Spring Without Witness
From Spring, Harald Slott-Møller, 1896
by Jane Rosenberg LaForge
After weeks of social distancing, I’ve got much to tell, yet so little to show. If there’s one thing that distinguishes professional writers from neophytes and amateurs, it’s this ability to show, to illustrate and evoke, rather than shouting facts at an audience, demanding they digest a specific implication. But I can’t show you how these past weeks have felt. I see so little, between my hat and my mask, whenever I get to go outside. I walk quickly, focusing only on my destination—the supermarket, the post office, the pharmacy. I haven’t been able to read notices in shop windows. I don’t know what is still open, what is hanging on, and what has died. I also recognize that I can’t show you how routine has devolved in my little corner because of my (in)competence as a writer. Or it might be the result of a trauma I experienced that was so similar to this real-time experiment in a new kind of sensory deprivation. Because I’m not certain, I’m hoping to relax this rule of writing—the need to show, rather than tell—as all of us work through our stories, now part of history-in-the-making.
I’m issuing this request for a number of reasons, primarily because of the eerie resonance of these circumstances. Half a century ago, my family and I went through the same kind of waiting we’re now mandated to do; a vigil for the new normal, without the power to predict or shape it. I recognize it might be in poor taste to compare my small family tragedy with the current scale of death and economic ruin playing out internationally. Yet my memories of that time, as poorly as I can reconstruct them, are my best credentials for making this plea.
In 1970, my mother had what was then called a “nervous breakdown,” and was institutionalized. We didn’t know when, or in what condition, she would be returned to us. Our father was beside himself with grief, nerves, and shame. We didn’t lack food or toilet paper, but he could not prepare any meal but instant soup, and his handling the laundry was out of the question. Eventually he eventually fobbed us off onto our grandparents. We lost a little of the rhythm of our lives, as well as the kind of security we had from knowing our place in a status-driven neighborhood. With my mother’s illness and her long recovery afterward, my sister and I began to perceive the outlines of a stigma that would follow us through classrooms, slumber parties, teenage cliques, and adult homecomings.
When I tell you this, rather than showing it, some are bound to say I’m cluing readers into my lack of faith—in my own abilities, in the ability of the audience to comprehend what I’m saying, in the enterprise of art and literature, a form of communication that is more convincing than any lecture. But I do lack faith now, alone with only my own experience. I lack faith that I might maintain my humanity in my isolation, as I see political leaders floating the idea of sacrificing lives to ease the stock market back to a level to ensure someone’s re-election. I find myself lacking faith in the rationality of my fellow human beings when they delightedly defy advice to stay inside, or to wear gloves and masks outside. People have been shown and told about the rising numbers of infections and deaths and overwhelmed hospitals. Yet they attend rallies against social distancing mandates. They worship in mass church services. What sort of faith am I to rely on in a politically, socially, even logistically polarized environment? If I knew, I might look at the social costs of coronavirus as some look at climate change, species extinction, and environmental degradation: the cost of doing business.
While I may lack faith, I still believe in something: Facts. There were facts about my mother’s illness just as there are facts now, in the form of things people said and did, the effects that will be later retrieved for future reference. Today I am separated from my daughter, who would likely be going nuts if she was confined to this apartment with me and her father. Fifty years ago, I was separated from my sister, who was sent to a different set of grandparents. But neither of us minded. We never got along, before or after, or in adulthood. My fourth-grade teacher was notified; I know because he announced my situation to the class when I got into some kind of trouble. I loved being with my grandmother and aunt, who took me in, taught me how to play cards, and make sugar cookies. When my mother came home, she was loaded down with ashtrays and moccasins, crafts she had made in the mental hospital. I tried to give her a massage, because I had seen it as a relaxing technique on “Love American Style,’’ or some other television. But there seemed to be no feeling in her neck and shoulders.
I cannot show you how much I felt then is what I feel now, with my daughter marooned in her college apartment hundreds of miles away from here. She is safe, and healthy, but I worry about her with a familiar vagueness. Her education and summer internship and job opportunities have been upended, seemingly without justification, just as my father would not, or could not, discuss what really was wrong with our mother. Like this pandemic, my mother’s illness emerged for us in the spring, which in the Los Angeles of that age was not so distinguishable back then from other seasons. This spring has arrived with a disturbing similarity, behind the storm and soundproof windows of my New York apartment. Jesus rises, Jews are delivered, and Muslims are rejuvenated, but all outside the public sphere. It is a spring without witness, without the proof that tradition provides. Instead we have to tell ourselves it is here.
For me, the most eerily resonant characteristic of this spring with fifty years earlier is the intangibility. My sister and I wanted only to know when our mother was coming back, but no one could tell us. We wanted to know what would happen next, have everything to go back to the way it was. Yet somehow, we knew, maybe through the body language of adults, or their resignation to the situation as the weeks filed past, that nothing would return to how it had been. My daughter’s always steady and straight trajectory into adulthood and independence, which she has heard so many celebrate, has been stalled, if not aborted. I can neither show nor tell her what the post-virus economy will look like, whether the degree she’s studying for will be relevant, if her skills, her entire generation, will be lost, like one a century earlier. I cannot show you the complex mix of national and gender politics, medical ignorance, and family dysfunction that ensnared my mother and pushed her over the edge. I doubt anyone would want me to, given how the onset of coronavirus is now teasing the seams of our civilization, exposing just how badly we have neglected our democratic mission in recent years.
Our mother was gone from us for three weeks, or possibly three months, though naturally it felt like years. Time became malleable, indefinite, rather than neatly segmented. It didn’t matter how many days there were until spring break or summer vacation; or until our birthdays, if Mom wasn’t going to be there for them. It took more than a decade for her to truly recover, which might very well amount to the same period necessary for the economy to come back from a depression. Telling you about the triumph that was ultimately my mother’s life might require too much inconvenient forgetting, just as we’ve supposedly assimilated the losses of the 1918 flu, to our detriment. There is so much already to tell about the current pandemic. I can practically recite stories I’m collecting from friends, their details and the emotions behind them so surreal I cannot out them from my memory. One friend has a sister who is a nurse in a big city hospital. Another has a close cousin working as a paramedic/emergency medical technician. There are friends who have parents they cannot see in nursing homes and in assisted living; and friends with spouses fighting cancer, suddenly afraid to get their treatments for fear of contracting an illness more threatening.
I ache for my friends. I tell you about their ache, because I come from a telling profession, journalism. I started my writing career reporting on standardized test scores, teachers’ salaries, graduation rates, property values, the nitty-gritty of community demographics. That we need this kind of telling right now should be obvious, because that data will eventually show us how thoroughly our cities and towns were overtaken by the pandemic. The current situation demands that we do as much telling as possible; that we become local or ad hoc anthropologists of our families, our neighborhoods, the seemingly sturdy fortresses we thought we had built out of our streets, our acquaintances, our trips to the local supermarket. We should do whatever we can to remember who was waiting on us, who tallied up our purchases, who was there last week or last month, who suddenly disappears without announcement. We should remember that not every coronavirus death will be officially documented due to the lack of tests. Neither will the long, painful recoveries, especially those that do not so neatly fit into the medical models officials are now trying to give us.
I can tell you about all this, but it might be hard to believe it. I am wickedly fortunate in my own circumstances and have nothing to truly show you of the fears and anxieties in my city or elsewhere. Once this is over, when it is over, I will likely collect more stories from beyond these walls and windows. Some will be about injustice and ruin; some will be about a kind soul who offered help, or a heroic act that saved scores of others. All these stories, regards of who tells them, will need to be heard, even if they do not conform to the strictures of professional storytelling. People who are not practiced writers; people who are merely trying to make a connection; people who are in a rush to tell us what happened to their humanity when their friends or loved ones died, or when they had to powerlessly watch their suffering: everyone will have something to say, and we should recognize they might need to say it in their own way. We need to let them tell stories if not for the sake of posterity, then to empower those who lived them, because so much of their agency has been denied to them in this pandemic. They need to know that their experiences are as much a part of the history of this country as all the other expertly devised, clever or illuminating accounts that will come out in the future. They need to know their story counts; telling it is one more reason to live through the devastation we will all share in.
About the Author:
Jane Rosenberg LaForge’s poetry, fiction, critical and personal essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Poetry Quarterly, Wilderness House Literary Review, Ottawa Arts Review, Boston Literary Magazine, THRUSH, Ne’er-Do-Well Literary Magazine, and The Western Journal of Black Studies. Her memoir-fantasy, An Unsuitable Princess, is available from Jaded Ibis Press. Her full-length collection of poetry, With Apologies to Mick Jagger, Other Gods, and All Women was published in fall 2012 by The Aldrich Press. She is also the author of the chapbooks After Voices, published by Burning River of Cleveland in 2009, and Half-Life, from Big Table Publishing of Boston in 2010. She lives in New York City with her husband and daughter.