After a lifetime of travels in Asia and Europe, I have now settled in this charming fishing town on the North Shore of Boston where the cafes are superb – or were until shut down by the virus – the beauty of the sea around me is beyond words, and the sunsets produce colors that artists, like Van Gogh in Arles, have always tried to emulate. At what is now my age, my father had been dead some 20 years, and my mother’s Parkinson’s was beginning to kick in and would take her a few years later.
But the sea in all its beauty and majesty is not enough now — here, things are not well at all.
With the arrival of the coronavirus some five months ago, we have at the time of this writing had 9,219 deaths in Massachusetts, and 1,260 deaths in this county (Essex) with 18,703 total cases. My life and the lives of many of my compatriots have radically changed, as is the case around the world. It is not simply a question of being relatively quarantined — of not being able to sip a macchiato at Caffe Sicilia or the Lone Gull. It is rather a deeply psychological pain, the pain of knowing I may have to live out my life not only unable to sit calmly in a café reading a book but fearful that each outing may be my last because that virus, that potentially lethal virus, is there in waiting.
That may sound like paranoia, and there may be an element of paranoia in these feelings, but there is in them a great deal of realism as well. We have lost 210,000 souls in this country, and the number continues to climb. Is there no end to this misery? The reality trumps the hallucinogenic effect of these huge numbers – the fear of contracting a seriously lethal disease is reality-based. If there were somewhere to run, I would at least walk fast to get there. But there is not, I cannot hide, we cannot hide.
My initial reaction to his world of potentially fatal viral infection was anger: Anger at a world gone mad, aided and abetted by an insouciant populace, and an ineffective White House. But especially anger for robbing me of a pleasant bunch — hopefully — of last years. Those of us of a certain age, with predisposing conditions, cannot risk emerging into such a world when those of us who are exposed to the virus may well die of it. So we sacrifice worldly pleasures of a public sort and can live these days quietly eating our hearts out at what might have been.
We do not regret office promotions lost, monies not earned, movies not seen, food not eaten. No, at this age it is the simple pleasures of a peaceful dinner with friends, talking with colleagues, chatting with the children now grown or playing with grandchildren, those pleasures until now our “right”, our expectation when the sun is setting, when one does not expect to ace too many more tennis serves, to ski too many more slopes.
Instead, however, even the simpler delights of older age have been denied, inducing sufficient pain to make many among us, even not of our age, angry.
But, having now lived through the initial quarantine-lockdown in a state of rage, I have re-examined the Dylan Thomas poem, a mantra of older men and women who retain their fighting spirit to their end:
“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light,
Though wise men at their end know dark is right
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.”
I have re-thought this anger of mine and of Thomas, and have decided – yes, consciously decided – not to live in anger until the Faucis of this world come up with a vaccine. No, instead I have come to see the futility of such an approach to life, for while we live, let us live and not worry unduly about the future, for it will come and we can only but try to avoid an earlier than necessary passage.
One major change in perspective has to do with my view of time. As I approached and entered my 80s, I grappled with the Affliction of the Week with a certain aplomb. I did not think each breath was my last. I could work out at the gym with a bit of ease, and I could walk up by the sea at Bass Rocks and Good Harbor Beach here in Gloucester with a bit of a bounce in my step, with gratitude to be alive, my brain cracking on all cylinders. I mourned the occasional if increasing number of classmates who bit the dust, and felt my end, too, would come ‘ere long but realistically the end was a decent way off.
During that time I tried to plan for the future: Should we return to our former home in Paris for a brief, or perhaps a prolonged, visit? Paris was after all a place my heart really thrived. Or should we consider travelling about the United States to spend some time with our four grown children, in their places of living and thriving : the Far West, the Southwest, the South, and down the road here in Massachusetts? Or would it be better to simply relax and enjoy their visits here in Gloucester, as well as the occasional visits of friends? Or should I keep on writing and publishing essays, novels, whatever, as I have increasingly done these last 25 years of my life?
Such thoughts and issues have become moot in the era of this corona virus, because to venture forth is in some ways suicidal. More than 15 percent of my peers will die if infected by the virus! That sobering proportion gives me serious pause, and warns me that it would be folly to take the risk. Stay home, be safe, and be grateful.
I live on in the awareness that I have been denied a smooth landing. Nonetheless, it is a decent enough landing: I can write a few words from time to time, chat and/or Zoom with family and friends, eat the fish and fresh foods I adore at home with an occasional takeout, sip my favorite Scotch whiskey before dinner and an occasional decent wine with; but most of all I shall continue to share life with my marvelous wife, without being greedy for what was or what might have been.
Arthur Bloom is a resident of Gloucester.