Klein tells them she prefers the frivolous gifts. Magazines and flowers make her feel “that I appeared to him as a normal girl, briefly confined to the hospital.”
This book is on my mind for a couple of reasons. I’d used it for research while writing my own recent novel. I thought I’d be on a book tour this week; instead I’m sitting in my living room. Which is the overriding tagline for many of us now, at least those of us lucky enough not to be sick ourselves, or working on the front lines: Instead, I’m sitting in my living room.
The cancellations started on a grand scale — no more National Basketball Association, no more summer blockbuster movies — but have now seeped into the personal. The most recent thing to wreck me was a Twitter thread started by the writer Summer Brennan, who is recovering from covid-19 in France. “Please tell me your thing that got cancelled that you are sad about, no matter how small,” she wrote, and what unfolded was a saga of large and tiny lost dreams: family reunions; weddings; tickets to “Hamilton,” scrimped-for over months, now sitting on a dresser.
The Make-A-Wish Foundation replied that it had to postpone granting 2,000 wishes, from children who had been suffering long before the coronavirus outbreak. A woman lamented the loss of a vacation she and her best friend had been planning for 30 years — ever since the concept of still being best friends at age 50 seemed laughably abstract. A father responded that he was unexpectedly teary over his daughter’s canceled swimming lessons. She’d loved them so much. Now she would put on her bathing suit anyway, “and pretend to swim on the living room carpet.”
Instead, we are sitting in our living rooms.
Brennan, the writer who started the cathartic thread, responded with encouragement to every canceled dream. And then, less than 12 hours after the exercise began, she tweeted that she was back in the hospital. “This is a crazy illness.”
One of the odder sensations of this moment in the pandemic — three or four or five weeks in — is how large our emotions are for how small our days are. The most rudimentary acts take on the most monumental proportions. We are recovering, then we are back in hospitals. We are forgetting anything is amiss as we make coffee or empty the dishwasher, then we are remembering that outside our own walls people are dying, have died, will die. This is terrifying; this is boring; this is normal. Years into the future, when all of this is done, I’m going to bring rolls of toilet paper as host gifts to dinner parties instead of wine or a box of chocolates. Everyone who was alive right now will understand.
One way to process through it is to think about the cancellations, the things we have lost. That’s the human thing to do. Rereading my piles and piles of World War II memoirs, I’ve lately taken a lot of comfort in the way that even these survivors and heroes, members of the Greatest Generation, thought about the cancellations of events both momentous and small.
In one of my favorite passages of “Anne Frank Remembered,” written by the woman who brought food to the Frank family in their secret attic annex, Miep Gies is frustrated because she can no longer find real coffee or cigarettes. The most horrible war imaginable rages on outside, and Gies is keeping eight people alive in impossible circumstances, and meanwhile, in her living room, she is thinking of coffee.
This pandemic is nothing like the unsurpassed horror of the Holocaust, which was the result of targeted human cruelty rather than viral illness. No, the reason those lines resonate is that they acknowledge something we’re all very attuned to at the moment: how our humanity is complicated and delicate, held together by the oddest of things. In the midst of horror, people are brave; in the midst of bravery, people still mourn that they can’t go to hair salons.
Coffee, cigarettes, fashion magazines, flowers. Canceled swimming lessons, canceled weddings. Each of us sorting through, every day, how to grieve what we’ve lost, and what rituals we can hang on to. Sometimes the dumb canceled swimming lessons bring more tears than the canceled weddings; sometimes the fashion magazines seem more vital than the food.
The real reason I keep rereading that passage from Gerda Weissmann Klein’s memoir is that the passage is really about wrestling with what is important and what is frivolous.
It’s the appearance of normalcy that we’re really craving. The fantasy that we’re all normal people in normal times, just briefly confined to our living rooms.
In a canceled life, sustenance can look like bread, but it can also look like flowers.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.