Moab can seem like a little island, naturally isolated and surrounded by the wild. That’s part of why it’s, thankfully, taking so long for the coronavirus pandemic to reach the shores of our community.
It feels sheltered. It feels safe. It makes the threat of COVID-19 and the deadly, tragic impact it is having on communities across the world feel, at times, very far away.
It also doesn’t take much to shatter that illusion.
I got a text on my phone from an old, familiar number. It was Diamond, an old student.
“Just wanted to check in on you and make sure you’re okay,” she wrote.
Diamond is 16 years old and lives in Michigan’s Wayne County, where I grew up and my family still lives. She has a giant smile, a throaty chuckle, and is whip-smart. She’s a dancer and an artist, and I’ve had the pleasure of knowing her for years since she was one of my students in southwest Detroit.
Right now, Diamond is living under a mandatory stay-at-home order and for good reason. Over 1,200 people in Wayne County have died as local hospitals have not been able to keep up with new infections. Everyone in the city seems to know someone who is infected, who is hospitalized, or who has died.
My mother, the city council administrator for a local town, now writes memorials for those that have died for council members to read into the record. My brother, a public interest attorney, now says his meetings often start with an acknowledgment of people missing the meeting due to hospitalization.
While it may not feel real here, the illness is so present there. News reports here in Utah speak of data and numbers and policies. People who have died are largely anonymous, concealed behind medical privacy laws. If you didn’t know them personally, you may see the case counts as just that: numbers.
In Michigan, those who have died are very much real to people. They’re police officers, medical workers, bus drivers, grocery store workers and the five-year-old daughter of first responders. State Representative Isaac Robinson drafted legislation to ensure people hit economically could access benefits before falling sick himself. He died on March 29 at the age of 44.
But yet with all that, Diamond reached out to me to see if I’m okay.
It strikes at my heart. What do you do with that simple human compassion? It feels like too much to bear. It feels so much easier to focus on numbers, on politics, on anything but that thread of human connection.
That human connection means grief and worry, for the people who have died and for my family. Not just my family, but all families: my young former students, the family of the kind bus drivers, the families of nurses who have to decide whether to stay home or risk their lives working without protective equipment.
For me, the instinct to avoid those feelings is overwhelming. I know I’m not alone in using effective distractions like work or games to avoid thinking about the state of our fellow humans.
Diamond’s text felt like an ax falling on a frozen sea inside me, cracking that shell of avoidance and thoughtlessness. Her compassion suddenly showed what real grace could look like in the midst of all this confusion: tender, simple connection and care for one another.
It’s hard for us all, myself included, to really accept that our lives will be changed for years due to this sudden outbreak. It’s so difficult not to resist, to deny and to fight what we don’t want to accept. But, avoiding anxiety and uncertainty comes at a cost, hardening our hearts and breaking an important connection with our neighbors. Avoiding grief might allow us to function for a while, but fails to honor the lives of those that have died.
No one, no city and no person, is truly an island. We are all connected and depend on one another. This pandemic shows that in an elegant way: I depend on you to protect my health as you must depend on me to protect yours. Wearing a mask or washing your hands is a powerful, visible act of care and love for your neighbors. Taking a moment to feel grief is an act of respect and compassion.
I am trying to learn from Diamond and others like her who, while being as frightened as anyone, don’t thrash around in denial but look for where they can help. Who, instead of fighting, look for where they can comfort. Who take a moment and say, softly, “Yes, this is hard. Yes, this is sad” and then help us all go on, together.
Maggie McGuire is managing editor of the Moab Sun News.