For many people, seven is a lucky, fun number. Seven wonders of the World! Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs! Three sevens for the slot machine jackpot!

For me, seven is none of those things. Seven is the number of people I have lost due to COVID.

It started in the final week of last March and continued with frightening regularity over the ensuing nine months. Death seemed to stalk me. I started to dread looking at my email or getting a phone call from a relative. For whom is “Death” the last friend now, escorting my loved ones away?

The first one was the hardest. The shock factor really hit home. My work kept me sane. I buried myself in books and work to keep my mind off of the loss, off of the lack of the funeral, off of the idea that the ashes were in a can in a “holding room,” waiting to be picked up at some future, unspecified time. I told myself that others have it worse, be grateful for what still remains.

But the numbers piled up. The phone kept ringing. Often the end came so quickly that the phone call related the scary trip to the hospital, the valiant efforts by medical professionals, and the excruciating end, all in one breathless statement. I started to mourn quickly, speeding through the process, not really letting any of it settle in for fear I would not be able to cope.

This past weekend marked the one-year anniversary of COVID – the lockdowns, the fear, the death. In the chill of early March, as the evening settled in, I sat outside, alone in the woods. I remembered all those who have left me and I cried and I cried and I cried.

Three little words

Three Little Words

When I was a little girl, I endlessly dreamed about being The Queen. I didn’t care about the jewels or the dresses or the fancy carriages. My desire stemmed from something more basic: if I was The Queen, I would have all the power! (It is quite possible I added some evil laughter at this juncture as well.)  I could make my subjects – my parents and sibling – obey me and they would be punished for their transgressions! This is a pretty enticing thought when you are 7 years old, enjoying those beautiful summer evenings, and your parents make you go to bed even though it is still light outside! Truly, a criminal act if there ever was one.  Or your brother eats what was undeniably YOUR cookie – unbelievable!  I had read enough fairy tales to know that I, as The Queen, could put them in a tower for their crimes forever!  They would be stuck there, in their high tower room, while I ate cookies late into the summer evenings and played with my friends. It seemed so satisfying.

Fast forward, then, many years later, to a day in my high school history class. We were talking about the preamble of the Constitution and its first words, “We the People.” My teacher  then said, in an off-hand way, “You can see this idea even today, when the President addresses the country at the State of the Union speech and he says,  ‘my fellow Americans’ .”   For reasons which are unclear me even now, these words really struck a chord with me.  “My fellow Americans? My fellow Americans? Wait… no Queen with her Queenly powers?”  The axis of my thinking shifted. I started seeing America differently and my place in it differently as well. 

It wasn’t long before I started seeing America as a place where we really were “in this thing together,” a real “res publica.”  Americans were helping Americans everywhere and all the time! I read about the National Guard being sent to help save midwestern farmland by piling up sandbags on the banks of the flooding Mississippi! I saw the American military use its helicopters to save people from rising waters in a hurricane! I watched as ordinary Americans did acts of kindness in their communities everyday: people finding lost pets and tracking down the owner, people volunteering to drive hot food to senior citizens with Meals on Wheels, parents cleaning up a baseball field in early spring so the Little League girls and boys would have a place to play, people planting trees and flowers to beautify their neighborhood. My fellow Americans!

And then there were the larger news stories too: America sends soldiers abroad to help find people buried in rubble after an earthquake! America sends food aid and medical supplies overseas to help people recovering from a hurricane! There were fun stories too: the mayors of New York and Chicago betting their own city’s pizza styles in a friendly gamble on sports teams, the phrase “Beat Navy!” said at any West Point Band concert, or even the great regional debate: are they “hoagies”, “subs”, or “foot-longs”?   My fellow Americans! 

Those three words, “my fellow Americans,” became my favorite words. I loved hearing them at the beginning of the State of the Union speech.  “I am part of this union and the President is in this too, no different from me.” I was really proud to say those words, to see them in action, to be a part of this larger community of people who, although different in almost every way imaginable, were all linked together as my fellow Americans. I knew it wasn’t perfect. I knew there were gaps, sometimes enormous ones, in the understanding of who, exactly, “my fellow Americans” were, but I also thought that this over-arching concept of togetherness, of people united in a common purpose, would help guide the way and see us through the rough patches into a better future.

My faith in these words has been badly shaken of late.  The union I see now is no union at all. Americans are calling other Americans “the enemy.”Americans are killing other Americans over skin color (have we learned nothing from the 1960s?). Americans are speaking rudely and crudely to each other (would your mother be pleased at your lack of respect?)My fellowAmericans?

And it got worse. I saw Americans endangering the lives of other Americans by refusing to wear masks, Americans acting selfishly and hoarding food, medical supplies, and paper goods. I watched Americans grabbing food out of the hands of other Americans at grocery stores, Americans berating cashiers (also Americans) for not bending the rules to let them buy more than their fair share of a limited good. My fellow Americans? I read about Americans buying up hand sanitizer at dollar stores hoping to sell it to other Americans at 35 dollars for a 4-ounce bottle. I was stunned to see Americans flouting their wealth on social media while other Americans wait in food lines. I heard about some Americans getting great health care while other Americans have none. My fellow Americans?

This pandemic has not brought out the best in the US or the best in us. To be fair, there are sparks from my old “fellows” – nurses who travel to a different state to help out, health care workers who work 16 hours a day right in their own hospitals, people delivering food to the housebound, neighbors calling neighbors just to check in. But they are small sparks flying from a larger, scarier fire. I miss a lot of things in this time of sheltering down: seeing my family and friends, being able to be with students in a room all together, planning for the holidays. But the thing I miss the most is the feeling of the “us” in the US.  I miss our union, in all its fragility and in all its imperfections.  I want my three little words back: my fellow Americans.

Food for thought

We went food shopping today, after being home for nearly two weeks.

To be honest, we were scared. The stories we heard from our cashier neighbor – frightening in the extreme! Long lines; people waiting for an hour or more to get in; people not finding what they needed and getting frustrated and angry; the shock of empty shelves; people stealing items out of other people’s carts – none of this gave us any confidence at all. Based on all of this, my daughter and I decided to go together to make it quicker and to go really late in the evening, at an off-peak time.

It was surreal. There were a good number of people in the store but that was not the most surprising part: it was the silence. There was no background “music-to-shop-by,” no announcements on “sale items fresh from the bakery,”, no “people-out-and-about” noise of any kind. The only thing we heard was the muffled shuffle of feet. Even the creaky carts were silent. No one chatted or even said “excuse me.” Wide-eyed and fearful, people pushed their carts, looked at everyone else as a potential food-stealing enemy, and grabbed things quickly off shelves. One woman was actively crying, tears streaming down her face, as she pushed her mostly-empty cart from one aisle to another. She made not a sound.