Coronavirus Chronicles: In the blink of an eye

Lorraine Parish visits a friend in self-quarantine.

Confession time: I’ve developed an acute case of critter envy. I find myself daily wanting to be one of my dogs, or a bird at my feeder, or that squirrel on my patio, or any one of the wild turkeys I feed at the crack of dawn in the ancient cemetery across the street. My reward for this morning turkey feeding is not only to satisfy the farm girl in me, but to witness some of the most spectacular sunrises this earth has to offer. Yes, I envy every one of those critters. Their days have not changed; their “todays” are the same as their “yesterdays.” But not mine, not yours.

My “yesterday” was spent on a long walk with my dogs at a Land Bank property I had wanted to explore. It was a glorious day, with a nip in the air and nary a cloud in the sky. This particular Land Bank site held a special place in my heart. Upon my first visit to the Vineyard, when this plot of land was privately owned, I had been shown the secret way in by a fellow summer visitor I was having a romance with. We had met at the Hot Tin Roof, if that tells you anything. Ah yes, those yesterdays!

But this day was to be more than I could have imagined, in surprising ways. Like many of us, my daily reality has been strung together by surreal moments that change hour to hour, minute to minute. By being in the open air, I was slowly shedding my worries. I found myself completely captivated by the beauty in front of me, behind me, all around me. It was powerful. I became aware of how my tired spirit felt soothed by the simple, no-strings-attached visual healing that nature so freely gives. A caveat here: I recently had cataract surgery, and for those who don’t know, colors are amazingly more brilliant than you remember. Some mornings at sunrise it’s like I’m on another planet. I pray I never get used to this.

So back at the ranch: I am in bliss, I am in heaven, I am so happy I chose to do this today, I am sooo brilliant — then my old dog Rudy, who lately has begun walking a little cockeyed, trots over the small wooden bridge in front of us that spans a five-foot-deep trench with a cold, muddy stream running through it. He suddenly loses his footing, and falls into the creek, landing on his back. I jump into the cold, muddy water, and somehow haul us both up to the top of the embankment. We are cold, covered with mud, and are in the middle of nowhere. As this was happening, besides being fearful for the well-being of my dog — I thought his leg could be broken — my thoughts were this: Just a split-second ago I was on cloud nine, then in the blink of an eye, I am struggling in the muck trying to save my beautiful dog. My next thought: These last few moments in time for me were a perfect metaphor for our collective moment in time — our shared, painful, uncertain, new reality. We have gone from dealing with days that were exhausting and challenging for sure, to a mind-numbing storm of fear and uncertainty. Our thoughts are crowded with questions: How will I get through this, how will we as a country, a world get through this? Who can rescue us when the entire world is in the same leaky boat? How did we get here, and what will we look like when it is over? Truly, God only knows.

When I finally got home, I called the friend I was delivering groceries to that afternoon. She’s self-quarantined, due to her recent trip to Italy. I told her of my walk with the dogs and how my reality had turned on a dime. “Just like it did for me in Italy,” she said. I knew then that I needed to see her before I wrote this piece.

While driving up-Island to deliver her food and learn of her adventure (by the way, eight feet away through a screen door, both wearing masks, so unreal), I found myself admiring the daffodils in the fields alongside the road, and suddenly realized I envy them too! The cute things are popping up right on cue without a care in the world, oblivious to whatever the humans have now gotten themselves into. My critter envy has morphed into full-blown nature envy, and I have no shame about it. Nature rightfully deserves it.

The friend I am visiting goes to Italy every winter, and was having her usual great time there when the virus began to rear its ugly head. But it seemed to be really no big deal, just a couple of tourists had it, so she went about her business, continuing on to Switzerland for a few days, with the plan to return to Italy and say goodbye to her longtime friend before flying back home to the Vineyard. While in Switzerland, the virus hit the fan in Italy, and she made the decision after a few days of “Should I stay or should I go?” to go back and fly home from Rome, knowing by the end of the week, Europe was to be closed to the States. 

“It was as if I went to bed in a world I knew and woke to a world I did not recognize, a world at war,” she said. I asked what her thoughts were at the time. She described thoughts of caution, feelings of fear, and a sense of unrealism she had never, ever experienced before. And for some unknown reason, she told me she had spent the past year reading books of Europe and the Holocaust during World War II. And now, in a way, the scenes unfolding before her were as if they sprang from the pages of those very books.

People weren’t panicking, she said; they mostly seemed shellshocked and somber on the trains and streets. They all had played hooky at the ski resorts and beaches once told of the mandatory two-week no-work/go-home order. They had treated the time off as if it were a carefree holiday. Then the bill came due: The virus was spreading, and it was lockdown time, starting with Lombardy.

By the time she was to leave, no one could travel the streets without papers, which she fortunately got through a friend who worked at the Austrian embassy. The American embassy, by the way, would not even answer its phones. She was on her own.

Asked how she felt when she was finally coming home, she said as the wheels left the ground, her mindset of staying strong, keeping alert and together, turned to tears of exhaustion and relief. While on the plane flying to the safety of home, she began to think maybe she had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. She was learning like the rest of us; our country had the distinct possibility of being two weeks behind the same fate as Italy’s, the country she had in the nick of time escaped from.

Since she has gotten home, she has been buoyed by the support of her friends while simultaneously heartbroken by the cruelty of strangers. And I must say this — I have been heartbroken myself by selfish acts I have not only personally witnessed but have been told of by others. Courtesy hand sanitizers stolen off stores’ counters; a whole box of hand wipes tucked under a coat and stolen from a coffee shop; emergency room masks taken by the handful from the front reception counter. A friend of mine in Boston watched a lady totally empty a bulk bin of wheat germ — wheat germ? It was the only remaining bin with anything in it. She even asked the store clerk to take it down and shake the last bit of crumbs into her bag. My friend asked the lady, “Why not save some for other people?” That did not go over very well. 

As the late, great Elijah Cummings said last year, “We are better than this.” Elijah, I’m beginning to wonder. Every day will be a test for each one of us, and failing grades are flat-out unacceptable, so please be kind.

On second thought, Elijah is right, we are better than this; people, we have to be.