The world is collapsing, but we go on

Elisa Gabbert
Image of COVID-19 virus. Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea.
Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea

One weekend last August, I rented a condo in Carbondale, Colorado, a mountain town a few hours west of Denver by car, to meet my parents for a mini-vacation. My husband and I left the city around midday on Friday, hoping to beat the traffic on I-70. My parents, who had a longer trip—coming up from El Paso, Texas, through Durango—expected to arrive by early evening. When we got to the house I texted my mom, and then I texted again after we got settled, to say we were walking to the main street, and asking her to let me know when they were close.

John and I wandered the length of the street, which was crowded with locals and tourists. It was still sunny outside. We went into an Italian restaurant and sat at the bar. I checked my phone frequently as we drank our wine. They were later than expected, and my mom still hadn’t texted back. I stepped outside and tried to call her, then my dad; neither answered. I texted them both. Is everything ok? I looked at our text history and realized I hadn’t heard from either of them in over two hours.

It’s hard to overstate how uncharacteristic this was. My parents are road trip people; my father always drives, and my mother provides frequent status updates via text. They wouldn’t travel without a car charger. Maybe she put her phone away and can’t hear it, John suggested. This was so implausible it was impossible. My mother is a worrier too, and she would have been checking to make sure we had arrived safely.

The minutes passed; I finished my drink. I tried calling them again. I texted my brother to see if he had heard from them. John kept telling me not to panic; he was sure there was a reasonable explanation. To my mind, the reasonable explanation was that my parents had been in an accident on some vertiginous two-lane road and were trapped in the mangled vehicle. What should I even do? Call hospitals, the police? Involuntarily, I began having anti-fantasies about my new life in grief. I imagined calling my manager to ask for some time off from work, and started crying. I was 70% sure they were dead.

Finally, finally, my mother called, wild with apologies. They had been crawling along in a construction zone, with no cell reception. She knew how worried I would be. She said she had kept her thumb on her phone continuously, waiting for a blip of a bar so she could send me a message. I cried again, harder now, with relief. Within twenty minutes, they arrived, and we hugged. Their bodies were warm from the car. Later, we went back to the Italian place for dinner and crowded around an outdoor table that barely had room for all our dishes and glasses of wine. It felt particularly celebratory. “I’m so glad you’re alive,” I kept saying.

I woke up the next day feeling lazy and happy, my gratitude lingering like a buzz. Then I looked at my phone. There had just been a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso—my hometown, where my parents still live. I didn’t have to be scared for them, since they were safe here, with us. Still, we were shocked. All morning, John and I kept checking the news. As always, the number of casualties was initially unclear. The death toll would eventually amount to twenty-three; the shooting, which the New York Times would call “the deadliest attack to target Latinos in modern American history,” is among the top ten deadliest mass shootings to have taken place since 1949 (four of which occurred in Texas). We don’t usually talk about things like gun control with my parents—our politics differ—but this event was literally close to home. We tested the edges of argument. Might it not alter their point of view? Wasn’t it now personal? They didn’t quite seem to think so. The store was nowhere near their house.

There was tension in the air, but we went about our plans. We drove to a nearby nature reserve where my mom could look at birds through her binoculars. When John and I got bored, we wandered away to a nearby street fair; he bought and devoured a peeled mango impaled on a wooden stick. That night, we grilled steaks and drank several bottles of wine.

On Sunday morning, I tried to read on the porch, but my mother came out to sit with me and kept wanting to talk. She’s gregarious. I knew I wouldn’t see her again until Christmas; I usually see her only twice a year. (For how many more years?) I should have cherished her company. But I’m sure I said, “Mom. I’m trying to read.” I can hear myself saying it. For the remainder of the weekend, I felt the normal amount of annoyance with my parents, and the normal amount of affection for them. I had gone right back to taking their existence for granted.

Since early March, when the country began to shut down in various degrees, I’ve often thought about how much of “normal life” I took for granted. If I needed something, or simply wanted it, I could just go and get it. I had never appreciated that my routines, in my largely white and middle-class neighborhood, weren’t dangerous. I know this thought is not original—in fact it strikes me as profoundly unoriginal. In fact it seems like most people I know have been having all the same feelings in the same order. First, I feared my parents wouldn’t take the risk of the virus seriously enough. I started talking to them almost every day—pressuring my father, an internist, to close his office—and after a few weeks, a little less often, when we ran out of things to say. Nothing new was happening. I watched a movie on my laptop, hyperaware of how often the characters touched their own faces. I had an anxiety dream that I’d forgotten about social distancing and accidentally gone to a party. I had a wish-fulfillment dream about grocery shopping, filling my cart with specialty meats and good olives at the deli. I went on a walk and felt like I was playing a live-action video game, trying to stay six feet away from other walkers and joggers at all times, while also trying not to get hit by a car. When I told my friends these things, or shared any recent observation or impression, they always said,Me too! or Exact same. We were all struggling to focus on reading and on work—our mostly inessential work which we were still allowed to do, on the internet at home. We were having the same dreams.

Over the course of the first month, I read for longer and longer stretches, as though building my strength back up after an injury. When I couldn’t read and wasn’t working or sleeping, I chain-smoked crosswords, a kind of verbal solitaire that made a decent substitute for human conversation. One night I read for hours (Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier—it helped that it was both suspenseful and a little silly) without looking at my phone. By mid-April, I felt that my reading comprehension and concentration were back to normal. I spent an afternoon with a new book of poetry and made notes for a review—a peaceful reprieve. When I called my best friend, who lives in Brooklyn with her husband and toddler, she too was feeling better; she’d reached a plane of acceptance. We’d developed new routines; we had to admit we were lucky. Same feelings, same order. It’s as if our interior lives that once felt so variegated, so individual, were just the result of having slightly different experiences at different times.

Not too long after this, I saw a CNN graphic that put the current U.S. death count from COVID-19 at more than 40,000. It was specific, not a rounded figure—a string of five non-zero digits. One of them was 7. The number blanked my mind. It felt unprocessable. These were verified deaths, in actual reality, but I could not imagine them—as though the size of the number, paradoxically, made each singular death less real. That number, as I write this, has more than doubled.

There’s a passage from Barbara Tuchman’s historical account of the fourteenth century, A Distant Mirror, that I’ve seen cited many times in the past six weeks:

What was the human condition after the plague? Exhausted by deaths and sorrows and the morbid excesses of fear and hate, it ought to have shown some profound effects, but no radical change was immediately visible. The persistence of the normal is strong.

I know the passage well. I’ve written about it before, and that line about “the persistence of the normal” often comes to me in full; for a fraction of a second I mistake it for my own thought. The black death was interpreted as a punishment for sin, and yet, Tuchman writes, the period after the plague ravaged Europe—somewhere between one third and one half of its occupants died—was if anything more disordered and immoral. The sinners who survived did not change their ways. The world collapsed around them and they moved on.

One evening in April, my mother sends me a video she has recorded on her phone while walking slowly through her garden—all the roses are in bloom, pink roses, looking wild and overgrown. I can hear birds chirping in the video. My mother has birdbaths and birdfeeders all around her garden, so she can birdwatch from the kitchen window or the back porch. The video makes me cry; it’s so calming and beautiful.

Later, I send her a package of shatterproof outdoor string lights as a Mother’s Day present. The next weekend, my father helps her hang them, and she sends me photos from her phone, taken at dusk, to show off their warm, inviting glow. In the second photo, which she’s taken from the patio, I can see, through the mesh screen, the fuzzy outline of my father sitting inside on the porch. I cry again. These tears arrive suddenly, without warning—huge teardrops, like a child’s, spill over and run down my cheeks. I am not even sad, exactly, just overwhelmed with feeling—with love, and relief that my parents are still safe, and that they have this flowering sanctuary, and yes, I guess sadness, that their haven is out of my reach.

Elisa Gabbert is the author of six collections of poetry, essays, and criticism, including Normal Distance, The Unreality of Memory and Other Essays, and The Word Pretty. She is the poetry columnist for The New York Times Book Review.
Originally published:
June 18, 2020


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