I remember the moment I realized everything normal was gone.
My yellow cab was speeding down Madison Avenue through the grey slush, the remains of winter in early March. While the street would normally be jammed up with cars, causing the wheels of the yellow sedan to stagnate, the traffic was gone. In fact, nothing felt like it did before.
I’d been down this road. The pandemic is starting to feel like cancer.
A few months prior, I had also driven down Madison Avenue with a mask covering my face, praying that the cab driver’s hacking cough was a result of some underlying condition and not a virus. I was immunosuppressed after receiving 16 rounds of chemo for breast cancer. I knew that the common cold could land me in the hospital. And if I went to the hospital, I couldn’t see my kids and then what?
My body was rotting. No one tells you that chemotherapy will literally rot your body. Underneath my black leather combat boots, my yellow, gnarled toenails were falling off. My insides felt like a large blow-dryer had come and dried up all the moisture. My skin was cracked, red and inflamed. It hurt. Everything hurt.
The business of just living – moving, breathing, sleeping, taking a dump – required all of my energy. There was no energy left for joy. All that was left to live for was the promise of a future. Just hope.
When we picture cancer, it is always dramatic. Hurling in trash cans, bald heads and large clumps of hair on pillows. The struggle between life and death seems heroic, almost romantic – definitely epiphanous. But, more often, cancer is monotonous, lethargic, tedious. The tragedy of cancer is in how boring it is, or rather, how boring it makes you. Surviving is not interesting. It is just extremely hard work. And I’m saying this as someone who worked as a corporate lawyer in Manhattan for six years.
The worst part is often there are no clear wins or losses. Just waiting.
As a nation, we are all going through a type of cancer. It is metastatic. It is aggressive. It spreads rapidly throughout our organs and continues to pop up in random spots throughout the country. We are desperately trying to contain it, shrink it, slow it down and limit the losses.
Gone are the images of overfilled ICUs, field hospitals springing up in parks and convention centers, ventilators and teams of medical personnel emerging from the air, as if military personnel on the way to battle. Gone is the language of heroes and fighting and being in it together. What has replaced it is exhaustion — and boredom.
There is the feeling that we should just give up, that it is not worth the effort, that we should just live our lives. But if we give up, all this suffering would have been for naught. In the monotonous drone, we seem to lose sight of the fact that we are fighting for our lives.
There are no vacations, no parties and no hard-earned nights out. All the traditional markers of time have been cancelled – Easter egg hunts, Passover seders, July 4th barbeques, Labor Day festivities and Halloween. A virtual inaugural ball followed by a virtual Superbowl party.
Cancel culture? American culture itself has been cancelled.
Governments urged this past holiday season that if we love our families, we should not plan to visit them. The last vestiges of American pastoral life have been cancelled.
I had been here before. I can still see the brand new work clothes perishing in their original boxes beside my bed. The negative RSVPs to friends’ weddings. A postponed family trip to Arizona. Delaying the celebration of my daughter’s birth.
With the new surges of coronavirus outbreaks around the country, it feels as if America’s sickness is running in opposition to my recovery.
Yet when I return to Manhattan, I see evidence of the buds of new life.
The traffic is increasing. People are once again running in Central Park and sitting outside the cafes on Madison Avenue. The parks are full of children again. Although masked, they still let out the same joyful screams.
I see an elderly Italian man sitting at a sidewalk cafe, drinking his coffee and smoking a cigar. He is enjoying the unseasonable warmth of the late fall sun. My first thought is he shouldn’t be out here sipping his coffee with his mask around his neck. He is part of the vulnerable population. But I am so grateful for his presence. He is living.
When I was sick, I appreciated everything. Being permitted to accompany my daughter to the pediatrician was a gift. I sat in the waiting room beaming with pride underneath my mask and gloves. I’m her mother, you know, my expression revealed.
But it is hard to continue to be that appreciative once you’ve rejoined the land of the living. A false sense of security envelopes you. It is not sustainable to live on the edge of mortality, as it is too hard to focus on anything else when you’re constantly thinking about death. You forget that it’s all a privilege not a right. You get lost in the minutiae.
A bad hair day or an ordinary cold becomes the worst thing in the world again. You forget.
But then I remember.
I am grateful for the thick Medusa-like tendrils that represent my current stage of hair regrowth. I am grateful that the cold is just a cold and not a trip to the hospital.
We need to stay the course. To mask up, to be vigilant, to wash our hands, to just grin and bear it. I remember my mom once saying that she wouldn’t do it, if she had to go through the torture I experienced. I responded, “If you had no choice, you would.”
The upside of grey is that it makes us appreciate the ordinary colors of daily existence. The ability to go into a coffee shop and grab a pastry. The shrieks of children running through a schoolyard.
As society continues to recover, we will continue to experience these moments of perspective, just as I have. One day, we will shiver as a cold wind burns our skin. Then we will catch ourselves and remember how good it feels to once again feel the breeze against our unmasked face.