Waiting For The Light


    I've known Karen and Bernadette since I was in high school, since Karen was a quiet seventeen-year-old beauty, and Bernadette, the spunky younger sibling who became my best friend. Karen has matured to become the matriarch of the group, the planner of dinners, outings, and parties.

     We sat around my kitchen table chatting through the light blue masks that had become an unwelcomed accessory. "So," I asked, "Are you still going to have Thanksgiving dinner at your house?" Karen looked at me blankly as I pressed on. "It-is-a-lot. Next week, you're having people over for your son's birthday. I'm glad you chose to have it outdoors; Covid cases are climbing, all over again . . . Maybe right now, being the way things are, the birthday party is enough of a get-together." I glanced over at Bernadette, hoping she would say something to second me. Instead, she looked down at the table with what I imagined to be a wistful expression in her brown eyes.

     Karen, staring out into the space of the kitchen, said, "Well, this year's Thanksgiving will be gone, and we would have done nothing—all as if vanished from the calendar of our lives." Steve walked over to his wife and nodded with the kind of smile that connected them in a way that no two other people could connect. For long moments, we remained quiet, each of us pondering the essence of what Karen had just spoken.

     The pandemic has been a relentless toll-gatherer, crept up on us, caused our mouths to gape in disbelief as we witness the nightmare unfold in real-time, day after day, week after week, month after month. No, this does not happen to us; Sars is an Asian issue, Ebola an African one. Suddenly vast oceans no longer separated us in any way from the rest of humanity. The human race was ill; our country grew sicker by the day. Temporary morgues appeared. New York City closed down, its streets bereft of people, the subway cars deserted but for one or two riders—perhaps an essential worker or someone hanging on to a job for dear life, fearing that any day now unemployment might become a reality— Covid-19's legacy of loss, debilitating illness, death, and grief.

     A least once a week, I check stats, you know, the curves of new infections and deaths—for New York, California, Georgia, Puerto Rico, and Florida, places where I travel to, places where people I love live. Obsessively, I go to other countries' stats: Italy, Spain, the UK, Mexico, Brazil . . . Are the curves flattening anywhere? How long? When?

     I know of no one in my immediate circle of friends and family who has been infected with Covid. But as the circle widens, the truth rattles like a vicious snake. 

     On the phone, my sister-in-law says in passing, "My cousin Chip died."

     "What? Was it Covid?" "No," she said, "Not Covid, we don't know what it was. A woman noticed that he was wobbly as he walked down the street, and then he was in the hospital in a comma. We don't know what it was." Chip was a well-known jazz musician, but to me, he was just one of the cousins who always showed up at my sister-in-law's Christmas gatherings.

     "He was always such a nice guy," I said, "So sorry."

     Then there was Ariza, the young woman who worked as the receptionist for my dermatologist. Sweet, young, gorgeous, actually . . . and she's gone. "What happened? Was it Covid?" I asked.

     "No," he said, "Not Covid, it was asthma."  I don't believe she's  gone, and I still wonder if it was Covid. 

     They were persons in the periphery of my circle, touched them only once or twice a year. But I knew them, and now they are gone. Chip won't play his music again, and Ariza will not be at that office anymore to put me at ease with her pretty smile.

     A few of my friends have lost their jobs, some have pieced together an income by driving and delivering. They fear that it may become an obsolete option soon, and what opportunities will they have when Covid-19 subsides. Others are glued to their computers, controlled by the new god called Zoom, working from home. Posture problems abound. My young nephew is complaining of back pain. My brother hardly leaves the house; he has an underlying condition that puts him at high risk. He is thankful for the delivery services. He has gained a lot of weight. I take my temperature often and keep the windows open. I resent the masks, the gloves, the hand sanitizer that dries my hands—the dearth of hugs.

     I did not want to bring up any of it, reveal my fear that Covid might get me or . . . But no, I am not scared, just apprehensive, wondering how we were going to eat all that good food with masks on, thinking that at one point the masks will come off because we would be having such a good time, laughing, eating, drinking.

Karen and Bernadette were in their phones sharing photos of their children, quickly scrolling back to the many more and happier photographs taken in 2019. Photos they both had already seen many times.

     "Oh," I said, "They just opened the pool by my place again, after almost six months. They changed the hours; only a few people can be there at a time, and all the tables and chairs have been stored. No place to sit, to lounge, dry off, and take a little sun."

     "We have a place to sit right here." Steve chuckled, "I, my girls, am your sun," he said with arms spread out wide, blue eyes bright above his mask as he walked back to the couch, the TV, and the golf tournament he always watched on Saturdays." We broke out laughing, "Yeah, that's Steve all right." said Bernadette. She and I knew that Steve was the center of Karen's world.

     Laughter helps, and we want to laugh a lot and be easy with each other again. We can hear our laughter but cannot see it through the masks we are wearing to protect us from the virus—from each other's breath. I have forgotten how Karen and Bernadette look when they laugh, wide-open-mouths-with-teeth-laughing, laughing so hard I could see the gleam of their shiny molars.

    "Okay, then, Thanksgiving," I said. Karen and Bernadette nodded as I affirmed my resolve to be present for Thanksgiving dinner, "We do have lots to be thankful for, even as we worry and forget that we are lucky to be alive and that we still have each other to laugh with."

     And so, we had our Thanksgiving. Quiet, furtive, no Black Friday forays to the Best Buy, did not know whether we would have a real Christmas.  

     2021 has to be better; the people I love will live to see it. I call often. Ask them to please be careful to not forget to wear a mask. Even the toughest of us are worried. All is uncertain. When  we have access to a vaccine, will it really protect us, and for how long? I hope—moments when I dare to plan. But I don't talk about next year much, and neither do Karen and Bernadette. I can only see ahead for a few weeks at a time now.

     Christmas will soon be here—the happiest of holidays, the most beautiful and joyous. I close my eyes, trying to imagine this year's family Christmas, and all I can think of is lights— Lights in windows, on bare tree branches, wrapped around palm trunks, sparkling on terraces, draped on the roofs of homes, twinkling on front lawns, the lights of Christmas trees in the squares, plazas, parks, and shopping malls, the lights of festive laser shows on the facades of city buildings, the lights of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, the eternally shining light of the star of Bethlehem, the light of hope in the heart of our homes.