In the Shelter of Each Other

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Pandemic spring. You’re told to go inside, close the door and wait. You do what you’re told. You wait. The children are restless with the door closed. They want to go out, they want to go back to how it used to be, but you’re not sure it ever will. Something’s different this time.

lily greenThe telephone rings. How are you? Are you okay? Do you need anything?

You hear the waitress two doors down lost her job. She has a kid and no other family to speak of. You’ve seen her at the bus stop, but now there are no buses. You begin to feel smaller than you were, and helpless.

Outside spring sweeps brightly through the neighborhood, unconcerned with people, waking the ground and the budded twigs and all the air between them. You open the door and look out. No sign of danger. You take the kids for a walk.

A robin hops on a damp lawn, tilts her head as if she has a question for you. We promise, you tell her, not to come too close to anyone. She looks nervous and hops away.

You see others walking, a few, separated by space. They’re being careful too. They look as alone as you feel, and you share that without saying anything.

Days pass. People are hurting. The numbers rise. You hear of coffins in a cold warehouse waiting for the earth to take them, and for some reason you think of the person who keeps that place swept and respectful. You think of the waitress reading a book to her kid for the third time.

You get quieter, or wish you could. When something gets you annoyed, you notice and back off. What’s the point? You tell your kids that we’re all helping to flatten the curve and you do your best to explain what that means. They ask questions and you hear yourself talking to them in a way you haven’t before.

At breakfast there’s talk of selfless people caring for others, countless millions of them in countries you’ve never been to. You want to applaud them like the Brits did from their doorsteps, a magical applause sounding like a sudden spring rain falling on all the roof tops and gardens.

It’s odd but you feel like taking care of someone or something, do some little kindness you haven’t done before. You clean the fridge. The kids ask if they can make cookies and bring them to the waitress.

You speak on the telephone to a friend and after you hang up you remember that you forgot to say the one thing you really wanted to. You call back.

One night, turning away from sleep, you get up before light. You make a cup of tea and sit by the window. An image comes unbidden of an old man struggling to breathe and a masked nurse entering the room. You wonder what it’s like to die like that, or to die in any way at all.

You try to imagine dying, letting go that last time, saying goodbye that last time, dissolving into God knows what, and you feel suddenly a tenderness flooding your heart, a tenderness for everyone and everything in this world, and the feeling keeps expanding, opening out from you, a beautiful, inexplicable radiance flowing into the air around you and into the sleeping house and into the space between the houses and between the budded twigs and out beyond to the approaching dawn. It’s as if the foreboding of death has turned into something so precious and dear you feel the whole world is wrapped in it and is sheltered in it, a warmth, a caring holy love and thankfulness, and you know it’s not just rising from you but that’s it’s trying to rise from everyone, and you don’t understand it and you know you don’t need to.

Dawn comes, and another day, and another. You feel different. You feel bigger than you were. Kinder. Then one day the all-clear sounds.

Doors open. Neighbors come out of their houses. They’re smiling. Something’s happened to them like something’s happened to you. We’re not what we were. We greet strangers and shake hands. We say, How are you? It’s so good to see you! You must come over for tea! The waitress comes to thank you for the cookies and all the other things you left on her doorstep. Up and down the street, people are chatting and laughing, kids are running around, the trees are waving.

It feels like the beginning of the world. A robin on the lawn looks up and sees you, and now she’s just as happy as you are.