Return to site

An Epidemic of Love and Worry


Thrity Umrigar

May 11, 2020

The days have never been fuller.

All day long, the phone rings and buzzes. Friends checking in to take the temperature of our emotional lives. Asking if we need masks or whether we will add their grocery requests to our delivery lists. We give someone a bag of rice from our stock; another friend texts to say she’s on her way to drop off some muffins that she’s baked. I stand on the porch, she in the driveway. The plan is to talk from that distance. What I’m not anticipating is my bursting into tears upon seeing her bright, cheerful, face, at the sheer normalcy of a friendly visit.

For twenty-one years, we were the couple who hosted dinners every Saturday and frequently threw parties. It was our thing, what we did together—feeding people. Bringing different groups of friends together. Throwing large bashes and quiet dinners. Now, on Saturday nights, we talk on the phone to those friends. Now, we marvel at how our grocery bills are shrinking since we’re only feeding ourselves.

I have a friend in Japan who never sleeps. We text each other at any old time. Before Japan went into lockdown, she offered to mail us toilet paper and hand sanitizer. I refused, unable to deal with this new, depressing reality. But I have never felt more embarrassed about being an American.

And because I have family in India, my phone buzzes with WhatsApp messages day and night. Often, it’s memes about the virus whose veracity I have to check and sometimes refute. But mostly, it’s news from afar and most of it worrisome: A close family member who still, despite my strongest protests, allows her cook into the house daily. A cousin whose husband is stranded at his farm, three hours away from Bombay, haplessly watching his fruit rotting on the vine because of lack of farm labor. A relative of a friend complaining about food shortages in her affluent neighborhood. A close friend railing about how all the precautions one is asked to take—handwashing, sheltering in place, social distancing—are symbols of privilege, unavailable to millions of working class Indians living in crowded slums.

It’s a daily swirl of anxiety, worry, love, helplessness. Through it all, I keep marveling at how this one little virus has laid bare all the other, chronic viruses of the world—poverty, homelessness, income inequity, lack of health care, the climate crisis.

The particulars differ from nation to nation, but the issues are the same. It’s humbling to realize how ineffectual one’s own desire to help can be. My superhero complex has made me rush to India time after time to tend to an ailing family member. If, God forbid, someone I love takes ill with the Coronavirus, what then? There are no planes to catch and the borders are sealed. This fucking illness is an immigrant’s worst nightmare.

In my own life, in my own home in suburban Cleveland, all I notice are things to be grateful for: a beautiful backyard where each day the birds and flowers announce the arrival of spring; unlimited hot running water; technology at my fingertips; a loving partner who does everything to make my life easier; a home filled with books and music; and (so far) avoidance of the virus. Blessings everywhere I look, tinged with horror and guilt about what is happening elsewhere—the carnage in the hospitals in New York, the shuttering of beloved local businesses, the terror of friends facing unemployment. An elderly friend whose cat-sitting business has come to a halt because none of her clients are going on vacation. Another friend who has lost the little money she made working under the table. Friends whose small business have been upended. The omnipresent question, hovering above us all—How will we ever come back from this? Who will survive this wipeout? What happens to those who don’t? Who will live and who will die before this nightmare ends?

And then, the thing that keeps me up night after night, bug-eyed and wide awake: The November election. The fact is that one of the two major parties knows that it can only win through massive voter suppression. Wouldn’t canceling the election be the ultimate trick, the biggest voter suppression of them all? In Milwaukee, Wisconsin they were willing to sacrifice the lives of black and brown Democratic voters by cramming them into five polling stations, down from the usual 180. The conservative majority on the Supreme Court revealed its true, ideological colors—MAGA Red—by not allowing the state to extend voting by mail. We’ve spent four years deluding ourselves daily--oh, they can’t go any lower, oh, they can’t shatter this norm, oh, they can’t do that, can they?—only to find out, Oh, yes they can. Yes, they did.

Watching those Milwaukee voters, gloved and masked, stand in lines for over five hours, I was reminded of the old footage of the everyday heroes of the Civil Rights movement, and I felt the same mix of emotions—pride at their heroism and patriotism, and outrage that it had to be tested in these ways.

Sometimes, after I see videos of hungry, impoverished day laborers in India trudging for 150 miles to make their way back to their home villages, I get irritated at the endless Facebook challenges to post pictures of beautiful places we have visited, or the pictures of perfect loaves of bread everyone is suddenly baking. That’s when I am most acutely aware of my immigrant self, hopelessly divided.

Then, I remember that I love the people posting these pictures and that they’re doing this to keep our spirits up. Then, I remember that we are all scared and lonely, that most of us are not sleeping well at night, and that the only thing we have in the face of this ugly virus is one another. That people are offering beauty as a rescue, as an antidote to suffering. That, despite my best efforts to be grateful and positive, I, too, throw my middle-class tantrums that reek of privilege. Just three days ago, I turned to my partner and said, “You know what I miss? Wearing earrings. Dressing up and going to the Cedar Lee for a movie. And then, meeting friends for dinner.” We stared at one another for a long while, mute with longing and nostalgia.

But I snap out of these moments of self-pity rather quickly. Then, I pick up the phone and call friends who are sheltering in place alone. “Hey. It’s me,” I say. “Just wanted to see how you’re doing.”

“Oh, you know,” they reply. “Okay, I guess. And you?” Thus, we save each other, day by day.

Thrity Umrigar is the bestselling author of eight novels, including The Space Between Us and The Secrets Between Us. Her two new children’s picture books, Binny’s Diwali and Sugar in Milk will be published this fall. A former journalist, she is a Distinguished University Professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

See more Thrity Umrigar books on the Journal of the Plague Years author bookshelf here.

Helpless ::: Neil Young w/The Band

Time Has Come Today ::: Coco Robicheaux

Blues On The Ceiling ::: Tim Hardin

I Pity The Poor Immigrant ::: Richie Havens

Worried Blues ::: Skip James

Just Me & My Telephone ::: John Lee Hooker

Know ::: Nick Drake

Worry Walks Beside Me ::: Michael Kiwanuka

Find The Cost of Freedom ::: Crosby Stills Nash & Young