Thursday, April 16, 2020

In the flux

My husband is at the dining room table making bird sounds. He's having a conversation with a Mourning Dove on the windowsill, making that breathy musical woo woo sound, the two of them whisper-whistling back and forth. Every morning he sits in that spot next to the window, his professorial wire rims perched on his nose, and logs onto the desktop of his computer at his museum. Long chains of numbers begin appearing in columns on a sheet of paper beside him, with each one eventually getting a small check mark, showing it has been properly entered into the Ichthyology collection database, a specimen identifier.

At some point he will take a break and do another Spanish lesson online. From my desk in the bedroom, where I sit editing my manuscript, I can hear him in the living room, saying words and phrases back to the virtual teacher. Later, he'll settle himself at the scarred butcher block counter, magnifying glasses with tiny spotlights replacing his drugstore-bought spectacles as he saws and cuts and sands and glues thin strips of wood in place. Some days he does none of that, and streams an animated Star Trek series instead. Or he might sit in his favorite chair for hours and read on his Kindle, before getting up to start dinner for us. Yesterday, he did something new. He wrote his will.

It freaked me out, even though we have been talking about the need for us to write a will for years. Yesterday, he registered with one of those legal sites and just did the thing. I felt the tears in my throat, but made myself appear calm. He was just being mature after all, which I also need to be. But then he said, "I want you to listen to me very carefully: If I get covid-19 and have to go the hospital, and they are talking about putting me on a ventilator, you need to let them know that is not my wish." He cited a statistic that 86 percent of people put on ventilators never make it off the machine alive. And those that do are left with severe physical deficits. I went to the bathroom and wept.

Here's a recent photo of my son, taken by his fiancee, who can always get that soft expression from him. I long to put my arms around this boy. He called to share that he'd tested negative for covid-19 a week ago, even though five guys in his firehouse were positive. Most of the ones who tested positive were showing no symptoms and so after a period of isolation they were asked to continue working, as the ranks of medical first responders are already so thinned. I expressed relief that he had tested negative, and he said with a shrug in his voice, "It means nothing. It's just a snapshot in time. I could test positive this week."

He pointed out that social distancing in a firehouse is impossible. "We cook together, clean together, sleep in the same room, and as soon as a call comes in, we're crammed knee to knee inside the cab of the fire truck." Not to mention his continuing exposure to covid cases on calls, which have tripled in the city, coming in at more than 6,500 a day. All the hospital beds are full of covid patients, and hardly anyone else, which means that every siren we hear screaming by is another corona virus patient in crisis.

In one month, more than 10,000 people have died in New York City. One month. We have begun to not only know people who have contracted the virus and mercifully recovered, we are starting to know people who are dying—a deacon at church, the father of a friend, the mother of another friend. On social media, and on 24/7 newscasts, the death announcements pile up. I feel on the verge of breaking down at every moment.

We did Easter Sunday with my daughter and her love, and it was a wonderful day, almost as if the new dystopian reality of streets empty but for ambulances and food delivery trucks wasn't really happening. There is a move to recognize grocery store workers and pharmacists and cleaning people as first responders, given that they are out there every day risking their lives to keep us safe and provisioned.

My daughter made a blueberry peach pie from those provisions, and the man made his famous mac and cheese and charred barbecue chicken, and I made my savory-sweet corn casserole. We ate very well indeed, and laughed and talked without masks, and generally shared germs, which is what you do when you have decided your two households will quarantine together. At the end of the night, we all put on our face coverings and went outside to the car, so my husband could drive my girl and her guy home. We press elevator buttons using keys now, and push open doors with our shoulders, and touch nothing with our hands if we can help it.

Out of the blue yesterday, I got a message from a photographer I once got lost with in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. We were searching for a recluse for a photo essay we were doing on American hermits, and our car stalled out in a sand pit, with nothing around us but trees and more sand. We hiked out to the main road and flagged down a car, which turned out to be driven by a detective, who drove us to the nearest gas station where we found a tow truck operator who pulled out out of the sand. This photographer, Steve, was my age, both of us in our early twenties. He has six books on photography now, but back then he was working as a photographer's assistant, and we were simpatico. For a season before he moved away from the city, we were friends.

He lives with his wife and two grown children in Colorado now, where he teaches photography at an art and design college. "Sadly the virus has given us time," he said in his message. "I have been archiving my work and came across a photo of us that brought back a lot of good memories." He wanted to send it to me so he searched online and found me. "I felt very lucky to meet and work with you," he wrote. "You encouraged me to take more pictures of fathers and sons and I did and it became my first book." Is it okay that I have no memory of saying that?

I wrote him back right away, and he sent me this wonderful photo of us on assignment for LIFE magazine in 1982. On the left is Annie Leibovitz, who was the photographer on the story, and the two of us to her right. We were in Springfield, Illinois covering a massive ERA rally that was a last gasp effort to get enough states to ratify that gender equality legislation. As we all know that still hasn't happened, but I'm grateful to have this image, and our memories of being in the flux and drama of history trying to be made.


  1. This unfolding tragedy is breaking our hearts everyday. We read that it took four months to reach one million cases and only two weeks to reach two million. Will there be a normal to return to? I don't know anymore, but I so wish for you, your family, for all the people... everyone... a safe time ahead. That photo of you is truly fantastic. I love it. Sending good wishes to your son with hopes that he stays safe and well.

  2. What an absolutely heart-tugging post. A story of now and a story of then. History, all of it when viewed with perspective.
    And so human.
    Your husband talking to the Mourning Dove brought back the memory I have of my grandfather whistling softly to the owl in his chinaberry tree as he and my grandmother watched the sunset. I have no idea why this is such a strong memory of mine but I'm so glad it is and I thank you for bringing it back today.
    That pie is a thing of beauty but nothing compared to your son.
    We move on through these days. Somehow. We do.
    May all of you and yours stay safe, stay well. Remain to remember, to show and tell how it was.

  3. What a moving post. You look gorgeous and this picture is a treasure. I think of your son often, wishing him and all his work mates only the best of courage and health.

    My mother communicated with birds in her own way, they would come quite close and after her death I often felt that birds would come close to me, watching, blocking my way etc.

    You know, one of the first things I did when I was diagnosed with a nasty chronic illness 10 years ago, was organising a living will and sorting out all my stuff, real and digital. I am glad I did this there and then. On my insistence, we have since registered power of attorney and written our wills.
    Last week I made my man write his living will and have it registered and we have packed a hospital bag each just in case. We joked about it.

  4. A wonderful post. And it's really important to have a will. We wrote ours years before my husband's health failed, and we did living wills before that. Then got the living wills, the expression of wishes, rolled into the other will.

    We both wanted comfort care, no heroic measures in a last illness. I was so relieved at the end of his life, after caring for him for many years, to know for certain what he did not want done. He came to a peaceful death, quietly, no pain, and no stressful intervention.

    Hat off to your husband. Even young people are well advised, even at ordinary times, to do the expression of wishes, and lodge it with everyone, doctor, family, friends, whoever might need to know and not just guess what's needed.

    Long answer from me, but I had such benefit from doing that hard thing, that I encourage it.

  5. Jim and I have talked about cpr over the years, and decided it was a big no. They break your sternum and your ribs and you're never the same. Who would have thought we'd have to have the same discussion about ventilators? We're both in the no column.

  6. we made out our wills about 4 years ago but never got them signed and notarized but when I went to Portugal for those 3 weeks I did get my 'official'. my husband has since made his official too. I agree with your not put me on a ventilator. I read an article in the NYT recently about how the virus is being treated. they are finding that when oxygen levels get dangerously low, instead of sedating patients and putting them on ventilators from which they don't recover, doctors are now turning patients onto their stomachs or have them reclining in chairs instead of flat on their backs all the time and oxygen levels rise to acceptable levels. not in all patients of course, but most. the longer any of us hold out without getting the virus the better, giving medical professionals the time to figure out what works and what doesn't as far as treatment goes until a vaccine comes available. your son is an amazing young man.

  7. What a life you have led, Rosemarie. What remarkable experiences.

    I continue to think of your boy so very much. Every single day.

    The wills are sobering, but necessary. And those conversations too. I am the same way -- no ventilator, no way.

  8. Wills are always important and I feel the same way as your husband. When this all started I told the big guy what I wanted and asked him to watch over our grandson and Miss Katie should I die. Still makes me cry.

    I can't believe they have firefighters still working who are positive. They should be isolated to prevent spreading the virus. Glad your son is still negative.

    Love the photo. Very cool.

    Stay safe my friend.

  9. I had to read the sentence about your son testing negative twice. Then I wanted
    to post a link to this blog on Facebook so that all my friends complaining that their hospital is laying workers off. People need to know this is happening and you have said it so well. I've prayed for an army of angels to surround your son, and mine. I pray for you too. May you and your family be kept safe.

  10. I'm glad your son was negative, I hope he stays that way. I haven't left the house for a week, and then it was only for 10 minutes. I wear gloves and a mask and I've washed my hands so many times my knuckles have split open and are bleeding.

    They say we are in lockdown for another 3 weeks in the UK, but quite honestly I'll be nervous to leave the house when they start allowing us out again. The virus will still be out there.

  11. I can't imagine how worried you must be about all your family, and especially your son with his high exposure. Stay strong, 37p. Hang on tight; that's all one can do in these scary times.

  12. Your husband is learning Spanish AND Dove? Talk about industrious!

    I love the picture of your son. I think about him all the time, being on the front lines of this thing. For many people in many jobs, social distancing is an unaffordable or impossible luxury. I try to remember that, isolated more or less safely in my home.

    I love the story of your work with the photographer and the photo he sent you. You are so fortunate to have worked with such eminent people!

  13. OK so I am gulping back tears of the good kind. What a beautiful post and what wonderful memories. You really have had some very interesting jobs.

    I had to cry about your husband making a will. We are seeing death thrust at us daily and in NYC it is unbelievable.
    I stop to bow my head every time I hear a siren pass by our house. I also think of your son and all of our brave warriors on the front lines. Big hugs to you and your family always...