Another Last Word

Journal of the Plague Year


In August 1984, I was in the summer term of my junior year at college in New York City, working part-time and starting chemotherapy for lymphoma. That went on for eleven months, including three months of radiation every day at 8 a.m., which all told saved my life at the cost of the efficacy of my spine and some internal organs I’d grown accustomed to.

Not complaining. That’s just what happened.

I was a prolific if not very good writer at 20 and I started a daily journal to document the course of the disease and the treatment.

That lasted maybe a week. Deep in the first cycle of an unforgiving regimen, I was too exhausted to pursue any nonessential activity.

But I also made a decision not to remember what I was feeling.

In the morning I’d take the bus to the hospital, then walk over to class, then take the subway to work, then get a cab back to my shared apartment. I tried to eat out. That didn’t work. Tried to see friends. Awkward. Tried to take walks. Couldn’t go very far without having to rest on a stranger’s stoop. Or, one time, on a stranger.

Couldn’t even sleep much — it was the steroids in the chemo — and when I did sleep, I didn’t dream. For a year.

Keeping up with the journal would have been useful. Things happened that other people needed to know about later, and it would’ve been so much easier to hand them a notebook instead of remembering it for them and swallowing the frustration when they didn’t seem to get it.

The advent of this novel coronavirus pandemic and the disease it causes, COVID-19, while unprecedented in our lifetimes, is familiar to me in a way I can’t put my finger on. But the reality of its impact personally, financially, socially — the fear and denial  — is a landscape I know well.

So, I am going to start my journal again. I haven’t been exposed to the virus yet, as far as I know, but it’s already here on the Key Peninsula as I begin.

And here is my first entry:

The day starts with two northern flickers drumming away in the giant woodpecker house I nailed to the side of our home 15 years ago. It’s the same thing every spring. We gave them their own house to keep them from pecking at ours, and it worked. The sound they make inside that chamber sends them into a rapture. We hear their ecstatic cries through the wall.

I go to the post office to buy stamps and mail newspapers, and I’m catching up with the Post Master. An older man barges into the lobby, past the social distancing barrier and warning signs to stand closer behind me than is wise or even polite.

The Post Master says, “Excuse me, but would you please wait outside the lobby until I’m finished with this customer?”

“No! This is nonsense! You’re just talking!”

“Yes, while he pays for his transaction.”

“Well, then pay for mine too then!” He shoves a package at her over the counter and walks off, then bellows from the lobby, “Where’s your hand sanitizer?”

My son tells me his foreign exchange student friend has been recalled to her home country. They cannot meet in person to say goodbye. “We’ll never see each other again,” he says. I remind him he wasn’t raised to think that way. He smiles and winks and I wonder if I know what that means.

A neighbor wants to borrow some books. I leave a stack on our porch. He leaves a mason jar of apple moonshine and a note: “You can make sanitizer out of it.” I decide to start by sanitizing my taste buds, sitting outside in the dark to look at Venus hanging low and bright in the west. I hear barred owls discussing their business, or perhaps their mutual admiration — one close, one far — before their cries move off, together. Coyotes start up from another direction, down near the shoreline a mile away, answered by a lone sea lion barking back at them in the night.

On my way to bed I notice that our enormous grandfather clock, a 100-year-old heirloom from my wife’s family, has stopped.

Ted Olinger is an award-winning writer. He lives in Vaughn.