I moved to Manhattan exactly one week prior to the September 11 attacks. A day that most, if not all of us, will remember with great clarity, no matter where we were in the world. I remember walking south, away from the college I’d barely begun, and seeing the streets empty of cars. Instead, they and the sidewalks alike were full of people walking north, covered in ash. They were silent, and at the same time, all having the same conversation. New York was different, after. I hadn’t needed to be a veteran of the city to see that. To feel the shift in the way people related to each other. Were patient with each other. Counseled each other. On that southbound walk, there was a woman who got to a corner and knelt to the ground, exhausted. Immediately a stranger stopped and knelt down beside her. I lived in New York for nine years. That feeling of family lasted a long time. Eventually, though, we were running again at breakneck speed, in the city that never slept. We didn’t forget, and never would, but we had other things that needed tending. We were moving forward with our lives. It’s not a criticism. Perhaps it was even a coping mechanism. The way to take our power back. We would not be shut down.
Nearly 20 years after two planes shook us to the core within minutes, it is a Sunday morning in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Unlike that day in September, we’ve had at least some warning of the impending storm. For some of us, it is a mild inconvenience, for others, life-altering. It is 8:24 am. I am perched in a hand-me-down chair, drinking coffee out of a chipped mug with the letter “e” stenciled in green on the side. I’d normally be working today, but my bar has been shut down for two weeks now. The sun is shining through the window and the birds are singing, paying no attention to the tick-tick-ticking of the clock on my wall that reminds me that time marches on no matter what. For me, it is Day 14 of the quarantine. I haven’t been to a single shop or grocery store, nor a single restaurant for take out. Do I get a medal? I am not sick; surely that’s the prize.
A few years ago I was back in New York, in a taxi on my way to a baby shower, waiting to cross the Brooklyn Bridge. It was raining and I was running late, so of course we were stuck in traffic. There was a homeless man in a wheel chair slowly traversing the street, with great effort. My driver and I, who hadn’t spoken much, were suddenly at attention. It was unfortunately not an uncommon sight, but that didn’t make it any less heartbreaking. “You know,” my driver said, “When you are healthy, you have a million desires. When you are unhealthy, you have one. Only one.” It was a sobering observation, and one that has never left me.
At the time I am writing this, there are over 700,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the world. Nearly 140,000 in the United States. And many, many more unconfirmed as a result of a lack of available tests, or people self-treating at home in an effort to soften the blow to the already over-taxed hospital system. There will be even more cases by the time I post this. The father of a dear friend of mine just passed early this morning. He tested positive for Covid-19. My friend couldn’t give his mother a hug. There can be no wake.
There are some truths and traumas that change our vision of our world forever. The discovery of a lover’s betrayal. An accident. An unexpected sacrifice. A cancer diagnosis. The death of a loved one. The birth of a child. A pandemic. There are moments that can’t be unseen. Truths that cannot be erased. Blinders cannot be put back on. These revelations, even the epic ones, will not stop the lives of those who experience them, but will change the course of them forever.
The normal we will resume is unknown. This is the underlying fear of a lot of people I speak to. How long will this go on? If there’s an end in sight, we can cope. Here, the end of the tunnel feels vague, and the light is flickering at best.
But the unknown has never held us back before. There are many silver linings. We are coming together. We are slowing down. We are taking care of each other. We are driving across town to be in birthday parades for friends we’d rather hug, but will take what we can get. We are organizing world-wide moments of gratitude for healthcare workers. Organizing drives for food and supplies. Sewing supplies ourselves, and sharing them. Shopping for the elderly. Sending each other notes of encouragement in sidewalk chalk, “Stay strong.,” in pastel pinks and blues. It’s as if some greater force is whispering, “There is another way.”
After September 11, we weren't the same as a nation. We got back to “normal” in time, but it was a variant shade from what we’d known before. Not unrecognizable, but different nevertheless. I imagine the feeling in the aftermath of the attack was somehow similar to that of the Great Depression. After both world wars. Even the Spanish flu. But after each of these shockwaves, we gathered ourselves and got back up. We took our scars and our grief and we once again raised our gaze straight ahead. We made changes, and we were changed, but we got back to flying, in all senses of the word.
The clock is still clicking its heels like a soldier. The song of the sparrows, the crack of the crow, and the occasional coo of the dove, my mother’s favorite and so too, then, mine, bursts forth. They allow for the silence, too. Allow for the whispers. For the sound of the gentler melodies, usually overshadowed by the zealous percussion of life. Hopefully, when this is over, and one day, it will be over, we’ll find that new normal. We won’t be the same; hopefully, we’ll be better. Softer. Stronger. And why should we doubt that? We’ve never failed in this pursuit before. So hang on to the silver linings. Hang on to what could be. Hang on to that one desire. Hang on to each other. Just, hang on.