My husband is so sick he sits up for seven nights in a row struggling to breathe. Then, trying to get to the bathroom, he stops breathing and collapses in the hall.
Whispers roll in like fog. A virus has escaped a lab. A virus has incubated in a pig, a bat, a marketplace. The floor was wet, and people were breathing. A woman on the news warns, “Be prepared for significant disruptions to daily life.”
The news flickers red and white in our dark living room and, yes, I am living, but sitting on the couch alone after he is dead, feeling the lights break and break over me is just senses firing. The television lights buck and buzz. Disruption is an optimistic word for the end of the life my husband and I were building. Disruption promises the ability to rebuild.
But I keep breathing, arriving at work, and going home, and he keeps not hugging me when I walk through the door. I’m a bag of sensory perceptions with touch crossed off the list. I avoid the hallway where he died. Every moment is red and white flashing lights, shouting a message I can’t hear.
The cause of the rising death toll has a name. My freshmen class giggles, tastes it on their tongues experimentally, like the beer at their first high school parties. Coronavirus. One student says, “It’s not affecting kids. I hope every teacher gets it and school shuts down.” “That’s not kind,” I say. “You don’t mean that.” He grins, shapes the pointed hair of the Goku he is drawing. “I do. I hope every single adult dies.” The novel we’re reading slips from my hands. The rest of my class gets excited, imagining their homework-free futures; everyone except L—, whose parents are already dead.
Clorox disinfectant wipes. Grocery-store brand disinfectant wipes. Pasta. Baby formula. Every single box of Twinkies, gone. Two women hiss over possession of the last four-pack of toilet paper in the store, both squeezing their hands on the plastic, levitating it in mid-air, faces so close they could kiss. They don’t pretend civility as I walk by pushing my cart—six sleeves of bagels and nothing else. Taste is crossed out, too. I’m just eating to stay alive, though I don’t want to be anymore. It’s confusing, to lose your partner and feel that cleaving, but not die from it. He is dead, and I’m standing in the grocery store, everyone fighting each other instead of the virus, surrounded by empty shelves like arms thrown wide in surrender.
Teachers are superheroes. Teachers are miracle workers. They create and build online classrooms overnight. They show up in their students’ driveways to teach music and math. They are spending their own money to keep students engaged. Colorful letters and supplies arrive in kids’ mailboxes. The nation gasps. Have teachers always gone above and beyond like this? Educators have shown such love and dedication to their students that it flickers over me on the couch, newsworthy. I’ve been recording myself reading our books aloud, so students who struggle on the page can listen instead. I read into the computer’s microphone each day after class until I’m exhausted, hating the grief I hear in my voice, trying not to remember all the times that going above and beyond for my students meant dipping into our savings for a vacation to Australia that we never went on, or meant my husband putting a plate in front of me at my desk, and eating his dinner in front of the television.
The television flinches and wobbles light at me from my dark corner on the couch, a bagel gone cold on a napkin in my lap. Protesters in Michigan want to work. Or they want everyone to see their guns. Or they want the nation to believe that Governor Whitmer’s stay-at-home order aligns her policies with Hitler’s, who they usually idolize, but not today! They do not want to social distance. They do not want to wear masks. It’s not fair! They can’t breathe in those damn masks.
In Minneapolis, George Floyd can’t breathe, and then he is murdered.
Physical touch is forbidden in this lockdown; when we touch, we kill.
I’ve been writing events and feelings down—my writing group said it might help me cope. They’ve watched me on their computer cameras gulping shallow bird breaths—trying to keep my racing heart beating into the next second, and the next, even though my husband is not in any of them—as we critique each other’s work.
I haven’t been able to catch my breath since his death. COVID squeezed out my husband’s breath, and a police officer knelt on a man’s neck and suffocated him. Yet, the news flicks images at me of people who complain masks restrict deep breathing, makes it seem like half the people in this country believe they will never, could never, be struggling to breathe.
Portland, Oregon catches fire. The keening blaze sucks up all the oxygen for miles, lighting torches in cities across the nation. In Hartford, Connecticut, my seniors lean toward their computer cameras, say they’ll participate in the marches, waving their masks like flags. One student says, “Miss, I’m too afraid to go outside. Will you march with us? Like, in case you need to shield us?” “Of course,” I say. Because I am a teacher. Because I am a human being. Because we are fighting each other unendingly and we are not fighting the virus and how is this still happening? Because if I really want to die, then all I have to be is what parents and administration across this country expect me to be: a teacher, shielding her students, waiting for a bullet.
My principal has received a complaint from a parent. Why am I reading so slowly in those recordings? It takes forever to listen to them! No one is interested in some useless Trojan war. I would stop wasting everyone’s time if I just summarized the important parts of each chapter. The principal signs his email, “You’re lucky to have a job in this economy so please do that job.”
I drop a bundle of letters into the mailbox outside the Newington post office. It’s not my town, but I’ve gotten my hands on an N95 mask and so I’ve driven here for something to do. Each week I write to all the widowed women in my family, in my husband’s family, living alone through the pandemic. There isn’t much to say. I’m not baking bread, or practicing any self-care or workout routines, or becoming Tik Tok famous. I write about the birds in my neighborhood. I try to be funny. I share my observation that all that chirping just sounds like a chorus of “Shit! Shit! Shit!” The world is such a dumpster fire that even the birds have written a song about it.
Friends praise me for writing the letters, assuming I’m doing my part to support the flailing USPS. The truth is I’m so lonely that even my nightmares are just quivering versions of the silence in my house, sound crossed off too. There have been weeks when I don’t speak a word out loud until Thursday night when I sign on to meet with my writing group. Whether I wake from the nightmares or not, I get out of bed on my husband’s side and go into the silent hall, but I always make it to the bathroom, my lungs working just fine.
A man emerges from the post office, maskless. I step to the far edge of the sidewalk, and he clocks my movement instantly. “You scared I’m gonna give you COVID?” he barks. Before I can speak, he leans forward and coughs on me. “Better go get a rapid test, you fucking snowflake bitch.” Then he climbs into a pickup truck with a bumper sticker that reads ‘Kill Governor Lamont’ with a little stick figure man swinging from what I assume is the Connecticut Charter Oak.
The birds sing, “Shit, shit, shit.”
Congressmen John Lewis dies. As I watch his casket move into South-View Cemetery, I remember his body, bent in pain over the death of his wife, eight long years ago. My body recognizes the shape of his body then, a grieving spouse. We bent toward the broken earth in exactly the same way, while my mind slipped off into the nightmare hallway.
I hear my husband’s voice in every news interview with COVID patients and their families.
One man, still in the hospital but off the respirator, his eyes spectral, his blue gown stained with something yellow, implores us. “This is the sickest I’ve ever been.” His wife and two daughters cry outside in the parking lot clutching an iPad. They have not seen him in person in three months.
Those are the words my husband spoke. “This is the sickest I’ve ever been.” At the hospital they gave him an IV drip and told him it was a nasty flu, he needed to go home and rest.
“We can learn from the Spanish flu. Please don’t became lax because the weather is nice. We must adhere to CDC guidelines,” my local news anchor pleads. Black and white images of masked men and women in 1919 spark on the screen, one wearing a sign around his neck which reads, “wear a mask or go to jail.” Then, in 2020 color, footage of packed beaches and restaurants, the water a forgiving blue as bodies bend into graceful dives and disappear beneath the waves.
Teachers are lazy. Teachers are selfish. They don’t want to go back to school because they don’t actually care about children. It’s the teachers’ responsibility to watch the kids while everyone else does the real work of recovering our economy. They aren’t even considering the needs of parents! They whine about insufficient PPE, but kids are probably not carriers, and probably won’t cause super-spreader events, which will likely be proven by returning to school!
Red school buildings glow in my dark living room.
We do this to each other: expect strangers to die so death never reaches us. I am not the Achilles I teach my students about, storming around Troy hoping to catch a stray arrow and join my beloved Patroclus in the underworld. I want what my husband wanted: to live.
I quit my job.
My school denies me unemployment. When I appeal, the argument their lawyer propounds is that I don’t deserve it, because I didn’t tell my principal why I was quitting. He agrees it was his right to know; I’ve really hurt his feelings. The school wins.
California’s summer wildfires turn into autumn wildfires, the writhing reds and oranges like anguished heart muscles, like nightmare versions of the foliage I’m anticipating in New England.
This is the first autumn foliage since I was four years old that I’m seeing without the corresponding return to school. It’s possible I can become a leaf, detached not only from the trunk of my former life, but from the rotting branch of my former school. I am thirty-five years old, and since I’m alive, I have to start again. I must plant new seeds. I must force my way down that nightmare hallway in the flickering light and change the lightbulb.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg lives and lives and lives and then she dies. In death, she becomes the first woman and first Jewish person to lie in state at the Capitol. It’s not clear behind people’s masks, who’s grimacing and who is smiling.
The internet quips, “We can’t say ‘avoid it like the plague’ anymore, since I guess no one avoids the plague.”
Parents of 545 children separated at the US-Mexico border can’t be found. The number of anti-Asian hate crimes rises across the country as the President slurs the phrase “China-virus” over and over on television. I want to feel love. I sleep on the floor in the hall on Halloween night to observe Samhain. My ghost never wanders through the veil or presses his lips close to its gossamer to whisper in his kind voice. But all-night shadows dart from the window to the staircase. There are so many people who act on the belief that if love isn’t visible, it doesn’t exist.
Biden and Harris are elected, making history, making the hope that we can learn to be good to each other possible. I write in my notebook: something does come next. One flickering light at the end of the hallway in my brain steadies, and in this nightmare life, it feels like one, small, safe space.
The Department of Labor contacts me. It seems I was allowed to receive unemployment after all. That sad principal was so convincing, but siding with the school turns out to have been illegal. Mindy on the phone tells me she sees this all the time, teachers denied automatically because the DOL assumes they’re scamming unemployment during summer vacation. She’s not supposed to, but she reviews as many former-teacher applications as possible. Her mother and sister were teachers. They both died this year, but she thinks they’d be proud of her vigilante work. She says she’s trying to shine one little light into one little corner. I tell her I am proud of her and so grateful, and that the grief in my heart recognizes the grief in hers. We cry on the phone together.
I haven’t touched another person in almost a year when vaccines are approved in the U.S. Essential workers may finally feel a sliver of safety and a needle of hope. Nurses and doctors lean away from microphones. One doctor concedes, if she had any tears left, she might cry happy ones.
I have cried every single day for eleven months. Millions of people can say the same—all these humans being humans—but we can’t meet or even trust each other, because nothing is getting better.
I don’t know how to carry the weight of my husband’s life into the future. I can’t be him and myself. I don’t know how to feel stronger.
Rioters storm the capitol. They’re loud and angry and violent. They didn’t get what they wanted! It’s not fair to be forced to live with an outcome you don’t want!
Biden and Harris take office. I scroll through countless pictures that parents have posted of their little girls, sitting on carpets, transfixed by television images as Kamala Harris is sworn in. The images are surreal, in beauty, in power, in how long it’s taken to get here.
And here we are, nearly a year into the pandemic. The jokes are about how long this year has taken. At least five years, minimum.
Husband, for a year I have been talking about you, when all I want to do is talk to you.
I show this piece to my writing group and N—says, “It’s dark. You need something funny. Like, put in Twinkies. You know, because it’s the apocalypse.” G— says, “It feels like you’re leading up to something, but then, you don’t. Where’s the moral? How does it end? When does she finally get angry at one of these jerks?”
He gives me my first genuine laugh of 2020. “Angry? Who do you think she is? A man?” He raises his eyebrow in his diagonal box. “A woman’s anger creates consequences for herself.”
I have no moral and no moral high ground. My husband’s life was leading to an adventure in Australia, growing old with me, a million moments of laughter, and then, it narrowed in our hallway and ended.
I have been angry at everyone.
All these human beings are dead. That will never end.
How will people tell the story of 2020 in ten years? Thirty? Who killed who? Can we ever forgive each other for all we refused to learn?
My husband died on the floor in our hallway, and I can’t write about the alarm waking me in the steady light of dawn, about shuffling toward the bathroom.
Maybe if I had heard him. If I was more aware of what was happening around me. Maybe if I had woken up.
The light is flickering. Morning is too late. Wake up.