever, I’ve encountered something that I have trouble writing about. A lot of people started out writing profusely in the beginning of this mess, documenting what has to be one of the most unique situations in the history of humanity, but not me. It has just felt too big. Living in the time of coronavirus must be something like living in a slow motion car crash that you can see coming, but can do nothing to stop. Living in the time of coronavirus is living as active, on-going trauma where your brain constantly scrambles to normalize things around you that are a million miles from normal, attempts to make sense of the madness, the sorrow, the loss, the regret. Even though everything in our small world is fine, the bigger world is not even a little bit fine, and the weight of that is sometimes so great that I can’t bear it. And the fact that we saw this coming and did nothing as a country to slow it and minimize the impact just kills me. At least once a day I remember reading an article back in January that said, “American citizens should expect the virus to bring significant disruptions to daily life,” and thinking, “well what the hell does that mean?” And when I mentioned it to mom, she said, “well yeah, when you have the flu your daily life is disrupted.” And I think how far off her comment was, and how even if they had listed the disruptions as they have now happened, I probably wouldn’t even have believed it. And at least once a day, I think about people in the world who are so much worse off than us, who suffer beyond comprehension. People who live in refugee camps because they have no home country. People who walk THOUSANDS of miles seeking asylum from violence we can’t even begin to imagine only to reach here and be turned away. I think about them and wonder how their brains manage to cope. Do they readjust to some bizarre new normal? I mean, humans are miraculously adaptable animals. And maybe most interestingly, whenever I think about writing this, I think why bother--writing every single person in the world is living this right now, we are not unique.
In the beginning, we tried to protect you. We didn’t talk about what was going on in front of you. We told you spring break was really long this year. But then it became apparent that this was not going to be just some small thing. This wasn’t even going to be a medium thing. This is going to last for years, and have untold impacts. We had to start explaining to you why we can’t go ANYWHERE, even Bibi and PopPop’s house. Why we can’t hug anyone. Why we can’t go to school, or dance class. We said, a lot of people in the world are getting sick. And the best way to help those sick people is for us to stay at home and try to not get sick. We reassure you that it’s okay if we do get sick, just like we get colds every year, we feel bad for a while and then we feel better. Even though we don’t really feel that way. We don’t really know if it’s okay to get this virus. We know the statistics that most people are okay, but we also know the weird stories about it affecting people with rare blood types (me), or weakened lungs (Tio Toph), or middle-aged men (Dada), or even young children (YOU!). You call it “the sickness.”
Also in the beginning there was a lot of scrambling to help parents with their kids. Schools closed abruptly and suddenly everyone was stuck at home with nowhere to go and nothing to do. For us, besides school closing, not much changed. People started sending me suggestions on how to keep you entertained, mostly using online resources and remote video communications with people. Parents the world over panicked about how to entertain kids 24/7. At first I was resentful of all these suggestions. We’ve essentially been locked down like this for the better part of a year already, we have life at home mostly figured out, and it doesn’t involve computer screens. There was also a little voice in my head yelling, “where the hell were all you people a year ago when I desperately needed this help adjusting to immunocompromised lockdown life?!” I know all these people were good intentioned, and I appreciate that. I’ve also come to realize there are some critical differences between our previous lockdown and a worldwide pandemic lockdown. Namely, the isolation was even more complete than before. No physical contact with any people outside our home, maintaining strict social distances at all times, adults constantly speaking hushed tones, or thinly veiled code about the state of the world. And I’m not foolish enough to think that either of you fail to notice the EXTREME stress of the adults around you. And, now that we are just about two months into this, somewhere mid car crash, life has stabilized into a semblance of new normal, what I’m left with now, on a daily basis, is just a crushing sense of sadness and grief. And where in our old lives I would have given those feelings space to be, if I allowed that now, I fear that’s all there would be. So I spend considerable energy shoving that aside in pursuit of something at least resembling normal and find myself emotionally spent and fatigued on a daily basis.
So I want to tell you the things I’m thinking about. Maybe leaving them here will lift some of the weight. For both of you, this pandemic will shape the course of your lives in ways we can’t even begin to imagine. Because of your young ages, it’s not as if you will ever remember a “before”, unlike us. And I feel profoundly sad about this. Because to be honest with you, I don’t know if the world will ever return to the way it was before. You will be defined by this period and the coming years, much like the generation of the Depression Era. And again, I feel sadness about this. What will your equivalent be of stuffing cash in mattresses? We don’t know. For you, Alice, I worry about you developing paranoia about germs, food shortages, being too close to people. And you, Alafair, will you be lucky enough to not remember? Is not remembering a good thing? I really don’t know.
It’s difficult to convey the environment in which all these big feelings reside. Taken alone, they look manageable. But there is a deeper political environment of corruption and divisiveness, where there is no clear and cohesive leadership, where the seeds of dissent, disrespect, racism and hatred are sown from the top. It is wrapped up in our economy collapsing as millions of Americans have lost their jobs and face uncertain financial futures. And in the broader context of world climate change that threatens our very human existence. It is difficult not to feel as if we are literally watching the beginning of the end of the world. Even just typing that last sentence makes my blood run cold. And then my breath catches and I am so sorry, beyond all words, that this is the world I’ve brought you in to. What have we as humans done to the world, and what will be left of it? I think every generation struggles with this question to some extent, but I have to think that at this particular time, it’s never been more relevant.
Which brings me here, to this (and yes, while you had to wade through two WHOLE pages of doom and gloom to get here, I had to go through two months of it). My brain’s natural response to watching a car crash unfold, of course, is to scream “what should we do???!!!” And now that the initial shock has worn off, lately I’ve been attempting to reframe that question: what CAN we do? Yes, the world is upside down, but what can we do so that when you grow up you remember it as that special time when there was no school, we spent the days together, playing outside, doing art, exploring the smaller parts of the universe right here? Where are the opportunities to teach you empathy for those who aren’t as fortunate as us? Yes, life as we know it is over, but now is an opportunity to take the parts that were good, for us, for the environment, for humanity, and shape them into something better and more sustainable. How can we permanently alter our lives to reflect a respect for our planet and our fellow humans? And because I’m only at the very beginning of this journey, and I’m attempting to shed a lifetime of excess and privilege, I’m still identifying the questions that should be asked right now, and even still trying to figure out the answer to the questions I already have figured out. I feel a determined sense of responsibility, and opportunity, to shape this into something other than a worldwide humanitarian disaster (pffsst easy!). And in the meantime, while Dada and I work on figuring it out, we’ll gorge ourselves on the comfort foods of doritos and ice cream. We’ll drink wine and watch bad TV after you’ve gone to bed. We’ll sit on the couch and commiserate on the poor state of the world while your sweet sleeping souls can’t overhear us complaining. Because once we figure it out, the junk food is gone, the wallowing will end, and our lives will go on, in whatever beautiful new way we manage to carve out.
We'll have to check back in a few months and see if we're still eating doritos.