When news of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan first was announced, I was traveling in the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam, exploring its floating flower markets in a dragon-headed boat.
The reports reached us later, while we were chatting over lunch on a small organic farm surrounded by rice paddies. While these early accounts certainly were unsettling, we were ensconced in magical time, still oblivious to the threat that was rapidly advancing. But as the days passed and the situation grew more ominous, we purchased masks and wore them for the remainder of our trip.
Then we returned safely to the States, never imagining that life as we knew it was about to change utterly at home.
It’s now more than two months later, and I inhabit an alternate world — a surreal and frightening one, that makes the magic of Vietnam feel like a distant dream. Every day delivers some new, terrifying loss.
For me it begins mid-March, on Friday the 13th. The community center where I work is forced to close its doors and I begin working remotely from home, working more hours than ever. But after two weeks, I’m furloughed, along with two thirds of the staff, unmoored like so many workers everywhere. And so, after 19 years of a rewarding and familiar routine, I have no job to wake up to.
A day later, I find out that a young friend has just died of the virus. She was only 35, and left behind a 2-year-old daughter.
A two-decade chapter of my life has abruptly come to a halt, but I try not to dwell on the future, because there’s too much in the present to worry about. Caged in my house, I think the days will drag by, but they simply dissolve. I plan to wake up early, tackle projects I’ve long postponed, like making photo albums of family trips or finally organizing my stories into a book that I can edit at my leisure. But I find I don’t sleep, so I stay up late and read. I putter around the house, wiping down counters and washing my hands. I speak to my 90-year-old mother-in-law, who has survived typhoid and cholera and is weathering this storm in total isolation, like so many fearful seniors, who are dreadfully alone. I hear from friends in Texas and California and from members of an old book club, whom I haven’t spoken to in years. I clean out my kitchen cupboards and venture out to the market to stock up on canned soups and vegetables that normally I’d never buy.
The store is nearly bare. A week ago, I’d still greet people in the aisles and wish them good health, but now we all scurry past each other, masked, in silence.
When I get home and restock my shelves, I don’t recognize my own pantry.
Alika, my younger daughter, who just began her college career, now is home with me. Her exciting new life is derailed until fall, and she’s beyond despondent. I won’t allow her to visit her friends or her boyfriend, who’s been self-quarantined with two roommates in Brooklyn for weeks. Every day, she begs me to let him come stay with us, but too scared to take chances, I turn her down, again and again.
Defeated, she retreats to her room, and we nest in abutting bedrooms, where I hear her sobbing and whispering into her phone. She stays up all night, filling sketchbooks with drawings of underwater worlds, pictures of dark-eyed octopus and turtles, whales with flowered bodies and checkerboard fins, all safe in the sea. I marvel at her talent, which I’m delighted she’s exploring, but she sleeps until dinner, and I realize how desperate she is to pass the time by slumbering through her days.
My older daughter, Kiara, had been isolating with her boyfriend on Cape Cod, at his parents’ summer home. They cooked meals in a kitchen that overlooks the shore and walked the barren beach, which they have all to themselves. She finally returned two nights ago, and I’m relieved that the three of us finally are together under one roof.
Alika’s spirits are better with her sister around, but it’s not like old times. We are both together and apart. One day home, and Kiara already is restless. She bites her nails until her cuticles bleed, picks at food in the fridge like a bird, without really eating. She’s on her phone, ferociously texting her friends while we watch movies at night. And she sleeps with her light on; something new.
I leave the girls to talk after dinner and read in my room. I hear them laugh and experience a nostalgic pang of joy. But it grows quiet again when Kiara slips off to her room, leaving each of us alone behind separate closed doors.
I don’t know what the days ahead will hold, and I try not to think too far in advance. I’m taking it a day at a time, and I realize something odd about myself that is both comforting and strange — that sheltering in place comes naturally to me. I’m a nester by nature. I spend the majority of my time reading, writing, idly daydreaming on my kitchen deck. Solitude suits me. But this forced isolation is something new and eerie. We are alone in small boats. We are no longer ourselves.
I haven’t a clue what a new normal will look like, but I’m hopeful that we’ll be as resilient as our planet, which is showing signs of healing. I hope for renewal, where we all come through both wiser and kinder. Spring has arrived, and the tree by my deck is suddenly flowering. I step outside with a morning cup of coffee on a brand new day, and as I look up at the umbrella of blossoms, framed by a deep azure sky, I feel a momentary relief.
I take a deep breath, inhale the scent of sweet spring air, and close my eyes; and for the briefest moment, I’m back in the verdant lushness of Vietnam, drifting down the Mekong River without a care in the world.
Rochelle Lazarus is a writer who lives in Tenafly.