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Finding a silver lining in a pandemic | COMMENTARY

Kimberly Dennis, a medical assistant to Dr. Ron Elfenbein, uses a swab to gather a nasal sample from Lindsey Kroh of Odenton in September.
Kimberly Dennis, a medical assistant to Dr. Ron Elfenbein, uses a swab to gather a nasal sample from Lindsey Kroh of Odenton in September. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

In a conventional war, if you know where the enemy is you know where to take a stand. Famous front lines have even gone down in history — Gettysburg, Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge. This war against the coronavirus is different though.

Early on New York’s Gov. Cuomo told us, “The front line battle Is going to be hospitals and the soldiers in this fight are our health care professionals.” To this day when I see doctors and nurses decontaminating at the end of a grueling shift like disaster workers at Chernobyl, I am stunned by their heroism under fire — I just hope Congress creates a special medal for first responders. On the other side of this line are the endless waves of patients, alone in the trenches, separated from their families at their most extreme hour, fighting for their lives without anyone who loves them to hold their hand.

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This is the front line we can see, but there is another front line that is invisible. The line we draw at our own front door signifies a different kind of battle — the one we wage with ourselves. We are fighting this war in private, one household at a time, battened down in our bunkers armed with Lysol and microwave popcorn, jigsaw puzzles and Netflix. Every day we choose not to cross that threshold is another skirmish in this war against a microscopic adversary. Every time we resist the siren call of the wild — a play date, a mahjong game, a birthday party — is another chance to deprive the virus of ammunition.

This is the battle of the walking well. There is no vaccine for fear or cure for loneliness. It’s hard enough if you’re financially secure, mentally strong, and physically fit, but take away any leg of that three-legged stool and it will tip over. In this existential war of nerves there is only fortitude; if we blink, we lose.

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Now would be the time to acknowledge the lucky hand I’ve been dealt. I’m lucky to be retired at a time when the mere act of going out to work can be hazardous to your health. I’m lucky that my isolation is relieved by the company of my best friend and her mother, who live directly across the street and with whom I am sheltering in place. Above all, I’m lucky to be a white person in the middle of a pandemic that preys disproportionately on Black and brown people, in a society where communities of color have less access to health care, Zoomable jobs, safe transportation — all the myriad ways the effects of the virus are impacted by the color of one’s skin.

No matter our accident of birth though, this pandemic manages to reduce us to our common human denominator. This experience of social dislocation is profoundly disturbing, and it is exacerbated for people who aren’t Zoom savvy, have no internet, or rely on community programs that have been shut down. If you were lonely before the pandemic, life just got ten times worse.

And while we are engaged in this primal struggle, we are simultaneously grieving for a way of life most of us took for granted not so long ago. It was Joni Mitchell who said, “You don’t know what you got 'til it’s gone.”

Still, even in the teeth of a disaster I’m amazed by the number of people who find a silver lining. The overwhelmed graduate student who suddenly has the time to finish her thesis before the deadline. My daughter, who improbably adopted a kitten the day before her city shut down and named her Ozzy. Now may be the season of our discontent, but I still can’t help thinking how lucky it was that this befell the world at the end of a mild winter, that I could dig in my garden and read a book on my patio, take a walk down the driveway, feel the sun on my face. Is it just me, or did the cherry blossoms seem even more lovely than usual this year?

As Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl discovered in his famous treatise, it seems we humans are hardwired to find meaning in our suffering. Only because of this rotten pandemic did I begin baking bread for the first time in 40 years. I reconnected with Toronto cousins and my brother and I have been Zooming with them every Sunday for the last six months. I finally set up an art corner and tentatively started drawing again.

Every solitary dawn brings more death, more fear, more uncertainty — more anger — but still my brain manages to seize on that miraculous “thing with feathers” the poet Emily Dickinson wrote of so lovingly 150 years ago. I manage to have hope.

Ruth Goldstein (ruthgoldstein@comcast.net) is a retired nurse and essayist writing from Pikesville.

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