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Covid Calling

May 19, 2020

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Upaya Zen Center, Santa Fe, New Mexico

I hang up the phone. No, I push the button to disconnect from a WhatsApp-face-to-face chat with my energetic, New-York-pushy friend, Janice. She has issued a demand that I write and she will check back with me at five pm.

It is after one pm, day fourteen of my hunker down.  This should be a perfect time for a writer to write, right?

I don’t write.

I have become one with the reclined seat of my plain brown-cloth couch, one with the iPhone, scrolling, liking, reposting, anything to think about anything but this plague. Except I think of it continually.  I make dark jokes, post dark memes, laugh with Randy Rainbow’s social distancing, make fun of our ineffectual president, growl at the woman on Facebook filling her truck with huge cardboard boxes of toilet paper from a small rural store.  She  proudly proclaims herself a Trump fan as she yells ‘fuck you’ at the person using a cell phone to record her, a person who will not be able to buy toilet paper for herself and her family but who will get a million likes on Facebook.

I have tried to write for fourteen days and only succeeded in writing one small story to a prompt on Zoom for my now-on-line Thursday Writers group.  A week ago, I didn’t know what Zoom was.  Now I have used it to talk to friends and strangers on my phone or desktop computer at least six times—my memoir group, my daughter-in-law’s Zumba class in her living room, where my grandkids photo-bomb as I attempt to follow without all the leaps and jumps.

I am still tired, but I keep moving, even as the couch calls.

Last night, a post on Facebook from a group of poets I didn’t know in the flesh posted a practice Zoom in preparation for an on-line poetry reading and I tuned in.  There were six of us, they all knew each other, but graciously allowed me to read a poem.  It was probably a downer for them—fear, dementia, death—not exactly the upbeat stuff we need during this time of Covid.

As I relinquish my warm seat on the couch, I panic once again. I have been sitting still, but I feel out of breath, my heart squeezing blood faster, panic attack. Do I imagine I am lightheaded?  I start some tea, run to the bathroom so I won’t be interrupted later, check to be sure I fed the dog, stare at the hummingbirds and orioles outside the back window and the monarch butterflies out the front. I switch on the computer, walk back to the kitchen for the tea, sit down.  My fingers are cold, stiff, achy, but I write, “I hang up the phone.”  Now the dog barks and my chair scrapes the floor as I rush to check for deliveries.  No, just a couple teenagers walking their dog. I wonder if they walk their dog in their pajamas as I do.  No one knows we do if we put on a jacket and shoes.

Back at the computer, I decide my phone needs charging and plug it in. By now my tea is lukewarm. I realize I forgot to add lemon but stop in a mid-reflex jump to flee to the kitchen.  What the hell is this?  I hug myself, hands on opposite shoulders and realize it is a common impulse now. When did I start doing that?  Am I providing my own human touch?  It’s not exactly a warm hug. Besides, I do get some other tactile comfort. Tashi snuggles against me at night and during the day I feel content as my fingers sink into the soft deep fur around her neck or between her Yoda ears.

I think about the Covid-19 virus, how it has changed me, us, how it has uncovered the fear of death I thought I had overcome.

Ten years agoI watched my husband die.  He had Parkinson’s Disease, but his death was from pneumonia.  I have heard pneumonia is like the torture waterboarding, panic, lungs filling up, no room for breath. I block the scene from his hospital room from my mind

I remember late April of 2009.  My husband was still alive, his father was still alive, my mother was still alive, her husband was still alive, my best friend was still alive, my old dog was still alive. My father had died gently, calmly, lucidly two years before and his death was my pattern for what death would be like.  I could live with that.

Back to that April eleven years ago.  Spring had brought softness and delicious scents to the yard.  The Jacaranda that provides my purple rain was just beginning to bloom, the hummingbirds were briefly sharing the feeders they fought over the rest of the year, lavender blossoms hosted bees and butterflies, the weeds would have to be dealt with, but for now they only added to the green chloro-phylled world. I would be attending a meeting of premedical advisors in Santa Fe, New Mexico, my parents’ childhood state.  I had a caregiver for my husband.  I would travel to Upaya Zen Monastery, spend a couple days in quiet meditation, then go to the meeting where creative professors from the University of New Mexico would be teaching a few workshops that were not directly related to guiding undergrads towards medical school.  Then, back to the Monastery to use as a home base for trips to Taos, Chama, and to discover my mother’s roots in the tiny town of Dulce in Northern New Mexico.  I looked forward to a break from my husband’s care and to return refreshed and ready to instill my newly acquired wisdom in my future doctors and dentists at the university.

Two nights before I was supposed to leave, Mom’s husband, my small, but energetic stepfather, Dick, called.  He and Mom had been out dancing and Mom had fallen and broken her hip.  The ambulance had taken them to a well-respected hospital, but the ER was full because of the H1N1 flu epidemic so they had been rerouted to one that was not as well respected. Now, five hours later, Mom was resting in the hospital bed and he finally remembered to call me.  The nurses had brought him a reclining chair and he would sleep there.  I would have to wait until the next morning to visit.  I called my brother who would come after school the next day on the start of his vacation as a teacher on year-round school.

Mom was confused when I visited, but the doctors assured me it was just the pain medicines.  My brother Bill and Dick and I had to take turns visiting her tiny rooms and I was surprised that the surgeon would be doing her hip replacement that night.  When it was my turn to be out in the hall, I watched nurses and physicians in full masks and gloves carefully enter the closed door next to Mom’s room and wondered if they were the same nurses who came to Mom.  When Bill and Dick assured me they could handle everything and I should go to my conference, I rescheduled my motel in Flagstaff and the monastery in Santa Fe for a day later so I could stay until after the surgery.

That night I stood by Mom’s bed with Dick during her preop.  Mom was still fuzzy-headed and proclaimed with delight that the nurses had donned their blue head coverings to celebrate her birthday.  Dick looked tired but laughed and joked with her.  When she was back in her room, I tiptoed out, confident she was in good hands and I looked forward to my drive to New Mexico.

There is something about New Mexico that pulls me.  I was born there and have only been back a few times, yet the dry air, the mesas, red, black, and stark white rocks, juniper, pinon pines and sudden storms welcome me.  There is peace in the deepest blue of the sky. Clouds are whiter, more massive, and more alive than they are anyplace else.  New Mexico is a prehistoric shaman and I must pay homage. New Mexico is Georgia O’Keefe and D.H Lawrence, and my grandfather’s secrets.  In Dulce, New Mexico, my conference over, I met an ancient Jicarilla Apache woman who jumped in my tiny Honda and piloted me on rutted dirt roads to Horse Lake, Apache summer sporting grounds, bald eagles dancing above a lightening-ravaged pine. In New Mexico I was suspended without time.

Until I wasn’t.  My brother Bill called to say my mother had been moved to a convalescent home, that Dick had slept on the floor by her bed, and now he was sick and had to stay away from her. Dick had driven himself to the Emergency room at the hospital closest to their rural cottage on a Monday but had been told he did not have H1N1 and was sent home.

“Did you notify Dick’s family?” I asked

“No, I didn’t think of it.”

“Well, dammit, call them.”

It’s usually Bill who yells out in anger, but being wrenched out of a reverie, I felt an almost physical pain from the wrenching as I filled my car with gas and headed west. I would normally stop to admire the stark beauty of the mystic rock formations along the highway and the plants and animals that share their land, but with my car loaded with chips and drinks from the gas station, I watched for cops and drove as fast as I could.

By the time I got home, Dick had gone to the local family doctor on Wednesday and loaded up on antibiotics, but he was still alone and I knew Bill and I needed to concentrate on Mom who still seemed confused and did not react to the pictures on my laptop of her beloved New Mexico.  I called one of Dick’s sons who promised to come on the weekend, and I surprised myself when I told him he better “get the hell down here, now.”  The next day, Thursday, Dick’s son drove him back to the ER, but he was already shutting down. They kept him alive long enough for us to bring Mom from the nursing home to ICU.  I don’t know if she knew why she was there or if she recognized the person in front of her with tubes sticking out of his body, but we told her to say goodbye and she did.

Dick died two weeks after Mom broke her hip. Dick’s doctor told me later, Dick probably died from H1N1, but the hospitals were trying to keep the numbers low.  His death certificate read, “natural causes.” He was eight years older than I am today.

Covid-19 strikes the oldest the hardest. I sit at home alone, isolated with my dog and remember Dick in the ICU, the tubes, the sounds of a machine breathing for him. I wonder if his death was like waterboard torture.  I don’t know why I didn’t fear H1N1 then, but I fear Covid-19 now.  Perhaps I have become more aware of death as it whispers its coming in my dull ears, hints of its nearness in my blurred vision, my aching hands. Or perhaps I can only acknowledge a certain number of deaths before I can no longer bear its inevitability, its hideous expressions, its finality.  Perhaps I harbor a superstition that if I don’t write, don’t get out what I need to say, I can’t die.

I stay at home, hug the dog, wash my hands and wonder how spring and death can arrive together holding hands.

 

7 Comments
  1. Devoted Annette permalink

    Barbara, thanks for sharing this. You describe such devastation with such eloquence. I wish I could visit  you…. maybe with masks and a wall of toilet paper between us!!  Deborah 

  2. Janice Alper permalink

    Thanks for plugging me. I wish I could write like you, you inspire me all the time, my friend.

  3. Put in a link to plug your book!

  4. Steven Shroyer permalink

    Hi Barbara, nice house. I am trying to find a book you authored that I use to buy and give to my scribes who are premed students, but sadly I can not find it online anymore. Could you tell me where I might find the book “Writing about me.” Thank you. Steve

    • Hi Steve. You should be able to get it ( with a discount for your bookstore) at Montezuma Publishing at San Diego State University. I stopped mailing it out about a year ago, but I am glad it is useful. Thank you. How are you doing?

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