A Failure to Communicate

One of our most quoted American film lines came from Paul Newman’s classic, Cool Hand Luke: “What we have here is a failure to communicate,” spoken by fellow prisoner, George Kennedy, to Newman’s Luke. The circumstances of the line in the film are irrelevant here, but the fact of communication failures in the sudden emergence of the coronavirus, arriving on the scene as a 21st-century black plague, is monumental.

On the cusp of Spring, as crocuses emerge along our front walk, we scour the online news daily to discover how many new cases have been uncovered: Korea, Iran, Italy, Australia. Horrifying to perennially optimistic Americans, we now have California, Washington state, New York . . . . We wonder how many miles is it yet from my home? When will my family and I succumb?

Oddly, people buy out mountains of toilet paper from Costco. This week I went to our nearby Rite-Aid to purchase 91% rubbing alcohol, aloe vera gel, and essential oils to concoct our own homemade hand and surface disinfectant, stashed in little travel bottles in my car, bathroom, kitchen, and my already overburdened handbag. I didn’t stop there; I created little packets of wipes for attacking germ-laden surfaces wherever I should alight in and around town.

We’re not buying the mysterious coronavirus toilet paper but boxes of Emergen-C to boost our immune systems. My husband brings home crates of oranges and ritualistically squeezes us little glasses of fresh juice daily. We had been shopping for fresh fruit and veggies and supplementing every meal with a big salad when a friend grown killjoy asked how we can be sure that fresh produce is free of the virus. Alas, at this moment, what I need in my heart of hearts are real-life stories. I’ve just read that more than 50,000 Chinese from Wuhan province and more than half of those struck worldwide have survived the virus and moved on. So why cannot a journalist pick up a phone, give a survivor a call, and find out what they had for lunch today? Can they eat lunch yet?

My dream interview with a coronavirus survivor would tell this story. When you first noticed you didn’t feel well, where were you? where had you been? what had you eaten? Did it start with a sore throat? runny nose? fever? general malaise? How high did your fever go the first day, second day . . . . Did you go to bed? take lots of liquids, tea with honey and lemon, or chicken soup? What were the changes each day, or parts of the day? How did you sleep? Did you notify a doctor or health facility? go to the hospital? did you protect yourself or others when you went? Did you get medicine? which medicine? how long did it take for it to have a beneficial effect? did it have an effect? When did you start to feel better, what got better first? Do you feel normal yet? How do you continue to monitor and care for yourself?

In short, I want the stuff of human communication, how we’d analyze potential scenarios over coffee and a scone. Statistics are for the CDC, the WHO, my PCP. I want the wholly human story so that I can respond to the big scare like a person with a life, home, family, and friends. Otherwise I am frozen in uncertainty while bits of T.S. Eliot’s Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock echo in my brain:

. . . there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”

. . . time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?

. . . When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin. . .
               And how should I presume?

Break a leg

From earliest childhood, upon graduating from the front seat in our family stroller, I let go of my mother’s hand. Walking along downtown, I ran ahead, my mother’s cries of “Slow down!” faintly detectable, yet unheeded. This is not to suggest that I was particularly agile. My UItendency to forge ahead frequently ended in crashing and burning—tripping up stairs, wiping out on my bike, sprained ankles, and roughed up elbows and knees. Fast forward to my adult life, when on my first date with my eventual husband, he remarked, “You’re a fast walker and I’m a slow walker; we’ll never get along.” Undeterred, and despite my blunderbuss tendencies, we have survived several decades of marriage.

As summers go, this past one ranked with the more idyllic I’ve experienced: warm but not hot, dry but not parched, still but not airless. The gardens in our valley overflowed with blossoms, and herbal scents drifted over our outdoor dinners under starlit skies. Guests and family roamed in and out throughout June and July, until one busy morning, dashing from the house IMG_7815to the car (ahead of my husband, naturally), I lit on our recently reconfigured entry steps. My left ankle gave way, and I went down hard, crying out. I can still see in my mind’s eye my printed wrap skirt askew, ill-considered short tapered heels scuffed, now appearing daft as I sat back and looked at what damage my haste had wrought: a grossly malformed ankle, left foot folded under and jutting right. I called for ice, and my husband called 911. Our visiting family members emerged aghast on the front stoop, to hold me and to cover me, as I was going into shock. This was no minor mishap.

Within 30 minutes, I had been wheeled into an emergency room stall. By three hours post-tumble, I was led out atop a wheelchair and in a temporary cast. My pronounced diagnosis: a trimalleolar fracture (translation: three bones broken) requiring surgery within the coming week. As soon as I was back home, lifted up the treacherous front steps and resettled on the couch, my husband ran out seeking grab bars for the bathroom and setting in action all that needed care in our home, our property, and ourselves. I alternated dozing and wakefulness as from a nightmare. By morning, I undertook my first lesson in bird-bathing from a warm water pot. By the end of the week I braved lowering myself into the tub, left foot upraised to keep it dry.

Surgery day dawned and with it my resolve: whatever is to be, we’ll soon know. Let’s get it done. The surgical repair included piecing my lower leg and ankle together with a bracket and six screws on the left, two more longer screws on the right. Keep it dry. Alternate oxycodone (an opiod?!) and Tylenol for pain. Rest. Wiggle your toes. DO NOT put any pressure on the left leg.

Living the disabled lifeShell-shocked, and knowing I was now dependent on him for every detail of my life, my husband took to frenzied cleaning, mowing, and stockpiling groceries. My two daughters had swept in filling vases with flowers, plumping pillows, and perching alongside me to chat. The house felt fresh and fragrant as I drifted in and out of consciousness. Spectacular plates of food miraculously appeared; dinner occurred al fresco. I had become a useless object of attention and obligation. I had no urge to help in any way. My greatest effort was to smile and express gratitude at every turn.

For two weeks nothing seemed to change. I must acclimate myself scooterto immobility so as to stabilize the repair sufficiently to take on a rigid knee-high boot. This would be removed for bathing or icing only, zero pressure still. I hobbled one-footed on crutches, perpetually unsteady. Within days I was desperate to find alternative means of mobility. I ordered a sturdy metallic blue knee scooter that allowed me to zip around on the main floor. Our second-story and sunken family room (thus, the TV) remained inaccessible. Never a television enthusiast, I felt suddenly bereft, cut off from the evening news and the diversion of Netflix.

Throughout the next six weeks, friends popped in with meals and highly touted books. Their visits and updates refreshed my mental scope. Otherwise days consisted of the ordeal of bathing and dressing, scooting around the kitchen to make coffee, hobbling out onto the deck, reading the news, icing and dutifully rotating my ankles (sans boot). My stack of completed books climbed on the bedroom desk. I stared out the same windows for hours on end.

Eventually my desire to move overcame trepidation. I ventured to make my own lunch and carry it out back. I negotiated the two steps down from the deck to the lawn and into the garden. Expanding my horizons by baby steps, I risked leaning in over the flower border to smell apricot roses nodding among lavender, hydrangeas and quieter perennials. I reached what seemed a historic milestone when I walked a full ninety paces on crutches to pick up IMG_7570the mail from the lockbox three doors down. I worked out a series of maneuvers that would get me into and out of the car, tossing crutches into the back seat. My husband invented a multitude of welcome diversions. Gin rummy games. A drive to Barnes and Noble to pick out a promising new read. An escape from the city limits onto a country road to a local farm to gather fresh blueberries, greens, peaches, and tomatoes. To my recently restricted perspectives, these rides acquired the shine of exotic adventures.

As I progressed with the orthopedic boot, I now could drive! I scoured local boutiques for flared pants that would slip on and for wider, half-size larger shoes and boots to accommodate my grotesquely swollen foot and ankle. I acquired five pairs of knee-high compression socks to help push out the persistent fluid pooling from my toes to mid-calf. Months earlier, we had booked several cross-country flights, including a major family gathering in early October, just as I was emerging from my ortho-prison. For me, there remained significant hurdles. We  strategized ways we might beg the indulgence of other people’s forbearance. My husband packed along my ankle x-ray to show the agents when we arrived at each airport gate. This secured pre-boarding for each flight, though the ache of immobility once aboard had simply to be borne.

Fortunately physical therapy had been prescribed as part of my rehabilitation. The refreshment and encouragement of exercise! Steadily plodding, obedient to my physical therapist, I built up my fully atrophied left calf muscle. He reminds me repeatedly that 100 years ago, I would have been lame for life. I wince every time he says it. I know I will do whatever it takes to walk again. Now eager and driven, I relearn how to point my toes, to squat, and to walk backwards.

A friend had three years earlier experienced the same sort of fracture much more heroically: by falling down a mountain rather than off a five-inch step. She pool.pngtold me the key to her recovery was going to the pool every day for an hour and essentially just treading water. Having been an avid swimmer in my first twenty-five years, the prospect of recovering that habit was beyond tantalizing. I found I could hit up a lap swim/aquatic exercise session twice a week for $5.60 and dove in with a vengeance.

Now that six months of recovery have passed, I can walk without a trace of a limp. I’m still working on left ankle strength. I cannot walk on tiptoe. My balance is marginal. Time passes while I persist. I go to the fitness center for weights and treadmill two to three times a week. Two days a week I swim. After the first three weeks of steady exercise, things fit better. Another two weeks along, life fits better. I want no longer to charge ahead like the proverbial bull in a china shop. The manic drive with which I had formerly greeted my days has yielded to equanimity. I step to a slower, steadier pace. I recall a day now months ago, as I sat inanimate and blank, my husband admitted having thought, a split second before my fatal fall, “She’s going too fast.” That was me, and that was then. Today I take care that we walk in tandem.

I find that to rebuild from jarring circumstances, I prioritize what I value. The dreaded unknown forced me to examine untouched tools yet available in my toolkit of life, to abandon resistance to alternative ways of being. It is only through previously untrod paths that I recover a long-lost self.

On losing a place

Monday evening in Paris is mid-morning in my West Coast home. It was a chilly first day of Holy Week, the week before Easter, and as I wrote and drank coffee beside the fireplace, a message from my daughter in Paris popped up on my screen: this photo.

It was the gut punch felt round the world. The roof of Notre Dame in Paris was disappearing in flames. A second message, from a friend in Bretagne, provided a French TV link, so we watched. And watched.

We grimly viewed feeble water spouts shot from the street; they seemed only to fuel the nightmare. We saw smoke pour through a stained glass window. We witnessed the 19th-century spire’s collapse and an aerial view of Our Lady’s interior engulfed in flames.


I knew the Crown of Thorns was cherished as most valued relic of the treasures inside. I remembered waiting in line one Good Friday to venerate this relic, now encased in an acrylic sheath. I knew it would be on display this Friday for veneration by the faithful and inspection by the curious. The Easter Vigil would be slotted for six days hence, Saturday at 8:00 p.m.—à vingt heures—with the caveat: Would Notre Dame survive?

More than a decade earlier, two of my high school kids and I had spent Holy Week in France, wandering from Paris to Poitiers to Tours and back to Paris—and Notre Dame. I now relived every detail of that week, beginning with Palm Sunday, when church bells across the city rang incessantly from ten in the morning til after noon. We were staying on the rue des Écoles on the Left Bank at the time, a five minute walk to the Seine and Point Zéro, the marker in front of Notre Dame from which all distances in France are measured.


That Palm Sunday we saw families strolling home from mass with their armloads of branches. At home in the U.S., we pinch a couple of scrawny palm leaves between thumb and forefinger as we enter the church on Palm Sunday. At home there are no palm branches. In France the faithful embrace arms full of boxwood boughs to round out lavish white rose and lily bouquets for Easter Sunday’s afternoon feast.

The following weekend we joined the Saturday vigil. Imagining the cathedral would be packed, we arrived an hour early and selected seats halfway back from the altar. The great space was lit only by fading daylight. Each woven chair held a small white candle. A cupped paper fleur-de-lis encircling the candle would capture wax drippings as mass proceeded. (Some would catch on fire, their owners blowing frantically mid-mass to put them out.)

Daylight continued to dim. I stared into the vault, studying ribbed arches, the exquisite, now darkened, candelabra strung along the ambulatory. I imagined the hunchback gazing down from the choir far overhead. The crowd silenced in the blackened space as Cardinal Lustiger, himself a converted Jew, lit the paschal fire, soon blazing alongside the altar, flames leaping, casting wavering shadows and a vista of Notre Dame’s architectural bones.

Gradually, lit from the paschal fire, an unwieldy five-foot Easter baptismal candle flame would spread to each of our tapers until the flickering sanctuary reflected each face radiant with surprised, expectant joy.

The rest is as you might envision. This Feast of Feasts ended with the pipe organ pulling out all stops, dissonant chords echoing off the ancient stones. As we departed, close to midnight that vigil of Easter, the bells of Notre Dame burst forth again, and a group of Nigerians re-lit their candles and sang and danced on the parvis under the bell towers. We stopped along Île St. Louis for un cornet, a cone, of Berthillon sorbet, meandered “home” to our quartier across the Seine, and tucked in feeling filled up, complete. We slept with our windows open to the street sounds and smells of Paris at Easter.

Now we have the same iconic photo images of “our” Notre Dame as in anyone’s personal scrapbook: the cathedral from across the quai from St. Julien-le-Pauvre, or from beyond the flying buttresses to the garden of Pope St. John XXIII, where we would gnaw ham and gruyère baguette sandwiches and drink Orangina.

Yes, we took her for granted. We have lived in her and around her; we have loved her. Now she is lost to the future, even as we tenderly hold her, a piece of our life, our own place, our owned memory.