Like so many Americans, I watched the images of the abandoned streets of Wu Han as if they were as relevant to me as photos of astronauts on the surface of the moon. The stories of people quarantined in their homes, unable to travel, worried about their dwindling supplies of toilet paper, resigned to watch the death toll rise from the Coronavirus were unsettling, but still remote.
Last week they moved a giant step closer as the conference I was supposed to fly to this past Sunday was teetering on the brink of cancellation. More and more attendees were cancelling, some by their own choice, others by instructions from their universities and cultural institutions. The people at the host institution had worked so hard over many months to plan the conference, and none of us scheduled to fly in from around the country wanted to disappoint them by leaving them feeling their work was in vain. I held on to my flight reservations until close to the very end, determined not to let my decision be ruled by fear, but in the end I too cancelled and resigned myself to participating via Zoom, a wonderful instrument for some purposes, but a poor substitute for the warm personal exchanges and safe conversations about successes and problems of practice that this group of educators preparing teachers to work in urban schools had been able to share in past conferences.
After 15 or 16 hours of staring at my computer screen, I felt like a zombie. There were definitely useful moments, but I came away feeling unfulfilled. I pounced on an invitation from a friend to join him for coffee and a conversation; my humanity was restored. The cancelled trip to the conference was the first intrusion on my life and the lives of friends and family by the coronavirus, but others began to follow quickly. Here was an email from a friend distressed that the talks she gave to parents and teachers around the country, her family’s primary source of income, were being cancelled and that the family’s visits to her husband’s 89 year- old mother were now posing a health threat to her. Then there were theater dates coming up on our calendar. One theater was asking patrons to shift their attendance dates so they could reduce the size of each night’s audience, enabling them to seat people further apart. Was that good enough to keep it on our calendar? And what about the restaurant dinner coming up to celebrate our wedding anniversary? Does that stay or go? And the annual gathering of a group of friends to share their writing in our apartment? Is having 20 people in our livingroom a wise idea? I had an appointment in the eye clinic at the hospital on my calendar. That one drove me to seek advice from doctor friends about whether I should keep the appointment. Their response, which was not a straight yes or no, was sufficiently unalarming to keep that one on the docket for the moment.
All afternoon and evening the landscape of danger was expanding. Universities sending students home to receive online instruction for the foreseeable future, St. Patrick’s Day festivities cancelled, the suspension of the season by the mighty NBA, with all the other major sports leagues and college tournaments following suit. Since the beginning of what is now a pandemic, I have been torn between feeling I’m not being hysterical enough vs. being too hysterical. (It is, by the way, what I have been feeling about Trump since he came to power.) Up until now, I felt I still had license to move about freely, trying to live my life as normally as possible, but suddenly the balance has shifted. I am succumbing to the constant reminders that I am an 80-year-old guy, who despite my general good health, resides in the category of highest risk. I still believe, with no supporting evidence, that the chance of my contracting the virus is low, but if I do succumb, it could be deadly. I am coming to terms with the fact that my wife and I need to allow the perimeter of our lives to shrink indefinitely. The traffic light went from yellow to red on all those cancellation decisions that had been hanging in the balance.
The next thing to go was my regular round of classroom visits, an activity that I’ve undertaken in part to ward off the empty purposelessness of retirement. I fear that, in time, some of the schools I visit will also be forced to close. In the meantime, my presence in them is more vital to me than to the teachers I visit, so the wise move is to sit it out for a while.
What’s left? Nothing much. All the distractions that normally draw us out of our cave have been swept away, and the same is true of many of the in- house diversions. My narcotic of choice is sports. Now there are no scores to check, no pools to enter, no stealthy glances at a game-in-progress when my attention should be elsewhere. In theory there is the gift of unbroken time for reading and writing of the kind that’s otherwise available only during extended summer breaks. There’s the prospect of tackling neglected projects at home that always take a back seat to the events of our still-active lives. For us, at the top of that list is the labelling of a sizeable carton of photographs which will be of no use to our daughters and granddaughter if they are clueless about who’s depicted on these photos.
What’s different from a summer idyll or a weekend home project time is the huge dark cloud of uncertainty that hangs over us. It’s as if we’re sitting at the bottom of a snow-topped mountain. We sense that the mountain has stored within it the energy to launch a massive avalanche, but we don’t know when it will cut it loose and envelop us as we sit sunning in our lawn chairs. What was distant and remote has become present in a way that crowds everything else out of sight.
Suddenly, we are Wu Han!