By the time you read this commentary, it will be a mere time capsule – a frozen moment in our now warp-speed sociological and physiological existence.
Newspaper columns are supposed to be timely, but with a new chronicle being made in hourly increments since the Coronavirus outbreak, this week’s musing is bound to be old news. So, consider it a history lesson. A look back at “the olden days” of two weeks ago when life was entirely different than it is now.
About 14 days ago, I was at a Latin bar in Key West jumping into a conga line with my teenage daughter and a horde of sweaty strangers who were dancing and laughing, entirely carefree. A few days later, the Governor of Florida announced the mandatory closure of drinking and eating establishments across the state to combat the global COVID-19 pandemic.
At the airport, waiting for the flight home from our apparently ill-timed mother-daughter spring break trip, I waffled between thoughts of cautious indignation and secret panic as news blared on an overhead television at the gate.
“Everyone must be overreacting,” I mumbled to my daughter, Lilly, with a dismissive huff. “I read that at least half a million people die of the flu every year, but over 95 percent of people infected with Coronavirus recover, so why should everything shut down?”
Lilly – already bothered by my insistence that she wear gloves and a scarf pulled up over her mouth and nose while traveling – shrugged. A minute later, a woman nearby coughed. Lilly and I glanced anxiously at each other. With gloved hands, I tugged my own scarf up with my eyes darting suspiciously.
Was I overreacting, too?
My husband picked us up at the airport. On the way home, he updated us on the state of emergency in our area. “I’m working from home until further notice,” he said. “Your hours at the library have been cut. We have to pick up Anna from college because her classes are online for the rest of the semester, and we have exactly twelve and a half rolls of toilet paper left at the house.”
We laughed about how ridiculous people were acting, but our underlying instincts told us to gather everyone into the safety of our nest and hunker down.
Over the next few days of my self-imposed quarantine, my mind continued to waver between skepticism and dread. Between pity and pride in human beings. Between greed and gratitude for our personal belongings. Between confidence and concern over our finances.
Gun sales soared, stocks plummeted, schools closed, hospitals filled, death tolls rose. Yet governments acted responsibly, citizens volunteered, an economic stimulus package was enacted, and random acts of kindness abounded.
By the end of each day, I needed a break from the chaos of climbing virus cases and healthcare struggles that had become the focal point of every news report. To restore my sense of normal, I’d cook a comforting meal for my family, and we’d all watch a movie. For a couple of hours, we’d pretend like things were like they used to be.
While I had been in Key West, my husband had gone to the base commissary to stock up on “the essentials.” The contents of our fridge included two cheap frozen pizzas, sports drinks, a bag of oranges, a head of iceberg lettuce, salami, a loaf of bread, milk, eggs and various half-used condiments.
Ironically, the sparseness of our food supply made me realize what I’d taken for granted. On the first night of our exile, I found a wrinkling yellow pepper and a red onion to spruce up the pizzas. The radishes and carrots in the back of the vegetable drawer were still good, so with a half-bottle of Italian dressing, I made a tossed salad, too.
I still wanted to believe that the pandemic was just an overreaction, but as my family ate, I knew that, real or not, this crisis would reset my values. I would be grateful for family, for neighbors, for the military, for healthcare workers, for my job at the library, for the hairdresser who covers my greys, for restaurants, for first responders, for wrinkled peppers, for frozen pizzas … and yes, for twelve and a half rolls of toilet paper.