Winter Deer

November 9, 2020 at 9:14 pm (Uncategorized)

Winter came early to Montana this year.  A foot and a half of snow fell before Halloween. 

Cold and snow make it harder for me to spend time with Jay and Andrew, now that I’m living separately from them because of Covid.  Our days of family dinners outside on the deck or hiking together during long twilights are over.  I still show up to cook or eat dinner with them, but we eat in separate rooms.  We can see each other, and mostly hear each other if we raise our voices over the air filters. 

Driving home after 9 PM on the night after the snow storm, I was feeling sorry for myself.  Wasn’t it just my luck to lose access to the outdoors during a pandemic?  Of all the years for a hard winter, it had to be in 2020, during a separation I do not want.  I was also angry.  Angry at the weather gods, angry at many people’s eagerness to behave as though nothing has changed.  If we could all just wear our damn masks inside and stop pretending a cataclysm isn’t happening, I would be able to move back home sooner. 

There was hardly anyone else driving out on Helena’s icy streets.  I inched my way down a steep hill that intersects our downtown.  The stark light of the nearly full moon reflecting off the snow forced me out of my head.  It was bright enough that trees cast shadows in the dark. Their bare branches swayed like they were in prayer at the synagogue. 

Suddenly, as if the brittle air had exhaled them into being, eighteen deer appeared in my headlights.  They were mothers and fawns.  Typically, our urban deer lurk in yards and dart into the street to cross.  Not that night.  This was a herd.  They loped, but did not bolt, down the empty road for well over a mile ahead of me.  They brought me home, to my not-home, and then carried on their way. 

I sat in the parked, dark car in my driveway, feeling the air grow colder.  I watched the moonlight.  I breathed.  The writer in me, always on the lookout for a metaphor, wanted to see these deer as a sign of goodness.  They had been fearless, these mothers and children.  They were beautiful and strange.  If not for the early winter and the pandemic, I would not have been out in the snow and the moonlight to encounter them.  I would have been at home with my family, warm and sealed off from winter’s wildness.

But these deer were living beings, not constructs for me comfort myself with.  They were huddled together in the middle of a city street because they were cold and tired.  The deep snow made it hard for them move, so they were forced from the shadows onto the center line.  I don’t know if they noticed the moon, and the sacred feel to the shadows.  Probably not. More likely, they were stressed and hungry because the grass they feed on was lost beneath the snow’s carapace. 

The deer have stayed with me.  When I remember them, tears well in my eyes.  I am sad for their hardship, for the cold they will live with for months now.  I am also grateful for the grace they brought me in bitterness.  I look for them now every night, slowing down on the same stretch of road.  I have not seen them again. 

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Code of the West

November 6, 2020 at 2:36 pm (Uncategorized)

It’s an odd thing not to trust my neighbors anymore.

I’ve lived in Montana for nearly a quarter of a century, with a couple of years spent away. I’ve always loved the “get-along go-along” ethos of my adopted state. As long as you aren’t hurting another, the general vibe has always been to leave you alone. Smaller communities pride themselves on living by the code of the West. You show up and help members of the community when they’re in need. If their truck is stuck in a snowdrift or their house has been burned to the ground in a fire or the river washed away the one café in town, it’s a duty to help. In a place so starkly defined by our harsh environment, we need to stick together. You show up and keep one another alive.

Apparently, the code of the West doesn’t apply for anything related to a pandemic. It’s one thing to wench a neighbor’s car out of a river, but quite another to wear a face mask so that this same neighbor doesn’t die of Covid. I’ve watched Montana’s number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths rise with rage, helplessness, and a sense of inevitability. We’ve had nearly 38,000 cases and 409 deaths in state of less than 1 million. Hospitals in our few cities are at or beyond capacity. Billings made national news. I watched with horror as a nurse cried about how he had missed being with the first Covid patient who died in hospital. He vowed never to let another patient die alone, and so has come in on his days off or stayed late to hold the hands of those who would otherwise die alone. Meanwhile, this nurse has moved into his basement so he won’t infect his family. His hospital is full. This means small community hospitals, many of which don’t even have a doctor in charge, will be tasked with critical care patients. And, still, the cases continue to rise.

At the same time, some communities openly flout the statewide mask mandate. The man recently elected to be our new governor appeared at a “freedom rally,” where hundreds of people mobbed together without masks. Two weeks later, cases and hospitalizations surged in this county. After starting an online petition, parents marched on the first high school football game of the season to protest capping the size of the crowd and requiring masks. Our legislature is planning to convene in person in January, bringing along avowed “anti-maskers” who will inevitably infect other legislators and people in the community—and then all go home and infect people there. Where will the sick go?

What has happened to our society? When did it become negotiable that it’s OK to infect someone with a potentially lethal virus because… What is the rationale? I’m still trying to understand. That it’s so burdensome to wear a mask? That a small discomfort outweighs the life of those around you? I can’t make any sense of it.

I need to let go of this constant rage burning in my gut. It’s not changing anyone’s behavior. I’ve got to accept that a basic compact of society has been broken. I must learn that my neighbors won’t help me stay alive.

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November 6, 2020 at 12:28 am (Uncategorized)

I am trying to follow through on a resolution. Rather than write less formal material in my Facebook posts and save my blog for more put-together pieces (that I never write), I’d like to start using my blog as a place to share thoughts, develop ideas, and hopefully have a dialogue. (Plus, it will keep me off Facebook more.)

Since I last updated my blog, a lot has changed in my life. I know Covid has brought all sorts of unwanted changes to so many of us. After consulting with my sarcoidosis experts, I made the gut-wrenching decision to move out of my family home. Since August I’ve been in an apartment that’s a ten-minute drive from Jay and Andrew. Given my underlying illness and immunosuppression, it was too risky for me to be around my husband and teenager without locking them down totally. If you’re interested, you can read about this decision in an essay I recently published in Montana Parent You’ll need to scroll through the digital version of the magazine to find my piece.

Although I am sad and angry to be on my own, I am trying every day to be grateful. I still get to see Jay and Andrew, though it’s getting more difficult to go for walks or eat dinner outside together now that winter has arrived in Montana. I remind myself that I have good health insurance and (for now) protections for my pre-existing conditions. I don’t have to show up for a job that could literally kill me. I am fortunate that we have the resources to keep me physically safe. Millions of other Americans like me with additional risk factors for Covid don’t. Jay still has good work. I live in a place where I can easily access natural beauty without running into a lot of people. I have good friends who check in with me and help keep me steady.

I think it is possible to be grateful and to grieve at the same time. I can count my blessings and still mourn losing time with my son in the last couple of years before he leaves home. I’ve already lost too much time, with all those long hospitalizations and years of sickness. I worry what will happen to my marriage. It was wonderful to be able to hike again this summer with Jay. But now what? I come over and we watch TV some evenings, across the room from one another, each wearing masks. We FaceTime before we go to sleep in our separate beds across town. Sure we talk. But marriage is rooted in casual physical intimacy. It is about standing shoulder to shoulder in the kitchen doing dishes or reading next to one another in bed, as much as it is about thoughts and feelings. I miss the specific smell of Jay’s skin. I miss the sense of his warm protection next to me in the night. What if we get out of the habit of one another and fall into a weird formality?

Like all Americans of good conscience (sorry anti-maskers, you’re officially uninvited from this community), there’s nothing I can do but keep moving forward as best I can amid this chaos, fear and loss, holding onto my gratitude as tightly as I can in one hand and letting my grief and fear be exposed to light in the other.

I’ve said a few times over the many years that I’ve posted here that “we all live in Chronic Town.” Covid has proved me right. Over one-third of all Americans are at greater risk from this disease. We all know someone who is vulnerable, who we don’t want to lose to Covid. Many of the topics I’ve explored since 2006 now seem relevant to all of us who care to recognize the reality of this pandemic. How do we keep moving forward when pieces of our identity have fallen away? How do we cope with loneliness? How do we maintain relationships when we can’t actually see or touch those we love? How do we live as fully as possible even though we are missing so much? How do we recalibrate to a new normal when we don’t want to? During my 16 years with systemic sarcoidosis, I was forced to accept realities I chafed against. My life had changed irrevocably. My future looked different than the one I had planned and worked for. I had to live with a new normal I resented. I wanted the old me in my old world back. Don’t we all.

My residency in Chronic Town hasn’t conferred me with special wisdom—perhaps more practice, but only to keep learning the same lessons over and over again. What saved me repeatedly was love—for and from my husband and son, for and from my family and Jay’s, for and from friends. They gave me a reason to keep trying to make sense and do my best in a strange world I resisted inhabiting. They gave me courage to try after making mistakes.

And now it’s 2020 and they’re doing it again for me. I’m in a new configuration because of Covid, but the same lessons apply. One step follows another. We’ll all get through this if we care enough and try enough. I am sure we can. But will we do it? Will we as a society and a nation care enough to see us all through?

Let’s talk about that next time.

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