Who We Now Are

When I started drafting this poem, at 8:50 pm, 28 March, there were 120,025 US cases, and 2,042 deaths. When I finished at 1:07 pm on 29 March, just over 16 hours later, there were 130,156 US cases, and 2,298 deaths.

256 people stopped breathing in those 16 hours and succumbed to COVID-19.

Please think of this while you read.

Who We Now Are

by Rus VanWestervelt

It’s a little after 8, and I leave my house for some carryout food
Handed to me through small windows in drive-thrus,
Gloved minimum-wagers suddenly serving the masses;
On the front lines to make sure we get our burgers and fries

With a smile.

The air is heavy out here, as is the silence.
No planes up in the sky, no cars along the streets.
The hum of the machine silenced by what we cannot see
Creeping and crawling through our worlds
While we play our desperate games of lockdowns, quarantines, and let’s shelter in place.

Brick and mortars all locked up with hand-scribbled signs spewing CDC lines
Littered with various misspellings of “inconvenience” and “apologies.”
Empty lots yawn where lights seep into long expanses of soiled, solid sand.
There were cars here once, pods-in-wait as shoppers passed the time of day,
Meandering here and there as if time were eternal.

Now: Where we can, we stand in lines and look at those around us –
Horizontal deep-sixers like we are all walking in linear, eventual graves;
And we wonder as we stare unblinking into the eyes of others, as heavy as the silence that hangs around us,
If they are The Infected.

Stores play on loops the same dystopian messages in baritone voices:
“Keep your distance. Touch no one. Wash your hands.”
P.S.: “We care.”

As I leave the somber storefronts I step over biohazards scattered on the ground:
discarded masks and gloves turned inside out, ripped from dirty hands and mouths
tossed aside like used condoms in forgotten motels.

PUI Teams* beg and plead for more N95s
While politicians play more games as more people die.
They battle in the streets across state lines, bickering for vents
To vendors vying for sales, throwing in body-bag specials to sweeten the deal.

Back on the road where rush hours ceased long ago:
Six lanes of traffic, no lanes going slow.

Gas falls to a buck-eighty-five and we fill up our tanks with nowhere to go.

Our pockets are filled with loose change and yesterday’s receipts,
Folded ones that no one wants.

Classrooms are sterile, empty wastelands while teachers navigate lessons online.
As students wonder in their own unchartered fright what their own futures hold.

Our fear-driven brains look for these things,
A surviving sweep of things to avoid, leaving us with empty days indoors.
Wondering. Pondering. Drowning in doubt and despair that we push out
Into dimly lit hallways, lined with shadows of the things we shed in desperation.

But, please! If we can offer ourselves just a moment’s pause, a second listen
That sends the sweet songs of spring birds amidst the blooming cherry blossoms,
The sights of in-this-together nods of passersby on the street’s other side.

These twenty years we have been asked to embrace the new normal,
Have hope in dark hours while the world spins out of control.
But these are our hours where we must force ourselves to see things anew,
Embrace colors and sounds redefined in unbridled gestures of what we did not know.

The hope we hold before us lies on untravelled paths;
What we do in this journey forward relies not on where we have been

But on who we now are.

*PUI Teams: Patient-Under-Investigation Teams in first-responder systems

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