One of Billions

by Kevin Fitton, 04/22/2020, Lansing, MI

Adult Category


I have two key memories from the Pandemic so far, and they each tell a completely different story.
In the first memory, I’m standing in my backyard. It’s the middle of March, and school has been closed for a week. It’s one of the first nice days of the year, and I’m raking leaves, catching up on my fall clean-up. I’m texting my friend Bill, whose wife, Emily, has been sick. She’s the only person I know, to this point, who’s been tested for the virus, and it’s been a solid week, quarantined in her room, waiting for the results. Bill has been managing family life with their two sons, and I’m offering help, though there isn’t much I can do.
“Do you know how to get kids to pick up after themselves?” he asks.
“Hard no,” I answer.
I’m not sure why this particular memory stands out, but I remember what I was feeling: That everything was okay. I was using this respite to get caught up on life. Old leaves smoldered in my burn pile, while my grass started turning green, the engine of photosynthesis rumbling awake like an engine, idled for winter. And here I was, just like always, joking with my friends, even while we waited for test results (negative, by the way). That’s the first memory.

Here’s the other one: Now I’m shopping for groceries. It’s a couple of days later, after my conversation with Bill. It’s my first time at the grocery store since Governor Whitmer implemented the Stay-Home Order, and it feels different. I’m also shopping for my parents, and my aunt, so I know it’s going to be a long trip.
Instead of going to the Meijer nearest my home on the outskirts of Lansing, I head out to Grand Ledge, and it isn’t too busy. I take a disinfectant wipe and use it to wipe down my cart as I enter. Slowly, I start to adjust. People are giving one another space, a general courtesy taking over now that we know things getting serious. It’s new, and we aren’t tired yet. Wary but not weary.
I work from three different lists, circling back to get things I missed my first time through. Finally, I have everything, and I feel a sense of relief, looking at my cart, knowing that we have a week’s worth of food, including some favorites: tonic water for me, ice cream for the girls, loads of bagels.
I head to check-out. My first instinct is to go through the self-check-out, but those are fifteen items or less. There are ten machines and no customers, but still. It’s fifteen, and my cart is overflowing. So I pick a line.
At this point, there are no safety procedures in place. No masks. No shields. The cashier isn’t wearing gloves, and she touches every item while she scans and packs my items. My anxiety is already rising when it happens: the cashier turns her head and coughs into her hand, and before any words come out of my mouth, she’s again touching my groceries. Touch, touch, touch.
Panicked, I drive home. What am I supposed to do? My aunt has health issues. My parents are approaching seventy. It’s probably fine, but who knows? The ice cream is melting.

What I decide is to clean every item I can with disinfectant wipes. Others I take right out of the packaging, emptying the bagels for my parents into reusable bags from my trunk. I dump loaves of bread into the same bags, the loaves falling apart as they land. I make piles of groceries in the driveway, while I work through the items, simultaneously feeling utterly silly and equally relieved as my system takes shape.
Eventually, my fears dissipate, and in the end, it’s fine. No one gets sick (I can safely say that now). But the memory is still raw; a month later, I can take myself back there in a moment. And the reason, I suppose, is because this feeling—the panic and the loss of control—is quintessential to my experience during the pandemic. Whenever I leave the safety of my own home, I get at least a taste of it, sour in the back of my throat.

I’m still joking with my friends. I am getting caught up on tasks. We planted the garden early this year, putting in our lettuce and spinach on time for once. I’m trying, as much as possible, to take full advantage of the change in our daily schedule, writing and reading more, even as I wrap up my teaching responsibilities. But, at the same time, I am trying to learn this important lesson: That I don’t have control. I have disinfectant wipes. I have an N95 mask. But I can’t stop a grocery clerk from coughing on my food. I can’t protect everyone I love, and I can’t prevent a microscopic virus from slipping through my defenses.
And, if we’re honest with ourselves, we would recognize that this is always the case, pandemic or not. We don’t have control our lives. We make choices, sure. But control? It’s nothing more than a practiced illusion. A car comes blasting through a red light; you find a discolored spot on your skin; your employer decides to downsize. We are never in control in the way we imagine.
And that’s okay, if I can learn to accept it—to remember, daily, that I’m not as powerful or important as I like to think I am. In many respects, it’s a relief, this recognition. We live, we do the best we can, and, eventually, it ends. I am one of billions. Tiny in comparison, a little micro-organism, practically invisible in this great big world.