THE PLAGUE GROUND – A MOMENT OF DESPAIR

“We’re all going to die!”

No one I know is actually saying that, or even screaming it.

But today I’m feeling it.

I catch a story out of New York about a young man dying, and quickly shut it off.

I talk on the phone with a friend who took his family south last week, despite his doctor warning him not to, and who now resents having to self-isolate for two weeks with the kids. I want to shoot my friend.

I’m in line at the local supermarket when the Chinese-looking man in front of me coughs into his sleeve. I quickly back away.

A friend e-mails me a link from Foreign Affairs that says “The Real Pandemic Danger Is Social Collapse.” I wonder if my freezer-ful of food and stash of small bills will be enough without the shotgun too.

I can’t stop checking the daily body count on my COVID-19 Tracker, even though I know it will make me even more anxious. Maybe I’m an anxiety addict, unable to stop hitting up on what will bring me down.

All those bromides about This Too Shall Pass and We’ll Get Through It and Stay Positive!….are no match for my rising panic.

I didn’t used to be like this. As long ago as last week, I was fairly rational both inside my psyche and out.

My view then was that, sure, a lot more people would get sick, but that Canada wasn’t doing half bad in the viral sweepstakes. So the death rate wouldn’t be anywhere near Italy’s or Britain’s or America’s. And since four in five patients recover from COVID 19, odds are it won’t bother with me. Little. Old. Me.

But yesterday I did something really silly that sent me into a state of fear and loathing.  When we drove up to the cottage, fleeing to higher ground beyond the city, I asked Jean if we should worry.

Her response was jarring. It matched what many other doctors are saying, whether they’re in the belly of the beast in Milan or in front of the cameras in Ottawa.

The healthcare system could be overwhelmed. Get ready for much more disease and death. It will not end for many months……

“You, my dear, are especially vulnerable,” she said.

“Me”?

“You’re 70. You’re old.”

“But you’re 77 for heaven’s sake!”

“Okay, I’m older. But that doesn’t make you younger. Besides, you’re compromised.”

“I am? How?”

“Your heart.”

“What’s wrong with my heart?!”

“It has a pacemaker.”

“But I’m fit.”

“You’re fit and compromised.”

I glared over the steering wheel onto the road. How dare the woman I love tell me the truth.

We arrive at the cottage, make dinner and in a rush to distract ourselves, we watch a Netflix series about ISIS blowing up Sweden.

When I wake this morning, the despair has slunk away.

I’m already marshalling  my defences if it attacks again. When I was depressed 10 years ago after open-heart surgery I never once played any music to sooth my battered soul. So this morning, I amp-ed up my Beethoven, the more magisterial, the better.  It is now beating holes in my ear-drums on its way to my shaky psyche.

I’m also turning to something I had no time for in The Busy Days:

Poetry.

I didn’t even have to dig into my Norton Anthology that’s been a door-stop for the past 20 years.

A friend sent this to me, as I send it now to you.

“Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still
for once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness……

….If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.”

~Pablo Neruda

41 replies
  1. Louise Levitt says:

    If I wasn’t anxious already (which I am this evening after two shots of scotch, single malt, neat) your note was fuel for the fire although the poem was balm for the soul. My friend in the health care industry says we are ALL in this for the long haul.
    While our fridges and freezers and pantries may be well-stocked (well mine is – for the company I no longer can have over) what happens in two months? Will Canada be as successful as China says it is? Will our citizens remember to be vigilant past these first LONG 14 days? Will I get to hug and read to my granddaughters? Will my yet to be born grandson in MacKenzie, BC have a chance to be cuddled by his Nana within months of his birth as opposed to hours or days? How swiftly flees the life we knew or thought we knew.

    Reply
  2. George Emerson says:

    Poetry. Music. Breathing deeply. All good ways to pass the time. But don’t avoid this opportunity to think about the big fact.
    Remember, we were all born to die yet so few of us want to contemplate our death, and prepare for it.
    Or, as my Jamaican father-in-law (age 90) likes to say: “Everyone wants to go to Heaven, but no one wants to die.”

    Keep up the good writing, Bob. Say hi to Jean. Count yourself lucky to have a doctor by your side!
    And we’ll all have a good story to tell when the next Ramsay Talks event is back on……in no time, soon.

    Reply
  3. Mary Jo Looby says:

    Thanks Bob!

    I laughed… ”and in a rush to distract ourselves, we watch a Netflix series about ISIS blowing up Sweden.” Yes, that’s how we relax now.

    The poem is beautiful and perfect.

    Thank u again. MJ❤️

    Reply
    • irene says:

      Hi Marlee Novak,
      It’s Irene Berkowitz! How are you? When this is behind us — you, me and Bob need a lunch — or how about a virtual coffee? Why wait?! ?!?!
      Be well, be safe, be strong, we will survive this stronger together,
      irene

      Reply
  4. Jason says:

    What a great piece. It is certainly hard to stay rational when every story we read has a death count or some gory explanation of just how you die of you get one of the worst cases. Thanks for saying it out loud and offering a bit of light. Take care.

    Reply
  5. Willa henry says:

    This piece really touched me. You are so starkly honest and afraid. You put words to what so many of us are feeling and fearing. I am trying to embrace the parts of this they are precious… the connection to our bossy children, the simple fact that I have time. Simply time. Nothing planned. Nowhere to go but here right now with the man I love. What could be more precious.

    Reply
  6. Dan says:

    Thanks for sharing. We are so invincible in desire yet so fragile in reality. No amount of reassurance will convince us we will be ok, especially if we believe otherwise.

    Alas, we will be. Que sera,sera.

    Love you, big guy!

    Reply
  7. Jamie Laidlaw says:

    Bob, the magnificent Neruda piece takes me to an untraceable place that cannot be found by means of furtive search. For a while, I am someone better than my daily self. I return to write these few words.

    Reply
  8. Gerald George says:

    Hi Bob,
    Yes, unfortunately we are all on the road to our next location. Whether up or down we have no choice. Thank you for your honesty and for sharing your feelings so eloquently. Over the years I have trusted and treasured our friendship as you have always been the Angel to show up when I have needed help and guidance. Up until recently, my life was filled with travel to exotic locales, mostly for business or to visit my kids as they make their way around the world. Last year I found myself in a long line at the airport, even though it was an express line for business class travelers. I looked around and thought that I was in the wrong line because there were so many old people in front of me. Then I realized that I was one of them, even though I work out, eat well, drink little and have never smoked, the birth date in my passport ignores the efforts to defy time. COVID-19 has abruptly brought the reality of how we treat the earth and ourselves, ever more reliant on artificial intelligence over human good sense. Maybe nature is providing a global message that touches all of us without the use of a mobile phone. During the past month, levels of air pollutants and warming gases over some cities and regions are showing significant drops as the coronavirus impacts work and travel. Hopefully, this all provides us with the clues and encouragement to view the most important things in life. Each other.
    Be well, healthy and happy.
    Gerald

    Reply
  9. DAN LYON says:

    I find myself observing, detached yet involved, as if I am watching a movie. There is a slow build: problems in China, then in Europe feel far away. Then a friend’s relative in Italy dies from the virus. Every cough is monitored as if it’s a death sentence. Never so happy to be home after a week in the Caribbean, a week in which every day the international news gets worse and creeps closer to home. The office closes. Elderly mother’s birthday party must be postponed to an indeterminate date. Family visits are by “Zoom”. Wife is forced to line up outdoors in the cold for almost two hours in order to take “the test”. Why is there no bread on the shelf at Shoppers? A friend installs a bidet, fearing permanent shortage of toilet paper. The US/Canada border is closed, separating family members who formerly could drive for visits. Is this just a hint of what families felt when The Wall went up in Germany? Surely it will only last a few weeks. “This too shall pass.” But when?

    Reply
  10. Beth Horowitz says:

    So great to hear your voice, Bob. You made me literally laugh out loud with the line about watching the Netflix series about ISIS blowing us Sweden as a COVID-19 distraction.

    Pat and I are discovering the simple pleasure of having a virtual dinner with friends via FaceTime or Zoom. We just finished a FaceTime dinner with 2 close friends who are neighbours in our building who are self-isolating after returning from London. But we also have a dinner via Zoom scheduled with friends in the US. In a strange way this could bring us closer to those who are usually far from us. Closer than the emails and texts we usually exchange when busy with social events every night. I try to look at the bright spots amongst the chaos and uncertainty, and, yes, the death.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  11. Denny Manchee says:

    Bob, you are bearing witness to our collective unravelling. The poem. It was set to music by our choir accompanist, Bob Grandy, who is also a fine composer. We’ve been working on his difficult (five sharps!) composition for 10 weeks, finally pulling it into gorgeousness for our March 28 concert.

    And then…doing nothing…nothing…a huge silence. It would have been a world premiere, but the Cobourg Oriana Singers 50th anniversary concert was cancelled a week ago. I hope we have a chance to perform this work one day, but for now there is profound sadness.

    Keep plaguing. It’s helpful.

    Reply
  12. Greg says:

    Bob,

    Please don’t fret.

    Perhaps the earth can teach us
    as when everything seems dead
    and later proves to be alive.

    The dolphins are back in Venice

    https://www.google.ca/amp/s/news.cgtn.com/news/2020-03-19/Fish-and-dolphins-seen-in-Venice-canals-during-coronavirus-lockdown-OZfq1wRAC4/share_amp.html

    air pollution is lower than it’s been in years, and personal hygiene habits have never been better.

    Pull out your Boccaccio and see what 10 friends did, as you and Jean are doing, 650 years ago!

    Yes, WE WILL GET THROUGH THIS!

    Thanks for your blog and that wonderful poem by Neruda.

    cheers

    Greg

    PS, bless Jean for telling the truth and you for listening to it.

    Reply
  13. Irene says:

    Thank you Bob. Your beautiful words, even in their appropriate panic and sadness lift my spirit and remind me that we have invulnerable spirit not just vulnerable bodies. Be well be safe be strong we will survive this together & will be stronger together. 🙏

    Reply
  14. Michelle McGrory says:

    Thank you, Bob, for bringing your personal brand of humor and insight to this crisis. Only in hindsight will be know how bad it was.

    Reply
  15. John Carsley says:

    Nice piece, Bob! Times the likes of which we have never seen, for sure. I have my grandmother’s diary which she kept while her daughters were little – 1910-1920’ish.

    There were two times they had to escape and isolate: in 1918/19 during the Spanish flu epidemic, and several year later during a polio outbreak in Montreal. Like you and me, they were lucky to have a place to escape to. So far, in the modern era of vaccines and antibiotics, we have been very lucky. SARS, in the end, turned out to be easy to control, since folks were not contagious until really sick; H1N1 was a real pandemic, but nowhere as lethal as COViID-19. This is the real thing, though. I am pleased with the way things have been going so far, in Canada, but concerned that maintaining the intensity of our efforts to self-isolate over a much longer period will tax all our psyches (not to mention the economy) to the max. I’m especially worried about those of us who can’t escape anything ever: developing countries, our poor folks, our homeless.

    Since this is all new, predictions don’t help all that much. In a month or two, we will be able to predict better. Right now, we all really have to put on the full court press to keep the numbers of very sick people within hospitals’ capacity to deal. Fingers crossed.

    Reply
  16. Madeline Thompson says:

    Lovely post Bob – and Neruda poem should be beatified it is
    so beautiful and right for our now. I am also compromised being
    somewhat older than you (and Jean) and have asthma, but I do
    live in Thailand (Chiang Mai) and it is a calm country, apart from
    it’s history of political rebellions. Moments of despair are quite
    normal I think, at this time. Thank you so much for posting this.

    Reply
  17. Peter Sever says:

    Thumbs up for sharing your heartfelt personal truths Bob. You’re so damn articulate, openly vulnerable; it’s lovely, refreshing and insightful.

    Enlightening all the more from my self-quarantined luxury oceanside perch in Mactan Philippines. No flights, no ferries. Nice SUV but nowhere to go. Bags of rice, cans, inventory of drinking water.

    Even if I could escape to OHIP-heaven and ventilators if needed, in good conscience one cannot abandon my Filipina wife and her brother – the latter was locked out of his job when the mall wisely closed.

    Dr Jean is of course correct, we old farts are medically more vulnerable. This bug evidently adores dining on the yummy lungs of 73-yr-old COPD badasses like me and poetic heart transplanters like you. Ours are the Shopsy’s Deli of lungs I gather. The sole bullet-dodge is to keep the lung-munching bastards out. Which we’re all busy doing.

    To perhaps cheer you up, here’s a cultural sidebar à-propos OHIP and Dr Jean: Besides rice; I’ve also stocked up on piles of cash the better to er, donate under-table to get on one of the rare ventilators here, in case it’s needed to stay alive. Morally I view this as the equivalent of wearing seatbelts or a motorcycle helmet; reality insurance. But there ya’ go, one less thing to worry about in Canada where bribery is (mostly) off the table. Feel any better hearing that? Speaking as a lifelong seasoned traveler, it’s actually a big one.

    Squeamish to read? Sorry. It gets even better.

    Another tidbit Canadians can skip fretting over: Food riots and corollaries. Hordes – understandably, logically – flowing thru the streets grabbing anything edible to take home to the family. Among our 7.5 billion human neighbours, not many pantries have a week’s worth of rice and dry fish. Especially in this economic context of no cash due closures. Who can possibly blame them? If my personal back were to the wall, I’d certainly steal food to feed my family. Fanciful? Well, the US Embassy in Manila wisely did an email yesterday warning the Philippines Government and other readers of precisely this eventuality. Not ‘eventualy’ but in next couple weeks.

    Canada being 0.5% of world population while producing 1.5% of world food – perhaps there’s some responsibility implied? Let’s busy our quarantined laptops by pressuring Canuck politicos to generously share abundance in a time of certain spot-starvation. We have abundant bulk transporter planes, many grounded due shutdowns, plus an under-employed military, most of whom are anxious to do good and see benevolent action. Let’s do the feel-good, do-good thing: Fly food where its most needed on 24 hours notice. Then let’s proudly publicize our heroes as such on the front pages. It’s good for our own psyches and for Canada’s peaceful world trade image.

    Starvation within Canada would be unforgivable stupidity. If there is any, bloody-well fix it pronto.

    This is no dress rehearsal. Curtain up! Humanity is being tested, not for the first time. Some tests we shine, other times we fail shamefully. Viewed from this privileged 2nd-world perch, I’m repeatedly reminded of my blessed fortune to be a Canuck, overall the best country, Not to my credit, just luck for a Czech war refugee. Let’s SHINE in this test dear neighbours and friends. It just takes the right ‘tude.

    Per a CBC virologist yesterday, the current virus may hit 30%-70% of Canadians and others. A small percent will die. Scientists worldwide are going flat out to solve it. It’s very bad for sure, one for history books, but far from the end.

    Ten thousand humans per day encounter injuries or deaths in traffic; 3,700 are deaths/day. In 365 days thats 3.5 million a year. We hardly notice unless rarely it’s someone we know.

    Despondency is our enemy. Optimism is our friend. Because the spectrum of human reactions is more danger or opportunity than the !@#$-ing virus per se.

    Personally I’m bored as hell in this tropical paradise open-door jail cell, but I’m not quite dead yet and have every intention of remaining hard to kill. Should my death occur prematurely, for any cause, I’m going to miss riding my beloved round-world motorcycle to Newfoundland again, this time with my wonderful Filipina wife this summer. Dammit.

    I really love riding Newfoundland, maybe six times so far. Not to mention Tuktoyuktuk, just once but gotta do it again. So I better not to let any damn COVID bugs munch on my ‘alte kaker’ lungs eh?

    Cheerfully yours in a time of highly justified concern.

    Reply
  18. Peter Evans says:

    Bob…Thank you for this. Always wonderful to read your most erudite perspectives. Ironically I had Beethoven on WNED/NPR while reading this. A good tonic indeed. Be well my friend. Regards, Peter

    Reply
  19. Banuta Rubess says:

    Thank you Bob. I especialy loved hearing Jean’s voice within your reflections — my son Dr. Diz gave me similar straight-up thing-will-be-very-very-bad information. However I have a 9 year old in the house and so we are always on the lookout for good cheer. Keep making sense. xx

    Reply
  20. irene says:

    Hi Bob,
    Thank you for this beautiful reminder of our human spirit amidst our shared nightmare. Be well, be safe, be strong, we will survive this stronger together.
    xo, i

    Reply
  21. Marilyn Field says:

    While we all face the precious precariousness of life, today is sunny and it’s JS Bach’s birthday. Enjoy listening to his music in your playlist or tune into Classical 96.3 fm and feel renewed energy to ‘keep calm and carry on’.

    Reply
  22. Bev Moir says:

    thanks for your uplifting words Bob, and for your unique perspective, as always!

    I loved the reminder of Pablo Neruda and the specific poem your highlighted.

    Its well worth trying to catch two public health infomercials done by Danny DiVito and the other by Robert DeNiro, both done at the request of Andrew Cuomo, who is providing incredible leadership!

    Reply

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