A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Women over 60 share their coronavirus stories—from becoming a grandmother to dancing in the street.
Jane Ganahl, Bay Area, California
With news that oldsters like me are most at risk for the virus, some youngsters have shrugged their shoulders and called COVID-19 the “boomer remover.” Some politicians even suggested that if we seniors really loved our country, we’d go back to work and keep the economy from tanking, damn the dangers. Call it a patriotic suicide.
I spent most of my professional life as a journalist, covering fires, murders, earthquakes, and other calamities. I did enough “victim’s family” stories to turn my heart into the hardest obsidian. (I had to; it was the law of the newsroom to not let anything get to your emotions.) The hardening of the heart extended to my personal life, where I ended two marriages when they became too challenging, as well as every romantic relationship I’d ever been in—and there were many. I lived my life selfishly, devoid of spiritual belief of any kind.
But like many who reach this age—perhaps because we wake up to the fact that our years on the planet are numbered—I began to question all this a few years ago when I stumbled upon a colony of stray cats near my home. They were starving, neglected, sick. As a longtime cat lover, I could not turn away, and started to help. This seemingly small development proved to be the one that would slowly drag me into a softer-hearted version of myself. To quote e.e. cummings, “the eyes of my eyes” were opened.
And when the granddaughter was born almost three years ago, the transformation was complete. Every movement of her tiny hand, every verbal utterance, seemed sacred: biblical code telling me my life’s direction, and reminding me that the iron doors to my heart could never again be closed.
So here I sit, aching from the pain of isolation and separation, tearful when I see the suffering of those in ICUs around the country, euphorically grateful that I am healthy, enchanted by the jade-green centers of the ranunculus flowers I bought myself for my birthday… feeling everything so acutely. I sometimes wish I could shut those doors, even just a little.
But I can’t, and that’s OK. This is me at 68. I rescue cats and earthworms, dote on the people I adore. Am I ready to die? Absolutely not. I love myself now. Wall Street will have to find another martyr.
Carol Davis, New York City
I’m talking to my 94-year-old father on FaceTime. I watch as his face moves on and off the screen because he doesn’t really understand FaceTime. Sometimes he reaches out and touches the screen, covering the camera with his index finger. His devoted caretaker, conscientiously masked and gloved, takes the finger away from the camera and holds the phone for him at the correct distance. Still, his eyes wander, as the technology is simply not intuitive to him. I wonder if he believes he’s really talking to me.
We can’t sit together in the same room, he casually squeezing my hand while he tells me the same stories I’ve heard countless times. He’s an immigrant who fled Hungary with his family when he was a young boy and learned the language of tenacity and arrogance on the streets of the Bronx. He built an empire, traveled the world, collected vintage automobiles, each of which he can still name by make and model, better than he can remember my birthday. Now he sits in his living room, isolated from his family; we are his last remaining connection to his already shrinking world.
“Where are you?” he asks me.
I live directly across the park from him.
“I’m home. Where I always am,” I say in the same reassuring tone I used with my own kids when they were young.
“How are you feeling today?” I ask.
“Not bad for an old man,” He says. He pauses, a faraway look in his eyes. “How old am I?”
“Ninety-four,” I say.
“Ninety-four,” he repeats. “I thought I was 80.” He sounds disappointed.
“How’s your mother?” he asks. “I haven’t heard from her in a while.”
I don’t know whether I should remind him that she died over 40 years ago. Before I can answer, he begins a story I’ve heard many times.
“You know we met in the Catskills,” he continues, “right after the war. I had no money. I got a job as a busboy at the Kiamesha Lodge. The pay was good. I’d just come back from Germany, assigned to work at a D.P. Camp [Displaced Persons Camp—Ed.], because I spoke Hungarian and German. They needed interpreters for all those people from the camps. I found my cousin and my aunt, and my mother was so happy I found them…”
He goes on for a while longer before trailing off, as if the gravity of his story suddenly tires him out.
“How are you doing?” I ask.
“Not so good,” he replies.
“What is it?”
“My blond girlfriend told me she doesn’t want to see me anymore.”
Robin Reif, New York City
Though I would never have uttered this aloud, I always believed myself invincible. My father, a doctor, lived to 99. His motto: Genetics overcomes all. I thought I’d won that lottery until this crisis punctured my delusion. I’m told each day that my age gives the virus the edge in any potential skirmish, a threat made painfully real when my generous and amiable neighbor, a retired dentist, died of the illness last week.
My daughter puts me back on track. I can’t think of a better way to spend precious days than with this child who I adopted as a single mom. She’s heading to college next fall, so staying home has gifted us time for a long goodbye. We’ve been looking through old photographs, remembering what we’ve been through as a family and having difficult conversations, the kind that might have gone unspoken without this strange cocoon created by quarantine. I’ve had the chance to apologize for some terrible mistakes. She’s had the chance to be angry out loud and we’ve embraced as tightly as we ever have.
We’ve begun marking time with new rituals: heading out around 11 p.m. each night into the vibrant, unstoppable spring. We stroll empty streets, dark and fragrant with red maples and crabapple trees in bloom; magnolias too, their stiff, upturned beaks starting to crack open. She takes my arm. We chat, or we’re quiet. We improvise a dance in the middle of West 70th Street without a car in sight.
Finding freedom in confinement feels like the descending of grace.
Susan Ito, Oakland, California
Born in 1959
On day three of sheltering in place, we were getting accustomed to the new normal. My husband, me, our two adult daughters, and son-in-law were now all huddled at home. Our jobs were on hold or online. Five adults and three dogs had been thrust into a new intimacy.
On Sunday afternoon, a group text message on the “family channel” spread through the house: Our elder daughter, living downstairs, was in early labor. Before the outbreak of coronavirus, she had planned on a home birth. Now, we were doubly relieved she wouldn’t be entering a hospital. A few hours later, the doula and midwife arrived and I heard my daughter’s voice break through the floorboards: a single, long roar of pain and effort.
The sound of her voice shattered me. I grabbed my puffy headphones to distract the sound of her suffering, and then I heard my husband and younger daughter’s voices. “Is that a baby?” “I hear a baby!”
So soon? I joined them at the top of the steps. And then I heard it: the unmistakable cry of an infant, hoarse and insistent. The doula appeared, grinned and gave us a double-fisted thumbs-up. The midwife had arrived with just seconds to spare.
We were ushered into the dark room, heated to sauna temperature so that the transition from womb to earth would not be too abrupt. We knelt by the bed. A little black-haired creature snuggled against my daughter.
“She has a butt chin,” murmured the new aunt. The tiny familial dot of a cleft. We sighed in recognition, and how she mirrored both her parents: her perfect nose, her flowering lips.
We baked a cake with limited ingredients. The flour was almost gone and we had no powdered sugar for frosting, so we made a flourless, mousse-like chocolate cake that called for eight eggs. How carefree we were, not realizing that the next time we went to the store, there would be no eggs. We found a blue and green candle shaped like the number one and stuck it into the cake topped with cocoa powder and sprinkles. We tiptoed into the darkened baby den, and softly sang “Happy first-day to you” in the room lit by the single flickering candle.
First published in Yes! Magazine in conjunction with McSweeney’s. Illustrations are by Enkhbayar Munkh-Erdene, associate art director at Yes! Magazine. Included in Vox Populi with permission.