From the earliest days of its arrival, my biggest fear about COVID-19 hasn’t been that I or someone I love would die (death, while sad and often devastating, is inevitable). It’s been that all of us would lose our humanity.
It isn’t hard to see how that would happen. Day upon week upon month upon season of social distancing, masks, job loss, and the unrelenting news of more cases, more deaths, more records broken, all while we search for leadership and reel from a sudden and unforgiving spotlight on centuries of systemic racism. When the world around you feels so hostile to humanity, how do you hold onto your own?
In the last few days, I’ve felt my own slipping. For all of the reasons mentioned above, as well as the death of acquaintances in New Orleans and the loss of friendships and partnerships that fell victim to the dark clouds of our times. On top of that, it’s now been more than four months since I’ve been able to hug my mom, who has been confined to her assisted living community with no visitors allowed since March 10. The best I can do is stand outside Mom’s second-floor window and call her so that we can talk on our phones while we look at each other through the glass.
“It’s just too much,” more than a few friends have said in the past week. Lately, I’ve found myself agreeing with them.
Everything going on. It’s just too much.
When I went to see Mom yesterday, I looked down at the plot of grass where I stand pretty much every day. The place that is now beaten and battered by both the 100-degree Texas heat and the weight of my chubby body. “I feel like this grass,” I thought while waiting for Mom to appear at the window.
We ended up having a perfectly nice conversation, as we always do, replaying our days to each other, talking about the heat and pointing out some baby bunnies that were making their first appearance in the same grass I was standing. When it was over, we said “I love you” to each other and, right before I got to my car, I turned and gave Mom one final way.
There was nothing wrong with any of it. Like I said, it was perfectly nice. But for the first time in four months, it just felt so.
And that made me sad.
My elderly mother was confined to the walls within her assisted living community. It had been that way for four months and, though we never said so out loud, likely would continue to be so for months to come. And, somehow, I had become used to that. It had become the dreaded “new normal.” Talking to my mother from outside her window was just one more task I did in my day. Somewhere between my last client call, feeding the dog, talking with my partner and making dinner.
I had to do something. If the events of the past four months had numbed me to the point that talking to Mom through a window now seemed routine, then what other parts of my humanity were in danger of slipping away? Driving home from Mom’s window, I asked whichever gods and goddesses were watching over me at that moment to offer a clue. To shed a little light on the situation, as my Gran used to say.
Turns out one of those goddesses was Nina Simone (I know, I am quite the lucky guy in the gods and goddesses department).
While making dinner (and to honor John Lewis), I put on Miss Simone’s “Forever Young, Gifted & Black” album. The fourth song is a live recording of “Why? (The King of Love is Dead”) that she sang at the Westbury Music Festival three days after Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered. All these years later, I don’t need to tell you how powerful it still is to listen to her voice, her pain, her despair.
What I do want to tell you is that after she sang the song, Miss Simone spoke. And what she said helped me recover the humanity that was just barely slipping away.
After talking about the losses in the Black community in the years leading up to Dr. King’s assassination, she said, “We can’t afford anymore losses. All I have to say is that those of us who know how to protect those we love, stand by them, stay close to them….just stay there a little closer.”
“Just stay there a little closer.” That’s it, I think.
Six months after the arrival of a coronavirus and two months after the collective awakening to the virus of systemic racism, it seems like the one thing all of us must do is hold each other a little closer.
Just a little closer.
Now, I understand we can’t all be physically closer right now, but that’s OK. Because we can always be a little closer in our hearts, which is where our humanity dwells.
We can always wake up every day with a fresh intention to hold a little closer in our hearts those we love. And to allow room to also hold closer all the elders in America right now who are isolated and all the Black men and women who are trying to rise up against a centuries old system designed to hold them down.
We can all hold each other a little closer in our hearts.
“Just a little closer,” as Miss Simone said.
Because even a little closer will make the winds of these times sting a little less, the clouds feel a little less ominous, and our hearts feel a little bit stronger.
Because even a little closer will melt the numbness, the exhaustion, the “it’s just too much” so many of us feel these days.
So that we can keep our humanity.
May it be so.
The Mom Chronicles is a blog series about a middle-aged son learning to care for his elderly mother.