I take the same route through my neighborhood almost every day, along 10th Avenue to the end of the Park Strip and then back home down 11th. I was walking my dog on a pleasant night in early summer when I saw an old friend in her yard, and I told her I was sorry because I heard her mother passed.
She said thanks. She was so used to thinking about her mother. I asked how she was, really, and she asked me how I was, really. Neither of us was quite right.
This friend has the best garden, weedless in a way that looks easy but is actually hard to pull off, full of surprises. I walked into her backyard to look at her raised beds and hear her talk about columnar aspens. It wasn’t yet usual for me to spend time with a person like that.
There was a secret I had been carrying since I had COVID-19 in January. To everybody who asked, I said I’d recovered. But my sense of smell was still missing detail and also, most privately, something had gone wrong with my ability to feel. Happiness, anger, connection, sadness, they all came in muted. A doctor told me it was a natural reaction to being overwhelmed and the numbness would ease. I was still waiting for that to happen, just like I was waiting to catch the smell of saltwater in the breeze off the inlet.
My son, who was 6, tested positive with me, but he had no symptoms. He made up a game during our isolation where he’d go in the tub and play name-that-tune with a snorkel on. I’d lie on the bathroom floor and try to guess. A deep exhaustion overtook me in those weeks, like my body was made of smoke. Terror about what might happen next registered only distantly.
At night, I’d slip a pulse oximeter on my son’s finger as he slept. And then slip it on my own. And I’d feel relief when we were fine, but a dull pain on the left side of my chest would keep me from sleeping. My grandmother’s last contemporary relative, Giovanna, died of COVID during that period. So did a dear friend’s mother and another friend’s dad. I also lost a longtime colleague, Rose. The facts of those deaths catalogued themselves in my brain, but the feelings that came with them and their connection to my own illness and the outcome I had escaped did not.
Once I found the energy to start walking, a friend and I were out one night, and he raised his palm to a passing car in that common small-town gesture that means “hey.” But the guy in the car slammed on his brakes, got out and threatened both of us. Did we think we were better than him? Did we think we could tell him what to do?
For a long time, I thought about that when I went out. Passing cars and strangers took on a suspicious character. You make your home in a place and you think you know it because your parents had their wedding at St. Pat’s and you ate at a Taco Bell before it became a sushi restaurant. But just because you’ve witnessed part of the story of a place doesn’t mean you understand it. A city can lose itself.
Since the pandemic began, I’d seen fights over masking at the grocery store, and watched people come unglued at public officials at public meetings, but it hadn’t occurred to me that the rage that came with our fear and helplessness might stick. I began to suspect the unspoken understandings about how we live here might be slipping away. So many other things had already fallen apart.
Still, I walked. The neighborhood rhythms comforted me. Early morning joggers circling the Central Middle School track. A mail carrier named Queen delivering packages. My uncle who lives a few doors down, framed in his living room window, watching the evening news.
I have a neighbor who keeps a careful garden of driftwood and mosses around a memorial for his old dog, Newtok. He told me once part of his work is asking people what they think they might be wrong about. He said that work has gotten hard. People sit so far apart with their opinions and are so attached to their way of seeing things, they won’t reflect. I told him I was worried about my town.
“When do you get to rest?” he asked me. It’s hard to rest, I said. It had been six months since I was sick, but I was still so tired. Sometimes, he said, we need to just be.
He asked if I’d heard about murmurations — massive groups of starlings that swoop and swirl in the sky, seemingly in formation. He said a study showed that they never know what the larger group is doing, they only pay attention to the seven closest birds. Somehow it all falls into place.
Maybe, he suggested, I could nurture the small world around me. And that would be enough.
Back in my friend’s backyard, she toured me under an old cherry tree. Once, she told me, a distraught woman called her and said she owned a small orchard but it was going to be destroyed. But my friend, who knows a lot of gardening types, found a new home for every tree, and even had them planted in the same orientation toward the sun. That was 20 years ago, she said. The tree makes 12 buckets every summer now.
I wished I had something to give my friend right then, standing on the lawn, my dog winding the leash around my legs. But then she went inside her house, came out with a jar of jam. She put it in my hand. And I carried it down the block. It wasn’t till I got to the light on the corner that I discovered my eyes were full of tears.
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