Tag Archives: coronavirus

Cancer is not canceled

This morning I looked at my “calendar” for June. (So much for the Storm season.) Pretty much the only thing on there that’s actually going to happen is the mammogram I scheduled back in February.

I schedule mammograms months in advance because the imaging center has limited appointments with same-day results. I watched my mom die of breast cancer in 2007, so, I have a teensy bit of anxiety about mammograms.

I’m also still recovering from that time a few years ago when a front desk person from the imaging place called two days after my mammogram—on a Friday—to schedule me for “additional images,” with no explanation about why those images were needed. I spent that entire weekend in hell.

I digress.

The point is, in the midst of this complete upending of “normal” life, in the midst of this horror that is consuming all of our attention, people are still getting diagnosed with cancer—and experiencing other disasters unrelated to coronavirus.

My friend C is is middle school teacher. One of her students—a 7th grade girl—was reported missing over the weekend. One of my other close girlfriends is separating from her partner.

People are still experiencing abuse. People are still (actually, more than ever) losing their jobs. People are still dying in car crashes and of illnesses other than COVID-19.

But recitals, and weddings, and graduations, and birthday parties, and religious services—those are canceled. No bus adventures. No dance rehearsals. No visits to Husky Deli or Colman Pool. No Sunday dinners. No sleepovers. No formal dances or music shows. No girls’ nights. No potlucks with the neighbors.

All of the gatherings that help us celebrate our milestones and accomplishments and relationships and connections (in other words, LIFE) are canceled completely or “virtual.” It feels like we are suspended in time, like we are not really living.

But there’s absolutely no doubt that we’re really dying.

Breakfast with the ancestors

Even before COVID-19, I didn’t fly much. Like my decision not to drive, it started as an attempt to limit the resources I—only one human out of billions—consume. But it soon became a way of life that suited me: staying grounded, finding adventure and newness and discovery close to home. We take the family to Detroit once a year to visit my in-laws, and occasionally, my spouse travels for work. But mostly, we stay put or find alternatives to flying.

The biggest thing I miss about traveling is, interestingly, the same thing I miss about driving: visiting people I love. So many girlfriends I live far from have asked and asked (and asked) to schedule a girls’ trip, and I always find a reason to put it off.

But in late January, my friend of many years, C, lost her mother, and staying put was not an option. C requested that, in lieu of traveling to New Jersey for the funeral, our friend T and I visit her in the DMV after it was over, during the quiet, lonely time after the chaos.

T and I made the trip in the last days of February. It was a perfect visit, spent mostly catching up: hours of sharing, laughing, crying, eating, drinking, and (bonus!) riding the Metro.

Because I had never been, we visited THE museum, and it was every bit as profound and beautiful as I had imagined. I felt all the feelings. We stayed all day.

A place–and a day–I will never forget
Image description: Exterior of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Right before the museum closed, I happened upon a small book in the gift shop: Rosa Parks in Her Own Words. If you are a longtime reader of this blog, you know that Rosa Louise McCauley Parks is one of my sheroes—certainly because of her involvement in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which is one of the most remarkable stories of organizing and solidarity and commitment and resilience in the history of humanity. But also because of the incomparable courage and dedication to justice that she demonstrated throughout her lifetime of activism.

Rosa Parks is my chosen ancestor. My firstborn carries her name. She is a guiding light.

So of course I bought the book, which was published early this year and includes letters and personal notes and other papers that were only recently made publicly available.

In the evenings, after C, T, and I had talked ourselves out, I would lie on my hotel bed and flip through the pages, staring at the photographs of her handwritten notes, feeling equal parts voyeur (Should her private papers really be available to strangers?) and loyal daughter learning sacred traditions.

A beautiful surprise
Image description: Book cover of Rosa Parks in Her Own Words

In the middle of our trip, T received a text from a friend back home. There’d been a death from COVID-19 near Seattle.

Before that text, coronavirus was in our consciousness but not top of mind. We’d heard about the fast spread in China and about the first known U.S. case being identified in our state. Weeks before we left on our trip, elected officials and public health experts had begun encouraging us to wash our hands thoroughly and frequently. News of the death was alarming, but coronavirus didn’t feel like a direct threat.

I made it home on the evening of March 1, full from my girl time, ready to rejoin my family and return to my routines: library trips, neighbor visits, walks to dance class, and of course, bus rides.

Instead, I returned to an escalating emergency.

Performances canceled.

Fundraisers canceled.

A memorial service (for someone very special to me) canceled.

When school was canceled, I knew we had crossed into unknown territory.

On the first morning of everyone home, I woke up early. I felt a need to serve my family, to do something grounding and comforting that would bring us together at the beginning of a scary and uncertain time.

I opened that little book I had bought in DC a few weeks (and an entire lifetime) earlier and turned to the page with the photograph of Ancestor Rosa’s famous (in her family) “featherlite” pancake recipe, written in her own lovely handwriting on the back of an envelope.

Rosa Parks’ handwriting looks exactly like my grandma;s
Image description: A photo of Rosa Parks’ recipe for “featherlite pancakes”

As I read my shero’s notes and gathered the ingredients, I felt a deep connection to her. She was with me as I measured and mixed, as I heated the skillet just so.

Image description: A pancake cooking in a skillet

Rosa Parks’ life was so unjust and difficult. As a young girl, when the Klan terrorized her town, she had to stay awake all night, the windows of her grandparents’ home boarded up and her grandfather sitting in the rocker with a gun across his lap, prepared to do whatever was necessary to protect his family. As a young woman, she spent her non-working hours investigating sexual assaults against Black women for the NAACP.

During the boycott, she endured near-constant death threats and lost her livelihood. (She and her husband dealt with financial insecurity for many years after the boycott ended, even after they moved to Detroit.)  She suffered stress-related health problems, including painful, persistent ulcers. Despite being introverted and extremely private, she spoke at large events across the country and submitted to countless interviews.

And yet, on some mornings, in the midst of the trauma and uncertainty and physical suffering, she rose early and mixed batter, stood patiently at the stove until it began to bubble, served stacks of fluffy featherlites to loved ones—with butter and syrup, or powdered sugar and jam—perhaps with a side of bacon or grits or scrambled eggs.

I was comforted by this thought then, and I am again now, as I set my alarm to wake early tomorrow morning and cook Sister Rosa’s famous featherlites for my family.

Breakfast, courtesy of my chosen ancestor
Image description: a tall stack of pancakes on a plate

“Memories of our lives, of our works and our deeds, will continue in others.” – Rosa Parks

Missing the bus

Back in the Before Times (aka, two months ago), when I actually went places, I would sometimes rent a Zipcar for the day, usually to visit family and friends who live outside of reasonable busing distance. Of course, when it comes to buses, I’m not above pushing past what is reasonable, but other obligations and service limitations do occasionally constrain my ability to spend an entire day traveling 23 miles.

I digress.

On those Zipcar days, every time I found myself driving near a bus or rolling past a full bus stop, I would feel a pang, even a bit of FOMO. Seeing a bus when I’m not riding hurts my bus chick heart.

This is how I feel every day now when I go outside—usually to walk in circles around my neighborhood—and I see 3s and 4s and 8s and 27s and 48s rolling by, often completely empty. Except these days, it’s not a just a brief pang. It’s an ache, a cracking open, an interior crumbling.

It’s grief.

As a naturally anxious person who has lived through many of Metro’s ups and downs, I have rehearsed a fair number of transit disaster scenarios in my head. But never, not even in my worst anxiety spirals, did I imagine the current reality: that the bus would become a vector of a global pandemic, that anyone with the option to stay home would be asked not to ride, that loving your community would mean not riding the bus.

How can I explain what the bus means to me? I have been writing this blog for 14 years and still have not managed to put it into words.

The bus is my stability, my comfort, my assurance that the world is as it should be. It is my opportunity to be with other people I would otherwise never have the chance to meet.

On the bus, I am invisible but also seen, alone but in community, moving but sitting still.

I can participate in conversations or (my specialty) observe from the periphery, absorbing, empathizing, integrating all of it. Or I can tune it all out and look out the window to watch the world.

When I am on the bus, I know that I belong. To my city. To humanity. To the ancestors.

I know that this is bigger than my personal loss. Drivers are risking their lives to transport people who must travel. Major service cuts are limiting those people’s access to food and jobs and medical care. The economic crash caused by this disaster will make it near impossible for Metro to restore service when it’s finally safe to ride again.

But the thing about the bus is that it is both personal and collective. My loss is the community’s, and the community’s loss is mine.

And right now, it feels like a cyclone has hit, and we’ll never get back home.

Shelter and safety for everyone

I met my friend Lawrence* because he lives in my neighborhood, and I know—at least by sight—most people who live in my neighborhood. Lawrence and I frequent the same bus stops and walk many of the same routes. After crossing paths numerous times, we officially introduced ourselves. Eventually, we became friends.

Lawrence has lived in Seattle for his entire life. Because he can no longer afford housing, he now lives in his van, which, as far as I can tell, isn’t running. The front windshield is smashed, and at least one of the tires is flat. Lawrence often needs money for propane, so he can keep warm at night. Like me, he suffers from a condition called Raynaud’s Syndrome, which causes pain and numbness in the hands and feet during even mildly cold weather. He also has arthritis.

I worry about everyone in our city who is houseless. I especially worry for those people whose faces and names I know, people I have formed bonds with. Every single night, I worry about Lawrence.

Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Lawrence and I exchanged numbers. I told him to call me in case of emergency, like if he was out of propane, or just needed someone to help him problem-solve. About a week later (around the same time our region was beginning to understand the seriousness of coronavirus), I decided I could no longer live with the idea of him suffering on the floor of his van night after night. I texted to ask if he’d like to spend a few days in a hotel. He said yes.

I chose the Best Western Pioneer Square because I know someone who has stayed there several times and liked it. It is a fairly short bus ride from our neighborhood, is clean and comfortable, and includes a hearty breakfast. I called to make a reservation, then took the 27 to the hotel to provide my credit card and give them Lawrence’s information.

As I waited in line, the hotel staff were very busy, answering calls from people canceling reservations and helping guests check out early. It occurred to me that the fallout from this pandemic had created an opportunity for an emergent strategy of sorts. Hotels were losing business and would soon be empty. Houseless people are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. What if we, concerned citizens of Seattle (and every city), pooled our resources to rent newly cheap hotel rooms for our houseless neighbors?

When it was my turn to register, I attempted to provide the hotel with some information about Lawrence, who, not surprisingly, isn’t as clean or neatly dressed as someone with access to shelter. I struggled with whether I should say something; I didn’t want to violate his privacy. On the other hand, as a person of color, I know for sure that disparate treatment happens. Lawrence is both houseless and a person of color, so I wanted to make sure that he didn’t experience any hassles when he arrived to check in.

I said, “This room is for my neighbor. He’s fallen on some hard times and is living in his van, and I just want to ensure that he will be treated with dignity.”

The person who was helping me leaned forward and widened her eyes. “Are you saying that he’s HOMELESS?”

I said, yes, that’s what I was saying. She said that the hotel doesn’t “do” homeless.

I should have left immediately, but I felt pressed. I had already given Lawrence the hotel’s information, and it wasn’t always easy to reach him. I had to help another neighbor with childcare (back when we were still allowed to do that) in less than an hour.

So, I pushed back. I said the room was paid for, Lawrence was a human being, and the hotel’s policy amounted to discrimination. She doubled down on the discrimination and asked me to assure her that there wouldn’t be any drug use.

Finally, after conferring with a coworker, she agreed to let Lawrence stay. I reserved the room for three nights.

On the third night, I decided that I could probably swing at least one more. Nighttime lows were still in the 30s, and I hated to imagine Lawrence back in his van under those conditions. I called the hotel to extend. The person who answered the phone cheerfully looked up my reservation. But as soon as her computer retrieved it, she said, “I’m sorry. I’m not going to be able to extend this reservation.”

I asked if I needed to come in and present my credit card again. She put me on hold. A moment later, a manager picked up. “We’re not going to extend this reservation,” he snapped. “If the guest can’t afford the room, then he shouldn’t be staying here.”

Lawrence is now back in his van. Everything is closed—libraries, community centers, coffee shops, every public space—so his van is the only place for him to be. I don’t see him very often these days, because I rarely leave my home. But sometimes, when I am out for fresh air, I see him walking to the store to buy water; he has no access to plumbing. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about how likely it is that he’s able to wash his hands at all—let alone frequently.

Even though we had a bad experience with the Best Western Pioneer Square, I’m still convinced that the idea—to provide guests for empty hotels and safe housing for those in our community who are most vulnerable right now—is a good one. Certainly, there are independently owned hotels that are on the verge of closing completely that would welcome a steady source of income.

All of us are threatened by this virus, and all of us are suffering from the havoc it has wreaked on our communities. Think about how you’re feeling right now—how lonely, fearful, and uncertain. Imagine spending every hour of every day uncomfortable, with no distractions, no people out on the street to help you with a few dollars, feeling abandoned and desperate AND scared of getting sick.

As we do everything we can to keep ourselves healthy and financially afloat, we can’t forget our houseless neighbors. We as a community need to offer them more than “socially distanced” mass shelters. One obvious, short-term solution is for the city to rent rooms in empty hotels (owned by compassionate, openminded people) so that everyone, especially the most vulnerable among us, can stay safe—and as comfortable as possible—during this challenging time.

Can we find the will and focus to make this happen?

Image description: people holding a sign that says, “Housing is a human right.”


*Not his real name, which is much more awesome