I think it was probably second or third grade when I first remember it starting. If I piece together the most factual memories, it’s around when the school assemblies would gather around a particular staff member whose parents were Holocaust survivors, and she’d tell us stories. And I’d pocket them. And my little brain would regurgitate the information as nightmares. Sometimes days at a time, sometimes once a year, sometimes so finely realistic, like black and white photos becoming animated in Technicolor, and sometimes mixed with fantasy, and sometimes just a totally different allegory.
But some things I knew for certain – I was morbid (as soon as I had the word for it), and I was absolutely sure that in my lifetime I would experience something universally horrible. Something between Seven and Independence Day.
And while I have and still do assume the likelihood is that my closest brush with morbid life and death has always been and will pretty much be war, I have always reserved a very generous place in my active imagination for pandemic. Somewhere in the storehouses of my soul, throughout the 1990s to today, there has always an emergency kit waiting for its protective glass to be broken.
Just now, while in New York, I was watching late night TV on my mother’s set and a commercial came on. It was for a drug to take to prevent the spread of HIV, even while sexually active. I’ve known this existed but I was floored by it nonetheless. Here before me were the same stereotypical demographics that in the 80s and 90s were affected so deeply by the epidemic – and now in 2020, they were smiling, dancing, encouraging me to look into this prep prescription.
‘Wow,’ I thought. ‘We did it.’
Looking back, other shorter term epidemics had passed over me. While swine flu, avian flu, SARS and MERS swept through, I was emotionally unavailable.
Zika gave me pause; I was pregnant, but nowhere near Latin America. It was easy to feel distant.
When the Ebola outbreak happened a few years ago, I thought it might be the One. I was beginning, in a tiny way, to brace for impact in a corner of my imagination. It was exactly where I thought we’d end up. AIDS was a nightmare as a kid, but somewhat limited. Ebola feels indiscriminate. One microscopic stowaway on a short flight from central Africa. And a lot more visually hellish than swine or avian flu.
But it wasn’t. Yet.
Now that ‘coronavirus’ is here, and the data is here, and we’re all – well most of us – reckoning with the exact scenario so many professionals (and germaphobes and hypochondriacs) have anticipated – I feel oddly calm. Maybe because I know I likely won’t die and my kids are likely safe. Maybe because the disease itself is not as visually hellish in my imagination as Ebola.
Maybe because I have and understand data I didn’t have as a kid. Maybe because I have outgrown some of my morbidity. Or maybe because now is the time to act, to take care of my family, to find out who I actually am during a time like this. I have spent ~3 decades wondering when it would happen, and here it is.