Toussaint column: A stress test for ‘who’ and ‘what’ counts as community
David Steven Bieda was cute, sassy, and so vain. He’d primp before multiple mirrors in his hair salon, saying in broad Brooklynese, “I’m never gonna let MYSELF get old and frumpy.”
He didn’t. David died at 37 in 1988. His was my first AIDS death, the first of too many to count.
I last saw David lying on a hospital bed in his darkened living room, his face ashen, his formerly plump frame a skeleton draped with crepe-y skin. I said goodbye silently, not wanting him to waste precious breath.
I came because David’s partner had sent me a Far Side card — a “crisis clinic” aflame, floating above a waterfall — asking for help. Steven, a lone caretaker whose task entailed previewing his own coming death, simply wasn’t up to hosting David’s mother. She had arrived alone, in defiance of David’s father, to say a final goodbye to her son.
At that time, I knew panicked people who wouldn’t even drive through the Castro District. I also met Alice, a masseuse who reached out to stigmatized, isolated AIDS patients, offering massages to relieve the “skin hunger” that results from being deprived of human touch. I stood somewhere in between those poles. Driving Mrs. Bieda around town felt feeble but at least a step in the right direction.
It was only after David died that I began thinking about gay co-workers who had disappeared, uncounted. About why a whole community didn’t count with the powers that be; Reagan was president for five years during the epidemic before he even publicly mentioned AIDS.
Coronavirus, with its thousands of counted and undercounted victims, brings back echoes of that dark era.
This time, I’m part of the group counted most vulnerable, and most expendable. I understand triage: If the doctor had too few respirators and too many patients, I’d take the Sophie’s Choice away and tell her to give the life-saving gear to a nurse, or a child.
But I’m not willing to die for Wall Street. I’m incensed at politicians who say I should. I’m even more offended by “liberation” protesters. If they’d be willing to forego medical care after catching the virus, fine. But that’s not how it works, and it’s not just their lives they’re endangering; it’s nurses and doctors who already face the grim choice of exposing their own families or isolating in hotel rooms.
I’ve been self-quarantined for six weeks. I’m jousting with depression, worn out from being the sole, shut-in caretaker for an 89-year-old who, because of cognitive and short-term memory issues, doesn’t understand quarantine procedures. He thinks I’m bossy, bloody-minded about having “the last word.” I risk the quarrel, knowing that the stakes might be having him in isolation, exchanging our actual last words by telephone.
I’m lucky: I have a home in which to isolate. My cat does his head-butting best to combat my loneliness and skin hunger. I can still take distanced walks. So far, social security and IRA distributions have enabled me to order from local restaurants and donate to nonprofits.
Millenials have recently dubbed coronavirus the “Boomer Remover.” Though cruelly ageist, that slur pales in comparison with what gay men suffered during the 1980s. Still, this crisis — like AIDS and like last year’s wildfires — is acting as a stess-test, measuring whether “we the people” are interconnected enough to survive: as towns, as states, as a united body of states, as a species.
Coronavirus has revealed flaws and inequities that underlie this country’s notion of “normal.” Perilous inequalities — urban versus rural, salaried versus hourly and gig workers, white death rates versus the disproportionate tolls for African-Americans and Native-American — are being laid bare. It’s now easier to see how the lack of paid sick leave — for grocery, pharmacy and other “essential workers” — constitutes a threat to national security, and why tying health care to jobs exposes not just individuals, but all of us, to peril.
I believe, as Wendell Berry has said, “that the community — in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures — is the smallest unit of health.” As he said, “to speak of individual health outside that context is meaningless.”
I don’t believe that the jet-setting, sleep-deprived, self-obsessed “normal” we had before this pandemic could be counted as anything resembling healthy, or sustainable.
When we recover, when we restart, my prayer is that we seek a healthier, more-sustainable norm. I pray we strive for the balance William Ellery Channing articulated a century ago: “to live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury and refinement rather than fashion … to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich … to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common.”
Nicolette Toussaint lives in Carbondale. Her column appears monthly in the Post Independent and at postindependent.com.
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