On Dealing with Death (in the time of COVID)

Imagine this: I spent five weeks at a writing residency in rural Nebraska two years ago. It was the most isolated I’d ever felt. The residency was in the middle of a square plot of undeveloped land, surrounded by corn fields, harvesting machines, dirt roads.  

Fields forever.
It was cold. But beautiful!

I lived in a dilapidated house that was literally lopsided. The side of the house looked like a face, slanted and googley-eyed. I flew in and had to rely on residents who had a car to obtain groceries. There were several days when no one could take me out and I lived on eggs, ramen, and tea.  

It was cold in Nebraska, the temperatures dropping into the low forties many of the nights. The house had no insulation and you could feel every change in the wind. I was so cold for so long, I thought I would truly never get warm. 

One night, after one of my roommates and I learned the fire on the second floor was operational, brought in some cut wood and started a fire. Another of our roommates brought out some wine, and I celebrated by drinking some.  

My wonderful roommates in our googley-eyed house.

Nevermind that it was red wine. I thought my sulfite allergy would be fine – I only had a little. But four hours later, bundled in my room, I felt the telltale itch in my throat, the tightening that I’ve come to associate with an allergic reaction.  

Within twenty minutes, I was having trouble swallowing. 

Imagine it: me in bed. It was thirty-five degrees outside. Dark. The only roads out of town (to a hospital thirty miles away) were gutted – ruined by the rain that fell earlier this week, creating frost heaves that were practically undriveable. I knew what was going to happen – either I was going to dig six tablets of allergy medication out of the emergency medical supply downstairs or I was going to die on the way to the hospital.  

I threw the blankets off my legs and slipped into slippers. It was freezing and my breath misted in front of me. Heading down two flights of stairs, I fumbled around in the dark. In the emergency medical supply, I was able to piece together six allergy tablets. Two were expired. I chanced it and took all six of them.  

+++ 

This is how I am in emergency situations. I think, I move, I act. I try to ignore the severity of the situation and instead sit with the facts: here’s what I can do. Here are my choices. Here is the only path I have to take right now. 

+++ 

Obviously, I didn’t die. I struggled to breathe for about twenty minutes before the allergy medication kicked in. I stared up at the ceiling of my uninsulated room. An artist who lived here before me had drawn on the wall and I stared at the graphic.   

My room for five weeks. 

A friend of mine, Wesley, had died a few days earlier. He had been sick for several months. We were close; I had loved him.  

I thought about him then, as I often did during that time, wondering if he was watching over me. I liked to picture him the way I remembered him before the stroke, strong and handsome and spry. I liked to picture him happy, wherever he was.  

Not yet, bitch, I could hear him saying. You still have time to be fabulous. 

+++ 

In the beginning of the COVID scare, I wash my hands until they are dry and cracked. I sanitize my desk, my laptop, every surface in my tiny house. A friend of mine is immune compromised and I routinely prepare myself for the call, if it were to come. I prepare myself to step in and help. I prepare myself to do whatever is needed to keep her alive.  

For someone who is still reasonably young, I have escaped death many times in my life. I’ve had car accidents, an eating disorder that almost killed me and that continues to threaten my life to life day. I’ve tried to commit suicide twice.

But my soul is wily and determined. I survive.  

Wesley used to tell me, You’re gonna find someone, girl. He believed in my happiness, my continued existence, perhaps more than even me.  

My beloved Wesley (second from left). 

Wesley keeps coming back to me now, when we are all facing death and demise in a way that we’ve never collectively faced before. I don’t know what the world is going to look like in four weeks, much less in four days. Everything is changing all the time.  

But despite it all, I’d like to think that Wesley had hope. I’d like to think that humans are built to survive, even when they don’t. I’d like to think there is hope and beauty, even with so much chaos and terror surrounding us.   

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