A Pealing

My story begins in a white clapboard tower where a 14-year-old is ringing a church bell as hard as she can. The year is 1975 and our Massachusetts Minutemen are assembling with their muskets on the green below. In the next hour, we will march to Concord as part of a year of re-enactments intended to culminate on the July 4th Bicentennial. Once I realized that history could come alive, I couldn’t get enough books and films. On family trips, I’d run up to memorial plaques on stadium walls to read about the WW1 soldiers. By the 1980’s, I was reading about something called the 1918 Influenza and how it changed the world. Perhaps the most important message I took away was this: even in the farthest places, the virus was something that came to you. You did not have to go out to meet it. It would come to your field, to your troop ship and to your orchard. It would come on its own time, but it would reach you.

Shortly after Valentine’s Day in 2020, I was getting up from the couch to get ready for bed. A few months earlier, I had returned to the home I grew up in. Emily, my 24-year-old daughter, had made the move with me and together we took care of my 90-year-old dad. Stepping out of the room, I glanced at the TV news and saw images of hallways. Clinic hallways, not in China but in Italy. Hallways in Iran. I didn’t need to hear the words. I stood very still and started to feel cold. I lifted my eyes and took a breath. To the right and then to the left, I examined the walls of my space and tried to grasp the entirety; I was standing in a hallway.

Something was no longer in a place. Something was on its way. On its way to my hallway and I did not know how much time I had.

One surprise was how the same shelf of history books provided me with a plan. And it may help the reader to understand that at this point, the very earliest part of 2020, we genuinely did not know whether this was or was not existential. My plan began to form around an assumption that my family and I were not necessarily facing death, but were facing the equivalent of a year long war. The first change to my life was a new layer of work and labor; 20-40 hours per week that I now had to manage on top of everything else.

No one in my household understood my sudden decision to go shopping at 9pm that night, but 30-minutes later I was wheeling a grocery cart -not panic buying- but “setting store” as New Englanders do when the weather turns. This will forever be my most enduring memory; silently weaving through aisles of talkative, mask-less neighbors immersed in their 2019-world, while gingerly holding inside that which I knew and they almost certainly did not. Their awareness would come two weeks later. But on that night, the understanding and the fear was mine alone. On my way home, I stopped on the green and looked up at the church bell which I knew how to ring very hard.