Dr. Arthur Kleinman felt the first shiver of worry in December, when the pandemic was still just a mystery flu circling a wild animal market in China.
“Can we avoid the Big One?” he had written 15 years earlier in the introduction to his book, “SARS in China: Prelude to Pandemic?” When it took just one month for the new coronavirus to show up in Washington state, the Harvard professor of psychiatry and medical anthropology had his answer. By late February, as the residents of a Seattle nursing home began dying and the TV news flashed with more cases around the world, Kleinman closed himself inside his Cambridge home, and retreated into the rituals that had saved him and transformed him years before.
At 79, Kleinman knows pandemics because he has studied deadly infectious diseases. But he knows how to survive because he loved and cared for his wife of 46 years through a decade of Alzheimer’s, as she lost her sight and woke up in the mornings terrified that he was a stranger in their bed. His answer to endless grief was order. He and his wife got up at the same time every day. They walked on the treadmill and lifted weights. He fed her. He dressed her. They listened to Bach and Mozart. Every day, a schedule. Ritual and devotion.
The coronavirus pandemic has upended life as we knew it. The economy is in freefall, schools and businesses are closed, entire countries are locked down, and we are all afraid to come within six feet of each other because any of us could be infected. Every day, the death toll climbs, and the dying go alone. Even joy is strange. Neighbors belt ballads out their windows, wild harmony across empty streets. Children leave each other messages in sidewalk chalk. A man spots a little girl waving from behind a fence, and lifts his bulldog aloft so she can see. We are forced apart, staring out at the world from the ramparts of our private fortresses, trying to come to terms in our own ways.
Kleinman’s wife died nine years ago. Now, a new endless grief is spreading across the world. He exercises, he writes, he walks, he thinks of her. At night, he listens to their music. Sometimes, when it’s late, he plays Leonard Cohen.
“There is a crack, a crack in everything,” the song goes. “That’s how the light gets in.”
Ten miles away on a quiet basketball court in Dorchester, 13-year-old Jessy Feliz has found his own rhythm in the city’s quarantine: the thump-thump of his ball, the squeak of his sneakers, and the steady huff of his breath, alive and rising in the cold air.
He misses his school games, the high fives and trash talk, and the electricity of the crowd in the bleachers. This year was the first time the shy seventh grader had ever made the basketball team. Sixth grade was hard: He’d been at a different school, where he said kids fought in the hallways and teachers dragged students from the classroom when they felt disrespected. When he didn’t do his homework, no one asked him if he was okay. His grades weren’t good enough for basketball. Slowly, he stopped wanting to go to school at all.
Then, the new school year started, and Jessy decided to prove himself. He got his grades up, joined the cross-country team, and discovered during winter track that he was the third-fastest kid in the 100- and 200-meter distances. He was strong but slight, still waiting for the growth spurt that would carry him out of childhood.
In the spring, he tried out for the basketball team. When the coach announced his spot on the roster, he climbed up on the rim of the hoop and screamed.
His favorite games were the hotly contested ones, where the lead passed back and forth and the spectators went crazy. He was a starter, and on his best night, he dropped 22 points, four rebounds, five assists. He started to see his future. The McCormack Panthers had a 5-and-1 record. If they could win just one more game, they’d make the playoffs, where scouts from the elite high schools would be watching. Maybe he could get noticed, get a scholarship.
Jessy was practicing his sportsmanship, something he was sure the scouts looked for. When his teammates muttered, “We’re gonna lose,” he’d tell them, “Don’t worry about it. We lose some and we win some.” When he saw another player drop his head in defeat, he’d reach out and tip it back up; he didn’t want anyone to think they were sulking. He imagined walking in the doors of Fenway, a selective pilot school, Snowden International School, or Boston College High School. He wondered if the teachers who doubted him last year would be proud if they knew.
And then, on March 17, the schools shut down to contain the disease, and the season was over. There would be no scouts, no scholarship, no nervous glances from the court into the stands to see who was watching as the ball sailed through the air toward the net.
Instead, Jessy spends hours alone at the park down the street, practicing left-handed layups and free throws. He doesn’t have headphones and he doesn’t take breaks. When he gets bored, he thinks about getting better.
“It’s like a test of myself,” he says. “Seeing what I could do.”
He shoots. Sometimes he makes the basket and sometimes he misses. He shoots again.
Susanna Mauzy doesn’t have answers. Mostly, she listens.
Pregnant women, afraid now of hospitals, call the Arlington doula and midwife and ask for home births. Will this be a good birth, a bad birth, a scary birth? they ask. If I go to the hospital, will my baby be okay?
One expecting mother wondered at how odd it was to bring a child into this kind of world. Mauzy felt it, too. She and her partner were hoping to get pregnant this fall. Now, they may wait. They may have one instead of two. She told the mother on the phone the only hopeful thing she could think of: that this may not last long enough for the child to remember.
From his home office in Holden, hospice doctor Jim Baker dialed his phone, wishing it wasn’t like this.
“What’s going to happen to me?” his patient asked him on Wednesday morning. The man was young and quiet and had stopped treatment for his illness, and English was his second language. He was moving to a nursing home, and he was afraid he would be lonely.
Usually, Baker would sit at the young man’s bedside and take his hand. He would listen to his lungs, feel his abdomen, look into his eyes. Each touch would say: You’re not vulnerable here. I’m going to help you. I’m your doctor.
But on Wednesday, Baker had to calm his patient by phone. It was too dangerous to see him in person.
There were 60 miles between them, but still Baker scanned the young man’s body. How are you feeling today? Do you have any pain? How’s your breathing? Do you want anything special to eat?
What the young man needed was to talk about his fear. Baker let him ask what his future held as many times as he needed to. Each time, Baker told him: We are still here for you. I am still here for you. If you get worse, if you have any problems, we will take care of you. Baker pushed down his own sadness. He wanted to get up out of his chair, drive to the hospice, slide his fingers onto the young man’s wrist and find his pulse. But he could offer only his soft, familiar voice.
The young man struggled with the language over the phone, but by the end of the conversation, he understood. He was calm.
“Thank you, Doctor,” he said, across the new distance of the pandemic. “Thank you. Thank you.”
Father Richard Flaherty wakes before sunrise inside the friary of St. Anthony Shrine in downtown Boston to pray.
“May I enter into a sacred space with you?” he asks God. In the darkness, he feels, instead of sees, the old German crucifix that hangs on the wall facing his bed. Jesus’ love, Jesus’ suffering. Flaherty, 77, has dedicated his life to the principle that no one should be abandoned. He counsels people addicted to drugs and lost to their families; he celebrates Mass for the funerals of the homeless, and of babies forgotten in death. He feels God in the open door of the shrine, where anyone could walk through, devout or atheist, and he could ask their name.
But the shrine is closed, the friars secluded in their warren of rooms above Arch Street. In his prayers, Flaherty asks God what he should do if he is called to the bedside of a person dying of coronavirus.
To go would be to risk not only his own health, but that of the other friars. To go would be to accept a two-week quarantine, during which he would not be able to go to the bedside of another. To stay away would be unthinkable.
The virus moves invisibly along the bonds between us, tearing through families and groups of friends, traveling on touch and love and connection. It demands distance when we most need each other. In those silent early mornings, Flaherty lifts the people of the world up to God.
He knows that God is listening. He feels it as a trembling inside his body. He wants to hold onto it.
He lets it go. Someone else needs it.