We are exchanging recipes on FaceTime, my brother and I, with “What are you cooking?” standing in for the words we are afraid to voice.
“Mostly, I make popcorn,” I confess.
My brother is a self-trained, wildly inventive cook, adding whatever is on hand to dishes that invariably turn out way more delicious than one would think.
“What do you do with it?” he asks, noting he has added Thai red curry paste and nutritional yeast to his recent batches.
“I eat it.”
And that’s mostly what I do these days: Eat; worry about my children and grandchildren who reside in not-so-far away states that now seem distant planets; wonder if my brother and I will ever cook in the same kitchen again; panic; eat some more; and email, FaceTime, Skype or Zoom in lieu of live human connection.
Before our local bookstore was forced to close its doors in this pandemic, I ventured inside, stood six feet away from the only other customer, and scooped up a stack of books to keep me company for the duration. I have not read one. Or rather, I keep starting Where the Crawdads Sing over and over, forgetting what I’ve read on the first few pages the day before and the day before that.
This was not something I had anticipated. When I was unable to continue writing my work-in-progress, now-stalled memoir, when I turned the computer on each day and stared at the screen, then merely tweaked a word or two or three I had already written, I was consoled that at least I would still be able to read.
Bookshelves line the walls of every room in our house. Old friends beckon to me—Sense and Sensibility, Anna Karenina, the poems of Sharon Olds, and the beloved Charlotte’s Web, whose last sentences I’d like to live up to, so they could be adapted into my epitaph: “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”
But, no, an epitaph is supposed to be for someday, not for now.
Which one to pick, if it were to be the last book I would read? One of my favorites? Or is this the time to finally tackle Middlemarch? But what if I die before I finish it?
I choose none.
Instead, I am drawn to social media. My Screen Time Report informs me I averaged 4 hours and 53 minutes of screen time per day last week. Each morning, before I get out of bed, I check my phone, to make sure we are still alive. At 11:15 each weekday, I bring up the Maine Centers for Disease Control update, but even the calming, measured presence of its director (who is so vital to us Mainers he now has a Facebook fan page with over 15,000 followers in a state of 1.3 million people) cannot erase what he is saying, as he publicly consoles the survivors of the newly dead. Illness and death creep—no, fly—closer and closer. In our little city of 6,000, there are today 22 cases and two dead. At 73, with an underlying condition, I know I am not likely to win the ventilator lottery.
So now I feel compelled to prepare for death at the same time I am hoping for a life in the “new normal.”
Last evening, as an improbable April snowstorm arrived in full fury, my husband and I raced outside, brandishing pitchforks like the fearful townspeople hunting down Frankenstein’s monster. We were determined to save our tender garlic crop by spreading straw over the just-last-week liberated shoots. We are saving the garlic with such zeal. This we can do even if we might not be able to save ourselves.
I prepare as if I will be here this summer to cut the garlic scapes and make them into pesto, and in the fall, to harvest and braid onions.
We ready the garden as if we will be planting peas and potatoes in a few weeks, as if we will be here in May and June to cut the asparagus each day and feast on it each night. We prepare, my husband and I, as if we will be enjoying the garden with our grandsons in July, eating sugar snap peas right off the vine.
The asparagus beds will be here for the next 30 years, even if we are not. As will the oak trees that drop their acorns on the garden and lawn each fall. I marvel at their tenacity, at their lack of fear. They know they will survive; it’s programmed into their genes. And I am helping propagate the species every time I walk across the yard, driving the acorns deeper into the ground. I envision our little homestead, if no one were here to mow, turning into a forest of massive oaks and giant, woody asparagus.
And what to do with this snow day, likely the last of this weird, terrible and upended season? Put on my snowshoes, traipse through the woods, come back into the house, red-cheeked and winded (but only from exertion, not—thank God, not today—from the virus), and then bake chocolate chip cookies, as if this snow day were a rare respite from the hubbub of daily life, forgetting for a moment that we have already been confined for nearly three weeks (and I have already baked that many batches of cookies)?
This morning, the Japanese maple in our dooryard is bowed so low there is no egress for the dogs and me, and the two of them have to wait more or less patiently while I whack the snow off the tree with a broom, and the branches spring upright, grateful, I think, to be freed from this unexpected spring coating.
Then I let the dogs loose and marvel as they delight in the surprise of it all, as they chase each other and snort and burrow their noses into the snow, trying to ferret out the now-elusive scent of squirrel, or chipmunk, or even fox. And they throw themselves into the drifts, the way my children did so many years ago, the older dog forgetting, briefly, that he is aging and arthritic.
Afterwards, I will pull my snowshoes out of the closet, where I stashed them only a couple of weeks ago after a nearly snowless winter. I will make tracks across the yard and down the path through the woods, to the knoll where I will pause to look out over the water and remember again how lucky we are to live here. The scarf I pull over my nose and mouth will be for protection from the cold and wind, the way it used to be, before every other website had instructions for making masks. And I will try to forget that this could be my last snow day.
My husband does not like my talking this way, as if saying the word will bring the plague down upon us. I know I have been gifted with a good and lucky life, and I do not want to leave it. But I am a planner. When we have traveled, the preparation for the trip—scheduling flights, booking apartments, choosing restaurants, searching travel guides about never–before–visited cities for the places we will explore together—has brought me as much delight as the voyage itself.
There is no joy in the kind of planning I am doing now, but I want to be prepared, and I am so tired of being afraid. I focus on tangibles: where I want my ashes scattered (half in the flower garden, half in the bay), the music to be played at my (possibly virtual) funeral (some Bach, Bridge Over Troubled Water and, at the end, the spiritual Rock-a My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham, but only the version from Alvin Ailey’s Revelations). I don’t know if there is just nothing after this life, or if I will waft into the light and join the souls of my departed loved ones. I hope I live on in the memories of my children, and that my grandsons might one day regale their children with tales of summers in Maine with their Meema and Grandpa.
But I am anxious, and I need some help. I find it in my once–a–week tele–sessions with my therapist. Before all this, he was our marriage counselor and if he hadn’t been, my husband and I might not be surviving our quarantine, virus or no virus. When I can’t catch my breath, my therapist breathes with me – inhale four counts, hold four counts, exhale six counts – and provides gentle guidance to see beyond fear. He tells me to create a sacred and secure space in my heart, instead of in my mind, and to picture myself in that space, to make my home there. This, he says, might quell the chatter in my head and help me be at peace with whatever is to come. It does seem to work, in small, precious moments, and for this I am grateful.
In those moments, I am freed to return to planning for my stay on earth, and for my husband’s as well, even though he cannot yet acknowledge there is an alternative. So, we will uncover the garlic once again, till the soil, dig trenches for potatoes, and eat through last summer’s frozen harvest to make room in the freezer for this summer’s bounty.
And remember to give thanks for the gift of one more snow day.
Deborah K. Shepherd is a former newspaper reporter and retired social worker who spent much of her career focused on the prevention of domestic violence and sexual assault and the provision of services to survivors. She has a BFA in Drama from the University of Arizona and an MSW from Fordham University. Her first novel, So Happy Together, will be published in April, 2021 by She Writes Press. She lives in Maine with her husband and two dogs, where she gardens, cooks, reads, swims, volunteers, and writes two blogs, deborahshepherdwrites.com and paleogram.com. She is currently working on a memoir.