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My cousin died last week.

My mother wasn't going to her niece's graveside service, because the funeral home had asked that the number of mourners be limited to no more than 15. But then her sister, the deceased's mother, called and asked her specifically to be there. So my mother called her daughter, my sister, and asked her and her husband to stay home. They agreed.

Even so, she says, there were about 40 people at the service. I guess you can't turn people away from a funeral.

But it was out in the open, a beautiful early spring afternoon in south Georgia. Even in the proximity of a casket, it was hard to imagine invisible motes of virus, floating in the air like depth charges bobbing in some war-rocked sea. Sunlight feels disinfecting, even when it blinds.

My cousin was not killed by this virus. She had serious problems for years, been in and out of hospice. A long illness, the obituary says. Her doctors had called it a couple of weeks ago; they said she was not likely to last but another day or two. It was just long enough for her son to fly from his home in Spain to be at her bedside.

She was a year older than me. I have vague memories of riding banana bicycles--a Schwinn Sting-Ray Orange Crate five-speed--with her and her brothers in their suburb in New Hampshire in the late '60s. We were all within a few years of each other, all athletic, and had our families not lived on opposite coasts we might have been the kind of cousins who stayed close. As it was, I think the last time I saw her was in the early '70s.

When I called my mother on the morning after the funeral, she was in Lowe's, buying plants. I ask her if it was crowded and she said it was, as busy as she had ever seen it. Most places are closed, she says, and people are flocking to the places that are open, to the Walmarts and Targets and grocery stores.

She was taking advantage of the weather to do some work in the yard; my sister and her husband were helping her. Her granddaughter and her husband were helping her. The great-grandkids were over. As they see it, they were social distancing, they weren't embracing strangers, and they had their personal bottles of hand sanitizer. They were hopeful that it would, in a day or two, lift. They were hopeful that they would have an ordinary weekend.

I am hopeful she cannot detect the fear in my voice.

My mother is religious in a way that I am not: she believes that God tracks the distinct arcs of billions of his creatures and has a very specific plan for every one of us. She believes that some things have been long decided, and that whether or not she gets sick is God's decision. She is robust at nearly 83, going to her job as a receptionist at what's now a nearly empty law office every day and locking the door behind her. When I called her last week she told me she was the only one on her floor, and there was only one other person--one of the partners--in the building.

She tells me that he got angry at a junior associate who went out club-hopping on the last night it was possible to club-hop. The young man had posted photos of himself on social media and expressed contempt for the mommy state that was suggesting he adapt his routine to the times. When he showed up at work the next morning, the partner met him at the door and sent him home.

He's young, my mother says, and he knows a lot of people; he's not the best attorney but he brings in business.

Maybe he'll grow up, I say. Some people do.

My mother assures me she uses hand sanitizer and that when she allows the occasional client in, she wipes down all the surfaces as soon as the client leaves. Still, it worries me she is not more worried. She is optimistic about her own chances of avoiding getting sick.

Aside from her age, she isn't in any of the at-risk groups. Her biggest concern is for my sister, who is in poor health. But then, she says, maybe my sister's smoking is a bigger threat to her health than this new ghost.

Like me, she thinks the panic and its reverberations may be the worst part of this plague; she knows of no confirmed cases in her area (as of Saturday, there were three confirmed covid-19 cases in the Savannah area) but she's heard of half a dozen possibles.

There was a rumor that before they closed the schools a child had been diagnosed, and while she doesn't believe that's true, she understands why some people might be freaked out.

She's not freaked out. She's just concerned.

I describe our fortunate situation to her: we have lots of tools and tech and no real reason to congregate in a circumscribed physical location. I tell her I suspect that my industry will probably never go back to the old hive model of the centralized newsroom; we can carry our desks around with us now and we will, over the next few weeks and maybe months, become more and more comfortable privileging pixels over paper and communicating with each other through digital filters.

We will be freer when the lights come on again, we will have learned how to be nimbler. We will have acquired new skills. We will be leaner and more competent for having survived another crisis.

More than 30 years ago, I worked for a newspaper where the linotype machine broke. It didn't matter, we typed up our copy on typewriters and laid that out in the newspaper. We didn't miss an edition. We are prepared for these sorts of challenges; this sort of thing energizes us. Were we not so aware of the pain this plague will cause so many people (and we know we are not exempt from that pain), we might even call it fun.

I tell my mother I am optimistic that what we call social media might, during the coming tribulations, actually fulfill its promise to make us more connected. Maybe in serious times we will, like our ancestors did, find a way to rise above the petty toxicity of gossip and fear-mongering. Ordinary people do extraordinary things in times of crisis; we might yet be able to knit together something like a real community online.

My mother is not going to let this crisis alter her routine any more than she has to , and there's not much I can do about it except tell her to listen to the most serious and credentialed voices, not to the loudest ones. She says she is being careful, and yet she's in the garden department at Lowe's.

It is spring and I guess that's when things begin to bloom, when the world begins to thaw.

My cousin died last week. And life will go on.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at and read his blog at

Editorial on 03/24/2020

Print Headline: A spring like no other


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