As I Sat, Waiting to Live: Pandemic Tales
“’Tenía que llegarme hoy con seguridad, dijo el coronel.’ El administrador se encogió de hombros. ‘Lo único que llega con seguridad es la muerte, coronel.’”
“’It was supposed to arrive today; it was certain, insisted the colonel.’ The mail carrier shrugged. ‘The only thing that arrives with certainty is death, Colonel.’”
—Gabriel García Márquez, El coronel no tiene quien le escriba
In No One Writes to the Colonel, García Márquez examines waiting and expectations with the guile and steadiness of a keen observer. Neighbors, acquaintances, and friends are interwoven into the design of the colonel’s life much like the frequently ordinary way that real-life people come into, leave, and impact our own lives. Colonel, as he is affectionately known, finds support in unexpected places on his weekly visits to the mail center, as his home life devolves into uneasiness and disquiet, and as his pride conduces him to hold his friends at bay. He has waited fifteen years for a government pension owed to him as payment for his sacrifices. In the interim, to raise money, he and his wife have sold from their personal belongings items of great value to them but of only market value to others, and they must share what’s left of their money with a rooster! Every Friday he journeys to his small town’s mail center at the dock, and is met with the same disappointment weekly. He then returns home, scarcely veiling his disillusionment behind friendly conversation as he encounters townspeople along the way. Throughout what we see of his journey, he learns that an old friend is willing to swindle him, that his wife has lost both patience with and respect for him, that his son died due to obstinance and was not simply murdered, that a true friend has been there beside him all along, that others are willing to help in spite of his pride, and chiefly that there is little certainty in life yet we still must choose a course of action.
Life is the shift in perspective, the uncertainty, making a decision and possibly getting it “wrong.” It’s waiting andacting. It is allowing others to help you. It’s the companionship of those who truly love you.
At the start of the COVID pandemic, I lived alone in Jacksonville, Florida and was perhaps too content with that station. In 2018, I had opened a small legal consultancy aimed at helping boutique to mid-size firms meet litigation deadlines. In 2019, I opened my practice to the public and accepted divorce cases, criminal defense matters, and business contract consultations. I was busy and earning a great living, much to my surprise because just two years before I barely earned a liveable wage as an eDiscovery contract reviewer. I could begin traveling again, and quickly scheduled two trips to Chicago, one to Denver, and another to San Francisco to visit with friends. Relative to the life that was living me from 2013 to 2018, this new life was quite lavish.
In fact, I settled into a routine of amateur photography, picnics alone at secluded-but-public beaches, and gastronomy! I shot nearly a thousand images. I researched then purchased thirty-five cookbooks and set about practicing their recipes. I filled my freezer with loaves of sweet breads (e.g., banana, raspberry, blueberry, cinnamon swirl), homemade soups and stews (e.g., garbanzo, lentil, chili, leeks and chicken, spicy chicken, stewed cannellini beans), traditional southern foods (e.g., brown gravy, creamed corn, buttermilk biscuits, collards), Cuban black beans (an approximation at best!), and a quite successful first attempt at Mexican carnitas with homemade tortillas. I even tested my skill at authentic Italian (e.g., spicy tomato sauces from Puglia, pizza alla napoletana, polenta cakes). I insisted on making every dish from scratch, including six-hour Saturday sessions processing plum tomatoes from the vine into sauces, learning to proof yeast, kneading dough (more difficult than it seems until one has done it enough), leavening dough (see kneading dough), and coring apples from the farmers’ market for Dutch apple pancakes, homemade of course. Affordable luxury paid in hours of labor on the weekend and time away from others.
I rented a reasonably-priced apartment in an industrialized neighborhood. I spent the first two months fighting the pest for the place; but, once they were gone, I unpacked my belongings and nested. I eschewed social drinking, bars, and night life in general. I stopped dating. I kept an immaculate apartment, and spent the money I would normally use socializing to purchase new towels that did not pill or leave me covered in lint and would dry me completely on the first pass over. I stocked my kitchen with supplies, and purchased every spice that was familiar to me and even some that I had to research. I dressed the balcony in bohemian casualness and bought a lime tree.
I became an island unto myself, and had no interest in inviting others to join me.
On Christmas day in 2019, my Chicago mother died. When I moved to Chicago in 1994, I was the second son of four whose parents were both school teachers in smalltown Alabama. This meant that, as a family, we were rich in love but economically challenged. When I could not pay for flights home, my Chicago Mom would host me in her home overnight, feed me, and even treat me to the best burgers on the Northshore! She had been dying slowly for some time so her death was only a shock because it was Christmas day. I flew to Chicago for the funeral services three days later and then again in February of 2020 for the Greek memorial. This was my last flight, as lockdowns for COVID began in early March of 2020.
Initially, I was pleased to have more time to myself. Not because I did not need others rather because I enjoyed what I believed to be a healthy self-sufficiency. In fact, the first two months of the first wave of the COVID pandemic were not as socially devastating for me because I had already been isolating, although somehow unaware. I began to feel alone when the business stopped. I had saved, and knew I could easily survive the two-month lockdown; however, my expectations were unrealistic. I assumed most others would also enter lockdown –willingly– that lockdown would slow the spread of the virus, and that once we had slowed the spread of the virus, the work would come back. I was forty-four years old and still naïve. The pandemic did not subside two months later; it rather raged on and many people lost their lives, including members of my own extended family.
Now that I was less-than-busy with work, I noticed my solitude. I had begun to feel anxious about the contagiousness of COVID, travel restrictions, and quite simply when I might see another human. My friends, my immediate family, and even my adoptive family in Chile made calls, and when they did, I held them in lengthy conversations that meandered and drew polite sighs by the end. I worried that if I somehow contracted COVID –say, while at the grocers– that I would suffer alone. As a consequence, I began to wait. Wait for signs that we had somehow contained the virus, and watched in devastation as initially New York, Italy, and France suffered. I stopped going to the grocers. I stopped playing competitive tennis. I stopped making appointments with the barber. I stopped accepting business from private clients because I would no longer make court appearances. I stopped. I waited. Very little good happened for months.
By the start of the third month, I rued nearly every opportunity to connect with someone that I had avoided, and those regrets led me to the following course-corrections: 1.) To build a true social network, one that was authentic because I felt alone and needed genuine connection. I committed more avidly to a group of eDiscovery specialists that met twice a week by videoconference. They felt sincerely nice, and no two of them was characteristically the same. We became a group of cross-generational, cross-cultural humans who needed much more than another meeting centered on how to develop as a professional during a pandemic. And, as our number swelled and receded, we retained our sense of community and cast our association in stone. 2.) To re-evaluate my legal practice and the crippling dependencies and isolation I had built into it. My success was contingent on others’ luxuries, specifically the luxury to decide which legal tasks were worth their time. Once we were sheltered in place as a nation, my work became theirs; they no longer could choose which projects met their pay grade. What’s more, courts were closed, and the dates for re-opening moved farther away the closer we came to them. I could not, in good conscience, accept fees from private clients only to retain those fees without working, knowing that jobs were being lost and funds were limited for many. I set a hard deadline to shutter my practice a month before the limits of my savings were reached and returned to living frugally. 3.) To build a life outside of work that includes others because we are not meant to experience life alone. This was the most difficult of the three corrections because I had forgotten how to be a good, true friend. My friendships had endured years of neglect; but, my friends were gracious and forbearing, although some had moved on to lives that did not include me. I earned that sentence.
I eventually moved home to Alabama. It was time. There had been too many lonely nights and solitary meals. My parents were older, and I did not know them as seniors; I remembered the forty-somethings I left behind in 1994! I was now that age, and they also did not fully know me. This was at once a return and an introduction, and I embraced that. My once robust group of friends was distilled by time and abandonment down to a few meaningful, reliable, bi-weekly or once-monthly phone calls. I am exceedingly happy to have those calls, to send and receive text messages of love and support.
Change has often invaded my life virulently, usually when I cling to an outcome that cannot be forced, a certainty ever-elusive. Just the same, through loss and suffering, confusion and desolation, and yes even opulence and joy, I have learned what I consider to be life’s most valuable lesson: It’s not about me.