At our house, the first thing to go was the school play. The decision was immediate. The dress rehearsals and performance at Washington Hall, the culmination of two months of teacher-directors planning and corralling, of young actors memorizing their lines and living into their imaginations, were a big deal for the kids at our Catholic school on South Bend’s west side. The golden moment, timed to take advantage of a quiet Notre Dame campus during spring break, was cut short by the first confirmed case of coronavirus in St. Joseph County.
Next to go was a trip to Virginia to celebrate my mother’s birthday. She’d turned 80 in February, but mid-March marked the first time my brother and I could gather from faraway places. I’d expected to leave early Friday morning and hop the Appalachian Mountains with two of her grandkids in tow, bound for a long weekend of memorable meals and conversations — their grandmother still gets around pretty good.
Late that Wednesday, though, we reluctantly postponed. Visiting posed too great a risk, and while my parents are healthy, they live among hundreds of seniors who run the spectrum of strength to frailty. By Friday afternoon, just when we’d have hit the Beltway, the retirement community wisely closed its gates to all nonessential visitors.
That was the story of March. One by one, spring sports practices, meetings and get-togethers with friends disappeared from the calendar. Running contrary to this rapid trend of vanishings, our college sophomore appeared from nowhere. And everywhere possible, life and work sought out electronic alternatives, the real becoming virtual as its best means of self-preservation. Work from home. E-learning. Zoom meetings. Digital momentum carrying us forward. All of it required apps I’d never heard of before, but we downloaded dutifully and parked ourselves in front of screens so we could meet core responsibilities and fulfill ongoing expectations.
For everything else, the future was erased. Will my athletes get half-seasons of soccer and lacrosse, or — probably better, from their perspective — league schedules that push deep into July? We’re always late to make summer vacation plans in this family, but so far in 2020 we’ve made none at all, and don’t expect to. How do you write on a calendar gone blank? How to draw on savings surely repurposed to more immediate needs — on numbers grown unsure, maybe meaningless?
Time and money, those elemental human creations, are firm and comforting when you have them, fleeting and harsh when you don’t. They now seem to me especially loose and uncertain, like ephemeral tyrants still capable of determining my yeses and nos, but ruthlessly spinning off calculations with more variables than I can handle, as recent efforts to help my daughter with her high-school-sophomore math homework too readily remind me.
Like the future, the past, too, is gone in its own way. Memory abides, as clear and accessible as ever, but it’s less relevant and useful than before. How many times have we said or heard the obvious — that our current collective circumstances are unlike anything in our experience?
Someone suggested we think of the COVID-19 pandemic not as a blizzard, but as winter. I think that person was trying to talk anxious toilet-paper hoarders down from the supermarket shelves. But the concept is helpful, I thought, for accepting the indefinite duration of an unprecedented, devious, dangerous illness — of microscopic biological particles, not alive in themselves yet capable of holding humanity and its almighty economies hostage. Our ancestors dealt with things like this, but no one alive can remember it. And they died in numbers we refuse to accept.
All of which keeps us in the now. We must live in the present tense, whether or not we’re comfortable there. I’m fortunate, today, and I know it. I have a job, and I can do it from my attic, thanks to the efforts of the many IT professionals who have built and maintained Notre Dame’s computer network over the years. Downstairs, meanwhile, my wife manages full school days for children without enough computers to go around. But there’s food in the fridge. For now.
We know millions aren’t so lucky, and we live in a town where hundreds of people have lost their jobs, where scientists and engineers have shuttered laboratories and pulled the plug on the years and untold sums of grant money represented in their unfinished research; where friends live in mortal fear of closing businesses that have supported their families while doing immeasurable good in the community.
It’s difficult, and seems almost perverse, to look for the good in such a time, but we know we’re not the only ones who do. It’s the way human beings persevere through trial, and all around us we find people persevering, even cheerful.
I suppose I’m setting you up to expect the handy tips or heartwarming stories or spiritual insights I’ve collected from our first weeks of mandatory mindfulness. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything Pinterest-worthy to offer.
At our house, the facts of living in the moment are plainer than that. Kids are learning to take turns on the computers we have, and to wait patiently for us to photograph and upload their writing assignments and art projects while we make lunch or wash dishes. Ascending to my attic office in the early morning, I’m giving myself more time than I normally do to snap my brain in place before launching a project.
We have more free time. I’ve led a few urban hikes — out our front door and through some of the city’s more industrial, cracked-sidewalk, broken-glass quarters — that no one seems to like as much as I do. We’re exploring county parks I’d never bothered to visit before: adventures that require a car and generate more enthusiasm. We’ve watched movies and read books. Basic stuff.
Whatever else happens, I’m grateful to this unexpected megabreak from life’s reckless rush for letting me be more responsive to needs in the moment — others’ and my own.
Last Friday my brother-in-law needed someone to pick him up from the hospital in Chicago on short notice. No reason I couldn’t go, so I volunteered. Out one evening for a walk with my daughter through ghost-town South Bend, we encountered an elderly neighbor we’d never met, struggling her way across Lafayette Boulevard. She let me take the handles of her wheelchair and we helped her home. Her gift in return was of far greater value: a probing chat between strangers about the power of trust.
Everyone has lost something to this virus — retirement savings, the spring semester of their senior year, loved ones. We’ll never see that school play, and it may be months before I or anyone visits my parents. In the meantime, there’s a Groundhog Day sameness to life in the time of coronavirus, and we cannot know how many more suns will rise before we break out of it.
Then again, maybe all I’ve really lost so far is my ability to over-program and over-plan.
That day I drove to Chicago, I came home to find my four-year-old son wandering about the house in search of someone to play soccer with him. It was getting late. Normally, shuttling his older brothers and sisters around town, I’d never even have heard his request. But this time, the streets slick with rain and the streetlights flickering on, we stretched 10 minutes into 15, and 15 into 20, kicking the ball across the yard, racing after errant passes, chuckling as we competed for control. This was no ordinary Friday night in spring at my house. No ordinary Friday night at all.
John Nagy is managing editor of this magazine.