There’s a cardinal in the bush outside my window. Its red feathers present a striking contrast against the still-green leaves, a lush, almost gaudy display, a preview of Christmas lights a few weeks early.
I stare at the bird until the sun blurs its plumage. I drag my attention back to the screen. Always the screen.
My laptop sits, as it has now for most of seven months, on my dining room table. I shift in the office chair at its head that my mother shipped to me. I was wary of shopping for a comfortable chair, even when retail restrictions eased in the state, and was reluctant to add to the load of already overburdened delivery people. Instead, I sat for weeks in a hard-backed, thinly padded seat more suited for Friendsgiving dinners (yet another thing not happening this year) until my back screamed and an Amazon box arrived.
I contemplate the groceries that have yet to find kitchen cabinet homes and instead lounge on the window seat, which is still decorated with cushions in Halloween-themed slipcovers. Halloween is my holiday. I throw the parties. I post the year-round memes counting down the days. I add each year to an already obscene pile of decorations.
Amid the very real worries and concerns of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with a quarter of a million Americans dead and many more sickened, I, safe in my selfish bubble, fretted that we’d have to skip Halloween this year, like most of the spring and summer gatherings and fall festivals. Instead, we borrowed a friend’s tailgating tent, gussied up the yard and iced down autumnal beverages in coolers. We stood six feet apart as flames crackled in the fire pit and talked and laughed under the bright gaze of a full moon.
Thanksgiving is tomorrow. We’re doing a two-person, stay-at-home feast. I hope I can see my parents sometime before Christmas. I have a plan, involving another test and two-week quarantine. But it just depends on the numbers, which are spiking again as temperatures drop.
It all depends on the numbers.
I lasso my thoughts and force them back to the task at hand. Those tasks vary day to day but don’t ever really seem to change much. I conduct interviews, transcribe tape, write stories. Wash, rinse, repeat.
I write about unemployment rates and looming evictions. I take a deep breath before opening the daily email that will tell me how many South Carolinians have been confirmed to have COVID-19 today, and how many have died.
It seems I’m doing so much and so little. I want to launch ambitious investigations into why my county’s reported cases were so much higher than the rest of the state’s at the start of this mess and probe how telemedicine is changing the health care landscape. I wish I could respond to every email telling me about each local company’s efforts to help.
But I am one person, editor and writer rolled into one perpetually exhausted package, wading through staff reductions and pay cuts. Each morning, I compile the four to six briefs that go into the daily email blast to 9,000 online subscribers before I turn my attention to what I need to work on that day. On the best days, I can lose myself for a few hours in the longer-form pieces that comprise our print newspaper. When finished, I sketch article layouts among hard-won ads and read everything for the fifth time, with some editing help from friends at sister publications.
I am grateful to be working, and to be able to work from home and this more comfortable chair. I am grateful for the readers who keep clicking on the emails and opening the paper pages.
But I am also angry, for me and for my colleagues, those I know and those I’ve never met, in an industry which has never been more needed, or more hobbled. Wounds, self-inflicted and from outside sources, leave us struggling to inform our readers as we worry about our futures.
My phone buzzes with a text from my mother. My parents live an hour and a half away. I’ve seen them three times since March — once for a 10-minute meeting in a gas station parking lot. I miss them. My funny, sweet mother who sends me unexpected presents (like an office chair) and my daddy, the hard-working teacher-farmer who must guard against asthma flareups and whose plummeting oxygen levels landed him in the hospital for four days before Christmas last year. But of course I am a danger to them, both in their mid-70s, now, and for the foreseeable future.
In addition to being Thanksgiving, tomorrow is (naturally) also a Thursday. Thursdays used to be motivational. That was the day we wrapped up work with some haste and gathered with friends at our local watering hole, exchanging hugs, petting dogs and swapping bottles from travels the week or month before.
On a rainy Thursday in April, I drove through gray skies to the feline oncologist’s office to discuss, from my car, options for treating my 14-year-old cat’s lymphoma. Spike fought months longer than the doctor said to expect. I miss him, my comforting fur companion.
In early March, I got sick. Bronchitis, I was told, after a night spent gasping for air and counting the minutes until the neighborhood urgent care center opened. I didn’t leave the house for 10 days except for occasional walks with our dogs, when the warm sunlight shone a benediction on my back. Was that this, then? Who knows? I still have a tightness in my chest late at night when I’m fighting vivid dreams that find me anyway. Remnants of a then-unnamed disease, or anxiety about a still-uncertain path?
Ugh. Time to corral the thoughts again. This has become standard, this inability to concentrate for a long period of time, this fragmented focus that leaves me jittery and unable to spell simple words as my fingers fumble for once-familiar home keys. I type, over and over: COVID-19, acceptable on first reference for the coronavirus, or the new coronavirus. Either way, the ‘the’ is essential, according to The Associated Press bible, my constant, infallible friend.
There are so many stories to tell. I have to keep finding the words and the will to tell them.
I glance back at the bush. The sunlight glints gold off an empty leaf as I begin to write.
This column first appeared in the Dec. 7 edition of the Columbia Regional Business Report.