Around and About with Richard McCarthy: Pandemic epiphanies: 3 lessons, 1 smile

Published: 8/4/2022 2:43:24 PM
Modified: 8/4/2022 2:40:17 PM

I don’t know how long a person can write an “Around and About” column in these times of ours and not feel the pull to write about how COVID-19 has changed their life. After all, the virus has been around and about us, 24/7, for approaching 2½ years now. What I do know is that my time to write such a column has come.

One of the definitions of “epiphany” in my dictionary is “an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure.” In addition to sharing the great sorrow of humanity during our time of pandemic, I have experienced many illuminating realizations that I’ll call “pandemic epiphanies.”

I’ll offer three of these in this column. One came to me at the beginning of the pandemic as the result of the words of a millennial. A second came as a result of a conversation with a contemporary. And the third came in the reaction to a smile by a member of what is being called “Generation Alpha.”

I have a friend who lives in Seattle and with whom I keep in touch through phone calls a few times a year. When what we then called “the coronavirus” was first descending on us, he told me that his daughter, who is in her 30s, had said to him that the plague could serve a useful purpose. As she saw it, the fact that it was most lethal to older and “immune compromised” folks meant it had the potential to lessen the number of those who are most costly to society.

My friend, who is a decade or so younger than I, told me this in a matter-of-fact way, his manner lighthearted enough that if he had ended with a chuckle, it wouldn’t have been much of a leap. The sense that he conveyed of his daughter’s tone in saying what she had said was that it was emotionless, with no sadness expressed, no animosity toward anyone affected by such a death sentence, and no angst about any contradiction to her family’s pronounced religious identification. “Bloodless” might be another word for it.

Being officially elderly (I identify with the T-shirt that says “IT’S WIERD BEING THE SAME AGE AS OLD PEOPLE”), I must admit the realization that someone who called me “Mr. McCarthy,” as my friend’s daughter respectfully did, could view the possibility of my imminent suffocation in the favorable light of a tax-saving measure was disquieting to me.

That there was nothing personal in her putting out the welcome mat for my generation’s being strangled by ultra-microscopic infectious agents made it even rise to the level of chilling to me.

I had never fully realized when watching those nature documentaries on television, with lions descending on a herd of antelope, or some such, how different it is to view the culling of the herd from the safety of one’s couch than it is to experience it up close and in the first person singular, as a potential “cullee.”

Two years after this bracing introduction to COVID-19, during the omicron surge (remember that one?), I was having a conversation with a friend. She was telling me how her book club had been locked out of their meeting place one winter evening because the member entrusted with the key had not shown up.

She said when the book club members told this tale of woe to the manager of the inn across the street from their meeting place, the manager saved the day by allowing the book club to hold their discussion in one of the inn’s meeting rooms.

My first thought was that while such hospitality was gracious on the part of the manager, I was a bit surprised he would precipitously invite an unscheduled group into the inn, and thus be subject to increasing the risk of his staff and guests contracting the virus. Then it hit me that my friend was telling me about an incident which had taken place several years ago, before the pandemic, when COVID-19 was just a twinkle in Mephisto’s eye.

At that moment, I realized I’d crossed a line into “pandemic thinking,” reflexively gauging each potential interaction for its risk/reward ratio. I could only wonder when such pandemic thinking became my first thought, and how long it would take for that “normal” to return to pre-pandemic normal, if and when that time comes.

Not too long afterward, I got a message from another generation, the one that includes those being born now, which, as I mentioned earlier, is being called Generation Alpha.

Two friends of mine have a pandemic baby, conceived in the pandemic, born into the pandemic, taking her first steps in the pandemic, knowing no other world than the world of pandemic. One day I found myself making smiling faces at the little girl, seeking and ultimately being rewarded with one of life’s grander prizes — her smile in return.

Then it occurred to me I’d forgotten I was wearing a mask that covered my mouth, which I’d always thought of as the locus point of my smile. I asked the little girl’s mother how I’d been successful at getting her return smile if I was smiling behind a mask. Her mother said it happened all the time with their pandemic baby, that the child saw a smile in other parts of the face not covered by the mask, particularly the eyes.

I walked away from the child feeling fortunate that these Irish eyes of mine can still smile, hopeful that child’s smile will lead us from the lion in winter to our “morn in spring,” and grateful to still be part of the herd, slower of step and less keen of wit as I may be.

Amherst resident Richard McCarthy, a longtime columnist at the Springfield Republican, writes a monthly column for the Gazette.

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