anatomy of a pandemic

A year ago, I was home alone with Calvin for two-and-a-half weeks while my husband was in Paris taking photographs for a soon-to-be-published book of the city's parks. He was staying at his friends' apartment in the heart of the city while they were vacationing in Venice prior to joining him. Covid deaths in northern Italy were rising rapidly, though still in the hundreds if I remember correctly, and the fear of a global pandemic was becoming palpable. I imagined, with dread, Michael taking the Metro, crammed into cars with scores of other riders and lots of shared surfaces. I feared that his friends, Jonathan and Francoise, would return from Venice unwittingly carrying the virus with them, then pass it on to Michael who would bring it home to me and Calvin. I pleaded with him to get on a plane and come home early, but he was unable to find a flight. 

Michael's friends did not return to their Paris apartment until the day after Michael flew home. Though they never said as much, Michael guessed they purposefully avoided him so as not to risk putting our family, especially Calvin, in harm's way in case they were asymptomatic. Michael arrived home three days before the coronavirus was declared a pandemic. The last time we had any friends in our home was a Friday night exactly one year ago, March 13th. I stopped going grocery shopping and, as infection rates rose, I avoided the dentist and doctor. To put it simply, we have gone nowhere.

In recounting the events since then, it's hard for me to resist the urge to see it as a year of losses. Calvin has lost a year of attending school, seeing his teacher, aides and peers, and them seeing him. He's missed a year of going grocery shopping with me every day or two and lingering at his favorite spot: the meat case. He's lost a year of Saturdays and Sundays visiting our favorite bustling corner cafe. We lost a summer of lazy wanderings at agricultural fairs—one of the few enjoyable activities we can do with Calvin—taking in the sights, sounds and smells of farm animals, fresh hay, cotton candy and popcorn. Michael has lost nearly a year of communing in person with his college students. He has missed teaching them how to expose black and white film and how to make prints in a darkroom. He has missed the dynamism of in-person conversations with them about how to see and approach the world with greater clarity, curiosity, humility and gratitude. We missed our tradition of having both classes of students over for dinner at the end of the semester. He missed attending an artist residency in Wyoming. I've missed meeting and befriending his students, which I lament deeply. I've lost a year of relative freedom to roam where I want, belly up to the bar with friends, go on dates with my husband, see movies in theaters, walk on the beach, host dinner parties, or visit New York and the West Coast. I know I am not alone.

Despite these losses, I'm grateful for all we have, and I'm particularly cognizant of those fortunes at a time when so many Americans are needlessly suffering (it didn't have to get this bad.) My husband's job makes it possible for me to stay home with Calvin full-time. We eat well, enjoy our creature comforts, are surrounded and supported by an amazing network of friends, have health insurance, and are well. We don't have to worry about where our next mortgage payment is going to come from or if we'll be evicted. We don't fret about how we'll afford to heat the house, feed our family, pay our healthcare bills. We don't lie awake at night wondering if or when we might find work again. We don't angst about contracting the virus since Michael is able to work remotely and we have the space to stay safely distant from others.

And yet, I cannot shake the feeling that this pandemic year has been one of loss. I also wonder what Calvin makes of his year in isolation; he has seen virtually no one besides me, Michael and Smellie for months on end, and has spent the entire winter indoors. If the huge smile on his face which appeared when we finally ventured into a thawed-out garden is any indication, I wager he has felt loss and deprivation on some level, if only viscerally.

As much as the last year has felt like one of loss, however, it has also been one of gifts. Like no other time in my memory, this isolation has prompted the distillation of thoughts, scenes and people into their essences. In effect, the pandemic has moved me: to further regard and appreciate the quality of light in a certain room or month or scene or time of day; to contemplate light years and the sheer distance of a star; to marvel at a stink bug's travel in the days before her death; to consider and bask in the simple existence of four beings in one household; to notice the daily nuance in spectacular and mundane landscapes; to see better the smile in people's eyes; to study and note the incremental changes in a self, a husband, a child; to see the maskless faces of strangers become familiar, even beloved; to feel the subtle play between anguish and hope; to understand and witness the many worlds reflected in pools and eyes as mirrors and windows.

I've also come to understand what I am physically and emotionally capable of doing: being my developmentally disabled, nonverbal, legally blind, incontinent, autistic, seizure-racked son's sole daytime companion and keeper for an entire year during a pandemic. Though laden with more than its share of angst, sorrow and frustration, and as strange as it might sound even to myself, I consider this prolonged and uninterrupted time with him a gift.

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