Photo by Solen Feyissa on unsplash
When the first lists of pandemic statistics began adding up, with their tallies of infections, their addendums of strange new symptoms and effects, I started preparations for death.
My plans likewise organized into list format.
At first, a simple itemization of groceries seemed sufficient prevention. So as I added shelf-stable tofu cases and extra-large peanut butter jars to my online cart, I calculated the daily calories required for a woman, midway through life expectancy, to survive an anticipated two-week quarantine. When for only a short while, I thought, I would remain alone behind the rectangle of my apartment window, peering down at the long lists of Chicago's empty city sidewalks, blank and waiting for the curving chart of cases to even and end in a flat line.
But instead, the line rose.
Lists lengthened: Additions of affected countries. Computations of extended stay-at-home orders. Tabulations of the dead.
A long rectangle of earth opened into a mass grave in some faraway country, a trough stretching up to the satellite cameras in space, then gaping apart on the rectangle of my phone.
White rectangles of refrigerated semi-trailers, beheaded of their cabins and the engines that could give them life, froze into the form of morgues outside hospitals.
Inside, the white rectangles of beds were bordered by the stark corners of paper hazmat suits and masks, instead of the warm press of family members' hands.
And in the center, a sterile, narrow death.
I scrolled down the listed horrors, the headlines unrolling, never ending in the interminable dark of each night alone in my bed.
I switched with a shaking finger to the messaging app.
"Are we all supposed to assume we're going to get this?" I texted my brother.
Are we all supposed to be resigned?
This is how death will be, I remembered realizing, years before, as I had lain on a hospital gurney between two curtains and waited for the unknown of the anesthesia, for a procedure to search for one of the autoimmune diseases that had lurked silently then inside my cells—and now offered potential openings for this new virus to enter my body unchecked.
Disembodied groans had arisen from behind other curtains. And somewhere behind the sealed doors, back by the locker holding my belongings, my mother had been held back, blocked from accompanying me on this last narrow passageway, where I lay alone shivering beneath the blanket of my fears.
So this would likewise be the solitary passage of dying, I understood. I would traverse it alone. And I could not tell my mother all about it afterward.
After all, the anticipated shaping of an event into a story for later sometimes seemed the only means of getting through a difficulty all alone. Already drafting the outline in the mind as the horrors unfolded. Holding onto the certainty of an afterward in which the story would be told.
How fragmented, then, how frantic might my mind turn, thrashing about in a hopeless, isolated COVID ward?
I imagined the flat-backed gasping for air. The way my lungs had strained as I lay on my sofa a few years before, when I had at last acquiesced to the anti-anxiety tablets my therapist had long recommended. But their chemicals had reacted to the molecules of another medication already circulating in my cells, and together they had shortened my breath.
I knew the sensation of suffocating.
And so I knew I would be panting in the nasal cannula, asking astonished, impossible questions. This is it? That's all? Already?
I needed a better plan for death.
I would write and memorize a list, I decided, to tick off with every beat of the heart monitor. With every breath, a story to tell myself, a memory of the best parts of my life. So I could accept the end without resistance.
"I've had a pretty good life," a lover had told me long ago, over an elaborate breakfast of mimosas and banana bread I had spread across my table, to keep him with me a little longer after one of our rare, brief rendezvous, just before he was to fly off to the airport.
"How do you fly so often?" I had asked him, maybe to delay him, maybe to solicit solutions for my aerophobia.
"I'm afraid of flying, too," he had admitted. "I just think of all the good parts of the life I've had. And I'm okay if it's the end."
But perhaps the pandemic itself will end, I now rationalized, before I must accept my own ending.
And with each addition to the death count, my list remained unwritten.
I had long resisted resignation.
"I accept," I had typed, then deleted from the notes app on my phone several years ago. The note had followed a long list of recipes and grocery lists, which I had assembled into elaborate dinners in the tiny kitchen of the apartment I had rented with my first real love.
Until one Sunday morning, before breakfast, he had shattered the sunny stillness of the flat. Smashed the floor lamp to the floor. Crushed my neck into the bed. Sent my feet stumbling down the stairs, where I spun, running to the car, spiraling around the neighborhood, then speeding onto the long, flat highway of life after him, the map now a checklist of dreaded, necessary stops: A doctor for an examination of the bruises. A real estate agent for a new home. A therapist for some sort of treatment plan.
"HEAL," demanded the acronym, arranged into a kind of list with each letter stacked, that I copied into my phone from a therapist-recommended self-help guide. The best-seller promised a permanent cure: Forgive for Good, psychologist Dr. Fred Luskin guaranteed on the cover.
Yet the mantra I was to repeat seemed to speak less to forgiveness than to reconciliation with the difficult inevitabilities of existence—in a way, forgiving life itself for shattering everything represented by that first letter H: Hope.
I wanted a long happy relationship, I wrote as my wish on the line beside the H.
Next, the E recommended Educating oneself on actual reality. "I accept..." Luskin prescribes as the opening, prior to the insertion of an unwanted circumstance.
"Or I understand," he offers for the hesitant. The resistant. Those refusing to resign.
I deleted each letter of "I accept."
"I understand," I typed as replacement text into my phone. "I understand not all relationships work out."
I could comprehend. But I could not condone.
After all, was not resignation, with its release of hope, a kind of failing?
Hope should perch, and sing, and never stop at all, I learned long ago from Dickinson in my middle-school English textbook. And as I read another poet, Mark Doty, in the dark days of grief after the shattering of my relationship, I underlined his own ode to hope, referred to by one of the many terms in its long list of synonyms: Desire.
"Desire I think has less to do with possession than with participation, the will to involve oneself in the body of the world," he posits in his luminous memoir of grief, Heaven's Coast. Persist in taking part in life, he seems to suggest, even when you cannot hold onto it.
Yet desire, the Buddhists teach, is the root of suffering. Out of the religion's many truths, only the vague outlines of this principle had filtered into my Midwestern mindset when my lover had first suggested I investigate the paths to peace he was attempting, searching for some kind of solution to his shattering impulses of anger as he meditated on his yoga mat every morning before I awoke.
So at night, on the sofa beside him after work, I had lain later reading the novel he had recommended, Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. A river and a forest had merged in my mind; the name of the protagonist and the historical Buddha had fused and confused; the idea of ascetic destitution had chilled my fingers grasping at the paperback.
I had closed the book. Rejected the rejection of desire.
Because I had wanted so much then. Even my reading about Buddhism was an act, a manifestation, of my desire for my lover. For unity with him and his mind. For a future together.
"I want to look forward to making memories," I insisted, too loud in the dark bar, on my first significant date after two years of swiping at the notes app on my phone, which had glowed through long nights of reciting that ineffectual incantation meant to HEAL me.
"I'm tired of making memories to only look back on. I don't want to just be 'happy it happened' anymore," I told my date after his tales listing his past expat adventures, his eyes shining, then a flinch flitting across his dimples when I pressed him for a promise of permanency within the Chicago city limits.
"People come together for a while and then drift apart," he said. An admonishment to participate, not possess.
"The success of a relationship isn't defined by its length," he postulated a few weeks, then a few years later as he flew away across the ocean again and again, returning from months-long itineraries with long lists of apologies, promises, invitations to dinner at our old favorite restaurants, then enticements to his bed. His old, familiar kiss wetting the lips. A new technique, acquired between foreign sheets, swirling between the legs.
Then a new skin-to-skin disease.
When I sent him the positive virus finding, only a year before the first coronavirus cases, I followed with a plea. "Please stay with me now," I begged. "You've ruined my life." But like the numbers on my test results rising on the line beside HSV—that H signifying herpes now instead of hope—his flight soared to his next far-away escape.
And I did not join him on the plane. Maybe because of his desire for space in the cramped coach row, as in our intermittent relationship. Or maybe because of the 30,000-foot plunge of my stomach at the thought of a transatlantic crash.
"Oh. You haven't made peace with death," a man pronounced later, with the decisiveness of a medical diagnosis, on a third or fourth date during those last few months of calm obliviousness before the pandemic, while the virus was already circulating miles away from the snowy Chicago streets where we walked together in the dark and I confessed my fear of flying.
"No!" I replied. Of course not.
"But it can be peaceful," he reassured me in his even voice, with his even stride, as he recounted his vigil at his brother's hospital bedside, his calm last breath from lungs suffocated by cancer. A steady, measured acceptance. Like the tempered friendship he told me he only wanted as he drove me home.
But I wanted—in the vernacular of romance—I wanted more. Always more. Desire the stuff of suffering as my arm reached out to hug him, bulky and distant in our winter coats, for the final time. And then he went silent, missing, in the virus's new, eerie, isolated world.
But then, the unexpected: The possibility of a partner to accompany me through the dark passageway of the pandemic.
Leaving behind the case lists lengthening across the Atlantic, my old lover, the frequent flyer, frequent leaver, returner, returned. And as we gazed down side-by-side at the desolate city beneath my balcony, I envisioned months of the coming summer quarantined together, with our laptops back-to-back on the kitchen table for the workday, then my after-dinner drink on the balcony ledge, his cigarette smoke trailing over the empty streets.
Until he announced he was going down there, out into the cold windy night, out into the virus, for a desire—no, a requirement—I had not, in my fantasy, calculated: Another cigarette pack. "I will run," he promised, as if he could dodge sickness with speed, as I knelt panting, protesting, on the rug. Where I remained until his return, when he flung off the blue surgical mask I had lent him from my precious, limited supply. "This thing kept slipping down. Doesn't work. Don't like it," he huffed.
"I don't want it," he replied only weeks later to my offer of a two-layer fabric covering for his mouth, after our shouted exchange about entering a shop for a bottle of wine on the way to our private picnic in an empty park. "It will be fine," he had guaranteed of the indoor excursion. "But I don't want to risk it," I had whined, my voice rising with the oxygen escaping from my lungs, fear constricting my throat, convincing me that I would have to wrestle any potential infection alone.
I would have to watch the numbers on the thermometer rise between my own trembling fingers. Crawl to the mirror, my eyes the only ones to monitor my lips turning blue, my fevered brain the only one to determine the need for the hospital. And then, how to reach the emergency room, far across town, without a car? Could I endanger a taxi driver? Or would I have to wobble on unsteady legs without my lover's hand to hold?
Because he was leaving again.
"This will do," he said as he sliced a sleeve from a thin knit T-shirt. And after he stuffed the remnants into his suitcase, he stretched the flimsy fabric tube up his neck, over his nose, to filter the airplane air that would be circulating in the contaminated skies across the country, then across the world.
Where he burst out, brave, alive among the still-living. Not confined in the tiny rectangle coffin of my apartment. Not watching from the window of my phone as influencers, friends, coworkers, even my brother lit the screen with their youthful visages, laughing maskless over cocktails at restaurants, smiling barefaced into the sun on prohibited pandemic vacations.
"Stop going out!" "Where are your masks?" reprimanded the Twitter tyrants, the Instagram commenters.
But later, the enforcers turned around, turned against the news report of a woman, a few years younger, a few diseases healthier than me, who had not left her apartment—the newspaper calculated with cruel precision—in 265 days since the virus's start.
"Privilege," the Internet accused. "Ridiculous. Neurotic," the comments mocked.
So I stayed silent. Did not list my secret in tiny typeface within the Internet's infinite void.
I had not left, either, since he left.
"Come on," a friend or two coaxed me afterward toward a walk in the park. But I was following recommendations, ethics. Not leaving if not necessary. Not transforming into yet another potential vector to transmit this deadly disease to those whose lives or livelihoods offered no protection from dangerous public spaces.
In the solitary evenings of those dark months, as I read on my balcony, I communed with others contemplating death. For a while, Paul Lisicky, with his new memoir, Later: My Life at the Edge of the World, which chronicles that earlier viral pandemic, HIV, and his daring, dangerous dances with death in 1990s Provincetown. But far-off, in Florida, is where his thoughts turn again and again, where his lonely, risk-averse mother, stuck in her indoor routine of TV, watches from the outside with apprehension, maybe envy, as her son reaches "toward another life."
"Every time she took a step toward another life? Well, maybe that step took her to a bad place," he writes. "Maybe if you're not fully alive it isn't so hard to die."
Then an even more overt acceptance of death—an invitation, really—beckoned in Yiyun Li's memoir on suicide, Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life. But as she pages through the correspondence and notebooks of past authors, many who ended their own lives, Li stops on a letter, equal parts resistance and resignation, desire and despair, written by reported hypochondriac Ivan Turgenev. "May God spare you the feeling that life has passed by and at the same time has not begun yet," he wrote, a few years past the midpoint of his life.
In those unlived lives, I recognized myself. Anxious. Afraid. Now halted midway through the checklist of existence.
Two seemingly contradictory questions to ponder, then:
How do you prepare to die when your life seems never to have begun?
How do you keep living, in this strange end-of-world scenario, when your life seems to be over?
I had already been attempting answers, starting the process of resigning from life—as a mere contingency for a lonely future I was still denying might arrive—after that other virus, the herpes virus, had ended normal life. Ended conversations on dating apps. Truncated dates. Socially distanced me from the six-foot specimens who would draw back, wobbling on bar stools, gulping for breath, at my disclosure, as if the viral DNA could break through my cloth-covered skin and transmit across the empty air stretching us apart.
But now, with virus particles actually choking the air, with lists of prevention measures for dual diseases replacing flirtatious banter, perhaps my feared solitary future was assured.
How could a stranger change into a lover when a mere smile, never mind a now-risky kiss, was blocked by a mask?
I swiped at the bare faces on the dating app with a sluggish thumb. Initiated listless conversations, one awkward-angled video chat. Then lapsed into silence, or sometimes signed off from my entire account, each time some audacious stranger suggested an outdoor excursion, or a simulation of an ordinary encounter in the hazard zone of a half-open bar.
"Before you risk catching COVID," I planned to tell one man as we made far-off fanciful plans for a post-vaccination rendezvous, "I need to tell you that I have herpes, in case you'd rather not risk meeting."
Would he wave away the silly, simplex virus that only reddens the skin, after a year of fearing the more complex, killer spikes of the coronavirus that could clot the heart and suffocate the lungs? Or was humanity's collective breath held now at any indication of an invader into our fragile membranes? Lips sealed beneath double masks. Hands slicked in sanitizer. Fingers sheathed in rubber gloves, like condoms snapping over the skin. Eyes widening behind safety goggles or sunglasses at any positive test results. Now more terrifying than ever.
So perhaps my isolation, like the herpes virus, would prove permanent. This pandemic pause practice for the rest of my life. A final lesson in resignation.
"I'm happier than I've been in a long time actually," I texted my brother one evening in an exchange as heated as the Florida beach where he and his new girlfriend had just vacationed for Thanksgiving while the virus spiked.
My reprimands had provoked his attack: "What would you like me to do?" he had asked. "Not leave my house like you? I worry that you are going to lose your mind and your health from confining yourself to your house," he said.
What if he was right? Perhaps I had lied with my quick insistence of happiness.
Perhaps so I would force myself toward happiness to make the statement true.
Yet a strange kind of calm actually had carried me through that becalmed late summer and fall, while I floated alone in my tiny apartment above the city into the quiet evenings, as it exhaled after the fevered spring and summer, with its rising lists of crimes—car-jackings and shootings—that had surged down Chicago's streets.
Still, my own exhale surprised me with my relief not to be down there, among the exhilarating rush of my usual city adventuring, long walks and concerts and coffee shops.
"I miss going to shows," I told my parents, far away in a shaky video, where their faces—framed with gray, aged suddenly in the close-up camera—remained trapped by the pandemic in the four walls of their home, and of my phone.
"But I don't miss going alone," I said.
Slinking into a seat, or sliding into a standing-room-only opening, hidden in the back by myself. Then staring, open-mouthed, at abundant groups of friends, greeting each other with hugs, consulting long lists of tickets, long rows of seats situated together, in front of couples, sliding a hand around a shoulder, shifting a head against the other's neck at the music's start.
And then, with the crescendo of the melody that climaxed in the evening's final piece, my panic would likewise rise as I planned my path home. Maybe frantically flailing for a taxicab among the throngs outside the theater. Or, instead, staggering in unsteady heels down the treacherous empty midnight city streets alone.
Not quite as lonely, though, in that eerie emptiness as in a crowd.
Crowds that used to be laughing, tipping drinks from tipsy hands at happy hour along the Chicago river walk, where I used to push through the throngs on my solitary route from my office to my home.
And I used to linger, too, on long, lonely Saturday afternoons on my rectangle of blanket, its edges extending to the width of only my own arms, at the lake front, where chatter from hammocks, holding lovers with naked limbs entwined, would drift over on the wind, then on toward picnic spreads, where clusters of couples would crowd together over baskets of sandwiches, nuzzled by nosy Labradors in between their wild dashes around the park.
But that park, like all spots of possible congregation at Chicago's waterfronts, had been ordered closed now. Gates locked. The picnickers and lovers gone. And with them had also disappeared my envy, my obsessive observation of their camaraderie, my comparison of my state to theirs.
Loneliness had vanished. Because the whole world had come together in this aloneness with me.
Even the socially defiant—the Instagram influencers continuing to list the menus of their customary Sunday brunches al fresco at restaurants, the neighbor hosting his weekend parties that reverberated with revelry until 2:00 AM through my apartment wall—even they no longer left me longing for the luxuries of their lifestyle. No more fear of missing out on their Friday nights. The risk too great in every embrace, every bite. The price too high for a frivolous Sunday brunch if the total cost listed at the end of the check was death.
So instead of the preoccupation on all I once might have been missing—FOMO just a newer synonym for that ancient noun desire—my perspective focused on all I had. A literal turning from the outside world to the indoors. Gratitude for the most basic provisions, once assumed, now uncertain. The hot water steaming in each morning's shower. The electricity preserving the cheese and blueberries in my fridge, which had not seemed guaranteed when I first compiled my list of shelf-stable quarantine sustenance. The stovetop's gas-blue flame frying onions in oil, boiling buttery rice for an evening meal. Then the burning bulbs lighting my evening book.
I turned to simple syntax, then, prose I would have once disdained as too plain, unlike the poetic language I preferred. But the straightforward translation of Karl Ove Knausgaard's seasons quartet seemed best suited for this season of stillness, with his childlike meditations on the ordinary, the close at hand: Apples or frogs or cats or coins or chairs.
In my own corner chair, I would later lay aside my book in the Saturday afternoon sunshine that warmed the gray cat in my lap, and I would memorize her markings, modulations of butterscotch swirled through patches of white that I had never noticed before. Unsure now of how soon she might turn into only a memory. Uncertain of what imperceptible aging or decay moldered beneath the surface of her fur, unchecked by the veterinarian, where I feared the virus might lurk along the baseboards and the floors, waiting for a sniff of her pink, twitching nose. And as I studied her old, sober face, her paws pulsed my arm—the only living touch against my skin since my departed lover's hands—and her gaze never turned away, the way his had. My love, my concentration, never too much for her.
Until this doing of nothing, this appreciating of everything, became a kind of meditating. A persistent presence in the present.
My mind and body stilled, flat on the new mat I had centered on my apartment floor for the yoga videos I started to sample in place of my walks to the office or the park. And after the stationary steps, after the syncopated beats between jabs and kicks at empty air, after the instructor's artificial exhortations, her fake praise pretending she could somehow see my solitary figure flailing alone in an empty room, my muscles would relent. A resignation. Yielding to the rubber beneath my back. My legs apart. Arms inert. Palms up. Mouth open. Eyes—crying for no reason I could understand, far below the far-away ceiling, with its cracks and ridges and crumbling cement.
And then, against the hardwood, I was stamping, dancing later, late at night in the dark, and my singing changed to sobbing, symphonizing with the orchestra that burst through my speaker and out into the night. "You're a sky, you're a sky full of stars," Chris Martin intoned. And I wanted to stop my solo spinning and find my phone, find my brother. "When this is all over, let's go to a Coldplay concert again," I wanted to insist.
But I never sent the text.
Would there be an "over"? Would stadium crowds ever reconvene? Would he even want to go? The way he went—happy in my presence for once instead of with his preferred friends—that cool evening four summers before, when 50,000 flashing wristbands, like countless stars, lit the reverberating dark, hope lifting us from our seats, energy vibrating across our skin, like the fireworks blazing up from the arena and exploding, dazzling above the skyline of the sparkling city lights.
I had all that. And I had this moment, too, leaping to the music in my living room.
Why ask for more?
Perhaps at last I had begun giving in to giving up. And with the acceptance of what my circumstances were, an acceptance, too, of who I was.
"I have a theory," I told a friend in a late-night video chat, "that the pandemic is making us all more our true selves." Without the usual interactions of friends and family, influencing choices, recommending over cocktails a reconsideration of that risky career decision, that fraught text to an ex, perhaps we each reverted to our own central identity.
"I don't even know her anymore," I lamented of another friend, who had left her city apartment a few streets from mine during the restless, uncertain summer and had followed the sidewalk rectangles far out until they ended in gravel and grass. "Dead end," warned the sign in the photo she had sent me of her new, rural street. Would one of our downtown drunkenings, as she had termed our previous weekly chatter over negronis and daiquiris in rotating Chicago cocktail bars, have persuaded her to stay, to second-guess the binding mortgage contract she had signed for a condo miles away?
Across that distance now, I saw her only through the Internet, in videos she posted of a new life I did not recognize, in between sporadic, half-finished texts.
Then, via an abrupt mid-afternoon text, another friend's partner ended their relationship with a list of all the shortcomings in the long decades of their love.
And it was my family's loving concern, my brother grumbled over text, that was cramping his style, he said. By imploring him to stay home, to stay safe. To consider us, others.
In these strange assertions of individuality, suddenly everyone seemed intent on resisting this shared experience of sickness, defying the communal equalizing all inherent in the prefix of the word pandemic. Even a simple mask twisted into a symbol of personal choice, individual expression.
"I hope that's not true," my friend responded to my theory on the pandemic's distillation of our personalities. "Otherwise that means I'm grumpy and anxious at my core," she said.
And yet, why not accept whatever truth this process had revealed? Yes, the trivial. The natural sullen brown hair that belied the fake blonde persona I had fabricated since my teens with yearly visits to the now-closed salons—though I still referenced the unreality on social media in my screen name, "Dyedblondegirl." But even the youthfulness of that name had darkened into dishonesty, my brown scalp now discolored with unconcealed early grays, curtailed and wiry, outward manifestations of the frayed neurons shorting and synapsing beneath with anxiety.
And yes, the anxiety, too, a trait to accept.
I had acknowledged it years before, I believed, when I had accepted that psychiatrist's prescription, accepting the calming medication into my cells, internalizing it in the stomach and the lungs—which had rejected the panacea. But perhaps searching for a cure constituted resistance, rather than resignation. Trying to change, rearrange the atoms of my anxiety instead of acquiescing to the chemicals already prevailing in my brain.
"I think your anxiety, even more than your autoimmune diseases, would be the reason to stay home," my doctor opined when I asked at the start of the pandemic for a note providing permission to work my secretarial job from home.
An accommodation, then. Making space in my tiny apartment, in my now-narrow life, for anxiety to dwell with me. To never leave me, the way I never left to see family, friends. My closest friend now—my fear.
"I'm a crazy person," I declared over and over, giving voice to the thoughts of friends and coworkers trying to conceal their astonishment at my long home imprisonment.
But I had made peace with the undesirable yet necessary measures that would prevent perpetual panic. Half-gasped breaths. Fluttered heartbeats choking my throat. Numb, weakened fingers.
"I do not believe that you should devote overly much effort to correcting your weaknesses," posits psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman in his best-seller Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. "Rather, I believe that the highest success in living and the deepest emotional satisfaction comes from building and using your signature strengths."
The theory had intrigued me years before. But then I had finished and forgotten the book, returning it to the library, then returning to therapy sessions, to self-help guides. Still struggling toward self-improvement.
The metaphor of strife, not of surrender. For does not surrender equate, in our competitive society, to defeat? We're urged to overcome depression, anxiety. Fight cancer. Battle COVID. Tackle aging. Amass arsenals of serums, medicines, mental strategies to prevent the unpreventable: Death.
But what if, instead, we initiated a metaphoric dance with our deficiencies, and with our death. A yielding sometimes to the partner's lead. Yes, gentle suggestions for altered or extended choreography. But always a commitment to the beauty of the merging movement for as long as possible, until the music fades away.
Such fatalism once used to force me to grit my teeth, a pen gripped within my grimace to block my tongue, as through the thin rectangular walls of my cubicle in the once trendy (now treacherous) open plan of the advertising department of my workplace years ago, a manager's voice would trill across the desks with her sing-song signature slogan: "It is what it is," she would end a phone call with a product rep who could not provide proper specifications on one of the electronics that our company sold. "It is what it is," she would pronounce after the past weekend's newspaper ads had listed the wrong price on a laptop, the wrong photograph of a camera.
"It is what it is," echoed the president of our country in an infamous interview after far more horrifying wrongs, weekend after weekend of a mishandled pandemic.
A defeatist, despicable relinquishment of responsibility by those with power.
But for the powerless, perhaps the mantra could offer a kind of comfort in acceptance.
"I'm going to encourage you to look away, because these next few months are going to get very, very dark," a celebrity advised his fans in a grim social media video at the pandemic's early, uncertain start, when the skies of the future seemed to dim into that eerie, queasy green just before a tornado warning.
Look away? I questioned. Ignore the storm decimating my neighbors, maybe surging directly toward my family and me?
"Maybe take a break from Twitter and CNN," my therapist suggested gently at the end of several video sessions, just before the rectangle of my laptop screen would blank out black.
"Stop scrolling through COVID articles on your phone before bed," my brother texted when I updated him on new lists of risk factors being parsed by scientists at the cellular level: Chromosomes, genes, antigens in the blood.
"What do you want me to do about it?" he said.
What could anyone do, except those feeble, measly gestures—washing hands, wearing masks, staying home.
"You can't change your blood type," he said.
It is what it is.
And death, also, is what it is. In those double being verbs—derided by writing teachers everywhere—the sentence stops static, dead. Yet the inertness of being verbs always troubled me less than did their inflexibility, tending toward pronouncements, with so little space or patience for ambiguity, ambivalence, alternatives.
But even if illustrated in an endless list of action verbs—Death prowls; stalks; comes—its immutability, its inevitability remains. Indeed, there are no alternatives. Death is.
"OK. Dad is going to die," I had realized—the sharp consonants as clear in my thinking as if articulated aloud—sitting in the silence of my childhood dining room after my mother had answered the long-ago phone call, the ringer jolting the whole family into the dreaded news: His cancer had returned. And with it, my first acceptance of death.
After that acquiescence, I could acclimate to anything. His decision to cease treatment. His attempt at an alternative cure of carrot juice and supplements that somehow, in some twist of luck that we attributed back then to a generous God, flushed away all the deformed cells swelling his lymph vessels.
Yet I poked at my own nodes in my neck for the next two decades. Checked my breasts for metastasizing masses. Monitored my ankles with the repetitive press of my fingertip for any indication of inflammation similar to my dad's cancerous lymphatic drainage. Ever the death detective. Still resisting resignation to my own ending.
"Why go not gentle into that good night?" I had tried to reason with my teenage self in an English homework assignment responding to Dylan Thomas's ultimate fight song against the mortal enemy. But my supporting lines of argument had appropriated my parents' then-religious rhetoric of heaven, of an afterlife—which now, years after my last worship service, seemed as unlikely as a prior life, which did not register in my consciousness.
Still, though, why not a gentle tete-a-tete with death? Not because a better second life was promised, but because a better present life was possible without a constant tangling with the inevitable. Making peace with death so as to make a peaceful life.
The final resignation required of everyone: "I understand—no, I accept—that death applies to me."
Yet resistance—whether by active fight, or by passive denial—seemed to be the default human setting.
"This was never supposed to happen to her," Joan Didion declares of her daughter's fatal illness in the early pages of Blue Nights, her second memoir on resisting death, on attempting magical thinking to rise above its commonness—in both senses: Its prevalence and its vulgarity. "Outraged," she describes herself in her daughter's intensive care unit, "as if she and I had been promised a special exemption." And later, facing her own body's frailty, she states, "I had lived my entire life to date without seriously believing that I would age." In fact, when a doctor's form requires emergency contact information, she notes that "Emergency, I continue to believe, is what happens to someone else."
This presumed immunity from the normal human condition had seemed narcissistic, or naïve, when I had read Didion's memoirs years ago. One of the false stories she was telling herself in order to manage to live.
And yet, that same story was echoed now in the masses who refused masks and lockdowns and distancing, or simply denied the virus outright. Somehow, its equalizing disease and death did not apply to their superior, unique immune systems.
Some special dispensation from death had apparently been negotiated by my brother before departing on his frequent trips, or by my lover flying with his thin T-shirt sleeve across his nose, or by the influencers continuing their brunches and boat parties unabated on Chicago's river and lake, unbound by the fear that had locked me for a year within my apartment.
In our opposite responses, however, we had in common this: A resistance to death.
We both pushed against it like the rerouting of the river running through Chicago, which had long ago forced its river's flow to reverse, diverting the polluted currents away from the city's freshwater lake, in a gargantuan project that had piled up thousands of hours, millions of cubic yards of rock and dirt.
Evidence of the suffering of resistance.
And from there flowed the lesson of the river, I understood finally as I reread Siddhartha alone on my own sofa, this time without expecting the presence or promise of a lover nearby. Without clinging to any desire, like a branch above a rushing river. Floating, palms open in surrender, as if on a buoyant stream.
"Siddhartha stopped fighting his fate this very hour," Hesse writes near the novel's end, "and he stopped suffering. Blooming on his face was mirth of a knowledge no longer opposed by any will... and in agreement with the flow of events and the current of life." The current that flows, it would follow, toward life's final event, death.
"Death List," I inscribed at last at the top of a blank notebook page, more than a year past the initial lists of pandemic statistics and my panicked grocery list.
Since those, other lists had intervened in the notes app on my phone. First a bucket list, with far-off fantasies of a cross-country move, a cross-continent vacation. Then an "After" list of more modest, immediate post-vaccination plans: A trip to the salon, the veterinarian, the lakefront, the river walk.
Inventories of hope for an unpromised future. The opposite of my intended index of memories, meant to make peace with the past—with the life I had been able to live—and, hence, with death.
Yet with my penning of the first memories on the Death List, the text was tinged with the shadow of sadness. Sadness at the endings, the losses of happiness that might never be reclaimed. And, too, the knowledge of hindsight that discolored the recollections: A first, transportive kiss infected by a herpes transmission afterward. An initial whispered "I love you" muffled by a subsequent punch.
My hand hovered over the rectangle of the page, stationary.
Then I was shuffling through disparate webpages, searching for reports on the persistence of negative versus positive memories.
Negative memories fade, one article insisted, to preserve the joy, say, of a beach vacation, and to forget the airport delays.
No, negatives implant themselves deep, in indelible detail, within the brain, a more recent study stated, citing the persistent hormonal power of intense, stressful emotions.
Yet with depression, a third report noted, the memories most easily retrieved veer not only toward the negative, but also toward the overgeneral.
So the secret is specificity, I understood suddenly. Singular moments, sensory details were the essence of happiness. The same way they were essential, according to writing teachers everywhere, in any draft.
My list, then, began again, detailing the particular.
Instead of the whole of my New York trip: The single candle flame beside the tiramisu on the table across from my lover at the West Village restaurant.
Instead of all the weekends at the beach: The chocolate donut and the book of poetry I read aloud, to the rhythm of the waves, in my lover's ear in my lap.
Then the slow dance to "All of Me" in the slanting sunset of the kitchen.
The plush blanket on the overstuffed chair where I read magazines in the Saturday morning sun.
The solo room service popcorn in the swirling hotel room tub for a significant birthday.
The first sniff of the top of the tiny kitten head when I opened the cardboard box and told my cat that she was home.
The tang of alcohol and laughter at the dim speakeasy with my best friend.
With each item, I made a kind of mark in the positive column, the credit column opposite death, in keeping with the original meaning of the word resign, from the Latin re-, indicating "back, opposite," and signare, meaning "sign, mark." Literally, to cancel, Merriam Webster says. As if to balance out a prior debt in the columns of an accounting ledger, the Online Etymology Dictionary suggests.
So maybe, in the same way, with this definitive, written proof of a life well lived, I could, in the final moments of life, cancel out its finality.
I closed the notebook. I was finally prepared for death.
And in those preparations, perhaps I had also prepared for life.
Maybe I would notice now the happiness within each present moment, always alert for details to add onto the list.
I would recite the items with the breath of every morning rising from my bed, without waiting for the last gasps in a hospital bed.
And then, someday, with those inevitable final heartbeats, the list would begin unbidden, already known by heart.
Because maybe the memories recollected the most are not etched into the fate of our hormones or our brains. Perhaps we remember best what we most keep calling to the mind.
I reopened the notebook. Crossed out the reference to Death. And then, above, I inserted a new title: The Life List.