When my treatment for colon cancer ended three and a half years ago, only nine months after my wife had finished her treatment for breast cancer, we wanted nothing more than to “get back to normal.” We tried to pretend, whenever possible, that the whole sordid ordeal hadn’t actually happened. We couldn’t bear the music or the television that had distracted us in our isolation. We dreamt of erasing our gruesome scars, and considered obscuring them with mythic, darkly personal tattoos.
At the same time, we had no idea how we were supposed to go back to living as we had before—indeed, “before” seemed to have caused the cancer somehow. We felt changed, and wanted to live that way. We fantasized that we would be rejoining the world wiser, seasoned with despair. We chose to leave our scars uncovered, presented as if proudly to those who cared to see.
Similarly, today everybody wants to “get back to normal,” with the inevitable qualifier, “when this is all over.” The longer this stretches on, though, the more difficult it is to imagine—or remember—what normal was. In our brighter moods we conjecture that collectively, as a people, we will have been forced by the pandemic to confront and accept some long-repressed truths about ourselves and our society—environmental devastation, racial and economic inequality, a grievously dysfunctional healthcare system, to name just a few of our culture’s preexisting conditions—and with this new knowledge we imagine we will be inspired to change.
I’m ambivalent, especially when I consider the two epochal crises in my lifetime so far: the AIDS pandemic resulted in change, but it was slowly and agonizingly achieved; 9/11—a catastrophe that may have caused our cancers, since my wife and I lived near the World Trade Center and breathed that toxic dust and smoke for months—triggered the low-grade rolling slaughter of our endless wars abroad. The discontent of Trump cultists, vociferously demanding their right to become infected (and infect others exponentially), doesn’t bode well for encouraging outcomes ahead.
The anti-maskers seem to be denying their grief. We all are, to some degree; it’s too soon to do otherwise. In the early months of our remission, my wife and I were consistently angry. We couldn’t lash out at cancer, couldn’t hurt it for how it had hurt us, so we hurt each other. The more aggressively we insisted that our lives were back to normal, or ought to be, the more dangerously we denied what had happened to us—what was happening still, as we struggled to reconstruct, if not reinvent, our lives in a fog of profound unknowing. Our marriage survived this post-traumatic trauma, if you will, with counseling and stubbornness. And a few of our reinventions, I am relieved to report, have stuck. But I worry about a country flooding with grief, a culture unable to accept the depth of its ever-expanding, collective loss. We are angry, and we will get angrier.
My most pressing grief right now is that our daughter is old enough to remember this. When my wife was diagnosed, Bebe was not yet two years old; she was three when I finished my treatment. With solid health insurance, a heroic nanny, and overwhelming generosity from family and friends, we were able to shield her from the horror.
The pandemic is different: Bebe’s in kindergarten—or she was; now she’s on Zoom most mornings, frowning at the screen. She had been, until March 12 when school closed, an extremely extroverted child (like her mother, the actor). These past months she has had to acclimatize to an existence spent almost entirely indoors with her parents and an elderly miniature schnauzer named Emma, except for the occasional semi-furtive visit to a nearby deserted beach. That is, before the beaches were closed by decree.
It’s alarming to see our alarm in her eyes. Like her father, she’s recently developed an eye tic. (She’s given me permission to share this; I told her I was writing something about what we’re all going through, and she instructed: “Make sure you tell them about my eye.”) She now uses the word “stress,” as in “This is stressful” and “I feel stressed,” an emotional state she’s never had cause to describe previously. She hears us whispering in fragments about the news. She’s worried for her grandparents, far away in New Hampshire. We’re having to explain to her why the world she was born into has so swiftly and drastically changed. We’re trying to speak honestly without terrifying her. This is just the sort of conversation we hope to never have to have concerning cancer.
Placing a mask over her face makes me heartsick and a little queasy. The sight of other children in the street in their masks depresses me. The little heads of her classmates in discrete boxes on the computer screen fills me with unease about the lifelong effects of this plague-time on their nascent psychologies. They shouldn’t have to endure this. They shouldn’t have their innocence depleted prematurely in this way.
And I am angry—again, as I was three years ago—impotently at the phantasmal disease; but angry more reasonably at our federal government, for disastrously botching its response to the pandemic, for failing to implement any remotely coherent plan for treatment, and for inadequately testing and tracing as we reopen. I’m outraged that, as I write this, more than 100,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, and potentially hundreds of thousands more will perish before we “get back to normal,” whatever that normal will be, “when this is all over,” whenever that day comes.
And yet, despite the apocalyptic predictions and models, and accepting that this crisis won’t be resolved any time soon, I can’t help but feel that we have survived—survived at least the first crushing wave. And with this sense of survival has come, for me, moments of timid, fragile, even embarrassing exuberance. Memorial Day has come and gone; while we drink our coffee we can hear mourning doves cooing in the palm trees, despite the noise of traffic reviving. I’m less wary than I was a month ago while walking outside, less fearful of breathing our shared outdoor air. I can envision myself speaking face-to-face with friends again soon. I, too, could use a haircut.
I must be careful, of course. Optimism after trauma, I know from experience, feels precarious because the superstitious brain equates trust with vulnerability. I don’t want the Universe to think that I’ve failed to learn the lesson of catastrophe, and thereby feel the need to revisit me with more misfortune. Or less magically speaking: I mustn’t be hopeful to the point of stupidity, exposing myself to any more risk than necessary. And I’m not confident that any measure of reopening at this precise moment is a good idea anyway. I am suspicious, like many, that our politicians are forcibly reopening our country, that is, our businesses, so that executives and investors can make money again at the expense of their workers’ health. Reopening now may prove, in retrospect, to have been a massively tragic act of denial.
So, despite my flashes of optimism, I will choose to wait, and wait some more. I will remind myself what I began to learn three and a half years ago: we almost died. We may again. We will, eventually, like everybody. But for now—a now of moments that may amount to days or weeks or decades, if we are lucky—we are, without evidence, healthy and sensibly happy. There will be setbacks ahead. There may be scares or recurrences, second and third and fourth waves. But it’s not the end until the end, and along the way, as long as we’re able, we will begin again.
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