Wednesday, April 1, 2020

A Horse of a Different Color

I looked back over my blog posts and realized I haven’t written about my friend Stallion lately. It’s not that I’ve forgotten about him since our mutual writers group broke up; it’s just that I’ve, well, I haven’t remembered him lately. I’ve been busy writing several novels, editing, publishing, and distracted by a host of personal matters. Yet it’s wrong to neglect a friendship, especially in the midst of this devastating coronavirus affecting all of us, so I reached out to him. By phone, of course, since social distancing and quarantine preclude face-to-face meetings these days.

He sounded genuinely pleased to hear from me. We exchanged initial pleasantries and turned to the topic everyone is talking about: The Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic and its effects on society.

Me: “I’ve been locked inside the house for four weeks now. No socializing, no parties… Not even my regular trip to the gym.”

Stallion: “It’s only temporary. Eventually you’ll be out and about again.”

Me: “It doesn’t feel like it. I’m going stir crazy. Four whole weeks! I have cabin fever. I haven’t seen any of my friends. All I see is the inside of the house, day and night. People don’t come over anymore. I can’t go to their houses, either.”

Stallion: “It’s only been a few weeks.”

Me: “A few weeks? It’s a month already! I’ve forgotten what restaurants look like. Everything is closed! I’m depressed and lonely. I haven’t showered in days. I don’t even bother getting dressed. I sleep at all hours. The solitude… The loneliness… I have no quality of life anymore. I don’t know how much more of this suffering I can take.”

Stallion: “I understand. I miss our weekly writing group meetings too. It was one of the few times I was able to leave home and socialize.”

Me (frowning): “What do you mean?”

Stallion: “Well, you know I’m disabled. It’s more difficult for me to get out and socialize.”

I cocked my head. “I didn’t know that. I’ve known you for years and you’re not blind or in a wheelchair. You don’t look disabled.”

Stallion: “And you don’t look stupid but obviously appearances can be deceiving. There are lots of people you know with hidden disabilities you can’t see.”

I gulped, duly chastened. I decided not to inquire further and simply accept what he had said.

Stallion: “How long have you known me?”

Me: “At least a dozen years, since you’ve been coming to our local meetings.”

Stallion nodded. “The ones around the corner from my house. I don’t go out much farther. I spend almost all my time at home because of my health condition.”

I gradually absorbed what he was saying. “How long have you been disabled?”

Stallion: “A bit more than twenty years. Stuck at home, just as I am now. I always looked forward to our group meetings as a chance to get out of the house and meet people.”

Me: “But surely your friends visited you in-between?”

Stallion: “Have you ever been to my house during the twelve years you’ve known me?”

I bit my lip as my mind flashed back through the years. “Well, I suppose not but…”

Stallion: “Don’t feel bad, no one else in our group has either – or any of my other friends, for that matter. Out of sight, out of mind. Like the aging relative packed off to a retirement home who you send Christmas cards to once a year.”

It started sinking in. “No one comes by? Not for dinner or to watch a movie on TV or anything?”

Stallion: “Imagine being in coronavirus quarantine; only not for four weeks but for twenty years. Solitude, loneliness; the constant silence becomes surreal. I use the TV for background noise. Some of the television characters are the only regular visitors to my home. I’ve begun seeing them as real people as I’m drawn into their make-believe lives on the small screen. It’s sort of like seeing what my friends are up to every day.”

Me: “That’s awful. Isolation is pulling you away from reality.”

Stallion: “Or it’s become my new reality. It’s my window into the outside world: to live vicariously through fictional TV characters who are leading the life I can’t outside these four walls.”

Me: “When this quarantine is all over, you need to start going out. At least, treat yourself to a nice dinner at a fancy restaurant and a movie in a theater with other people.”

Stallion: “I can’t afford those luxuries.”

I thought about how hard it was going to be to pay my monthly expenses and live on the one-time $1200 stimulus check the government would be sending me for a month of coronavirus pandemic loss of income. I certainly wouldn’t have anything left over for a celebratory champagne dinner. “I know, even if we could go outside, our stimulus checks him him won’t even cover the basics but in a month or two when this is over…”

Stallion: “You still don’t understand. I live on a disability check. I get $1300 a month: that has to cover food, medicine, rent, utilities, insurance, doctor visits… Even if I could physically handle an active social life like you, there’s no way I could afford it. Can you imagine living on $1300 a month for twenty years?”

I couldn’t live on $1200 or even $1300 a week, let alone a month. I thought about how my friends and I had been griping about our four-week ordeal. I tried to imagine it stretching out for the next twenty years. My instinct was to head over to see Stallion in person but then I remembered the stay-in-place shelter order. Not now, I told myself, but after the quarantine is lifted I’ll never forget this ever-present feeling of isolation and loneliness we’re all going through. I’ll make it up to Stallion. When things return to normal, I’ll make an effort to be a better friend, reach out to him more often, spend time visiting him and…

I stopped myself. That wasn’t going to happen. When things returned to normal, the horrible feeling of isolation and loneliness will be a distant memory. I’ll be inundated with work and lost time to make up. I’ll be busier than ever as life returns to the way it was. I’ll be doing all the things I used to do, the things I miss now, the things I love. Of course, there’ll be times I think of Stallion and I’ll call to see how he’s doing. “We’ll have to get together sometime,” I’ll say, and I’ll truly mean it when I utter the words. But days will pass and then weeks. You know how it is.

One day, eventually, the pandemic will end and life will return to normal. The daily routine of our lives will replace this lockdown and the mentality it brings with it. At least, for most of us. For a brief period, we’ve experienced life as the Stallions of the world know it. But unlike them, we’ll be released from this purgatory. The disabled, the elderly, the friends we don’t know as well as we think we do, and all the other shut-ins will not; and their silent suffering will not diminish, as ours does, along with our newfound empathy.

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