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Even though my husband, Greg, is an ICU doctor, until a few days ago the coronavirus was only peripherally on our radar. In our defense, we had a decent excuse: We’d just been hit by a tornado.
We live in Nashville, and our apartment building sat directly in the path of the (at least) EF3 twister that devastated parts of the city’s downtown corridor and nearby Putnam County at about 1:15 a.m. on Tuesday, March 3. It started like a bad thunderstorm, with heavy rain and winds, but quickly transformed into something more sinister: continuous lightning illuminated the living room; a roaring noise rent the air; the sky broke apart. I walked to the window (the last thing you are supposed to do in a tornado, but we didn’t yet realize that’s what it was) and opened the blinds to see patio furniture whirling in a furious tunnel like a sight out of Dorothy’s Kansas. I blinked and rubbed my eyes, trying to accommodate the film-quality surreality of the scene. The power went out, and it would remain so for more than a week.
We were temporarily evacuated, then allowed back in, only to toss restively in bed for a few hours. As the sun rose, we surveyed the damage to our building, street, and neighborhood. Windows were blown out, chunks scraped from ceilings and walls. We walked down the hall to the nearest staircase, passing our neighbor’s ominously blood-spattered door. They had a small baby; we exchanged worried glances. Outside, golf cart–sized air conditioning units torn from the roof lay facedown in the courtyard pool. People stood gaping in the roads, which shattered glass and assorted debris had rendered impassable to cars. A pile of rubble housed the former brick facade of the bar around the corner, now a gutted wreck.
Later that morning, the management company let all residents know we needed to hastily pack a bag and move out, at least for the time being. We threw clothes, toiletries, essential drugs, a few perishable food items, and plastic containers of pet food into backpacks and frantically called local hotels in search of one that accepted both dogs and cats (hotels that accept both are hard to find). After an hour or so, we found one out by the airport. We threw these scant belongings and two anxious animals into the car and drove out of the darkened garage to the cramped room that would become our home for the next week.
A couple days later, our old building management informed us that all residents would have to be evacuated permanently — in other words, gather all our things and find alternative long-term housing. Greg and I arrived at the building to pack and found a community united in solidarity. Local volunteer organizations had provided boxes, tape, flashlights, and — critically — snacks. As we set to the ordeal of placing all our worldly possessions in boxes, a mere eight months after we had moved to Nashville, a woman who looked to be in her mid-to-late twenties appeared at our front door.
“Hi,” she said. “Do you guys need any help?”
My husband and I looked at each other. We needed help like we needed oxygen.
“Well, yes,” I began. “Can I ask what organization you’re with?”
“Oh, I’m not,” she replied. “I just knew everyone here had to move out, so some friends and I thought we’d come by and help y’all. I’ll go get them.”
Soon, five cheery souls walked in, introduced themselves, and asked where to start. I held back tears. As we unrolled tape, padded dishware, and passed around bags of Doritos, I felt the kind of joy fueled by the flame of collective spirit amid darkness. Four hours later, when we finished the job that would have taken Greg and me a week, we hugged and high-fived, bucking the wave of noncontact precautions sweeping distant parts of the world. Covered in a veneer of dust and sweat, we convened at a nearby pub for lunch and beers. We sampled each other’s fries, ales. We huddled close for a selfie. I doubt any of us realized it would be our last real social contact before the wall of the coronavirus came crashing down.
Greg and I moved to Nashville in July 2019 for a fellowship. It would be the final year of his medical training. We knew hardly anyone in the area, and we’ve been slow to make friends, partly because our time here carries an expiration date and partly because that is the nature of connection in adulthood: sluggish in the presence of middle-aged rigidity and in the absence of environments that encourage fast friendship, like school and drunken bar nights. Because of our shallow social roots, our neighborhood and building became touchstones: the couple down the hall with the tiny puffball, a mere suggestion of a dog; the engineering staff who promptly and professionally fixed the smoke detector, the oven, a door hinge, and sundry others; the guy on the same gym schedule as me, whom I jokingly “raced” on an adjacent treadmill.
We huddled close for a selfie. I doubt any of us realized it would be our last real social contact before the wall of the coronavirus came crashing down.
Before a pandemic made us double down on isolation, the tornado already enforced its own kind of social distancing simply by compelling these everyday beacons to scatter across the city and beyond. Even if we weren’t close friends with most of the folks we lived among, their faces and routines had come to form the texture of our days. As we all moved out, nodding grimly to each other in the halls, I felt this fabric unravel, my standing in the world grow less sturdy. These sights and sounds, having only recently lost their strangeness, were to become strange once more.
As I began processing the trauma of a natural disaster and girding to unpack and settle into our new apartment, in an unfamiliar neighborhood, removed from what little regularity I had achieved — all I wanted, I must confess, was my mother. She lives in Seattle, the epicenter of the US coronavirus outbreak, and therefore could not visit us. Even if she had lived elsewhere, it would have been unwise to fly. Fortunately, we live in the age of multimedia chat, but the sickly blue light of a Skype window doesn’t measure up to a hug. Following the lead of risk-averse millennial children everywhere, we encouraged my in-laws, too, to cancel a five-day stay that would have coincided with Greg’s birthday, though they’d intended to drive. And Greg and I let various airlines know we wouldn’t be making it to Seattle for a special long weekend at the end of March, which would have entailed a food and wine tasting at our wedding venue.
Ah, yes. Have I not mentioned we are (probably) holding a formal wedding in Washington state, where we lived for a decade, at the end of August? We legally married at the county clerk in Nashville but held off on the grand bash until Greg finishes his fellowship and we’re a bit richer in time and, well, money. A wedding, that great symbol of unity over fragmentation, now a question mark on a calendar. These plans, like every other at this strange moment in history, hang over an abyss of uncertainty, an impossible-to-know unease that makes planning itself feel cursed, like inviting trouble. Not that we could meet with our florist or photographer or DJ in any case. Arranging a wedding is also an act of community, of collective will and commitment, one that seems temporarily out of reach.
Distancing. Isolation. The joke in Seattle is: Those are the city’s core values. But in Nashville, these words are anathema. Anyone who knows the American South knows the cultural primacy of community, church, harmonies figurative and literal. From the Opry to gospel to grunge, the call-and-response of performance forms either the backbone or background of every social gathering the city offers or entertains. Now, the country music halls are silent. The balms that could have soothed the worry and disconnection of Nashvillians have dissolved, taking with them the profound sense of civic bond and mutual aid that defined the immediate aftermath of the tornado. Our adopted home is hurting, and that hurts us, too, no matter how briefly we may be passing through. I don’t know if it is possible to live someplace long enough and not grow to love it, in the same way we still love our childhood friends even though we aren’t sure we like them. Familiarity cannot fail to breed affection.
There is, by way of palliation, the internet. The internet has helped. In the wake of the upheaval, I have followed on social media, variously: our vet, our plant nursery, our coffee shop, some local restaurants, the Department of Transportation, Nashville Electric Service, and an Instagram account solely featuring dog photos from our old neighborhood. If we can’t visit, second best is liking, commenting, donating, and watching the gradual reversal of damage and displacement that must now occur remotely. Ironically, the digital ether — that placeless place — helps remind me I live somewhere in particular, where all around families and small businesses and single friends and their cats go on making meaning in more limited circumstances.
Still, the inexorable reality is that many of the resources, material and emotional, of which we might have availed ourselves have ceased to exist, for how long remains to be seen. We might have attended a show, joined a pickup league, or simply found a wine bar tucked up in an alley somewhere with one of our few but treasured local chums. Despite the clamor of news and activity, the ceaseless distraction of tornado recovery, a hum has taken up residence in my brain that says, simply, “…Huh?” A semblance of normalcy would have aided in recovery from what I can easily say has been the least normal episode of my life.
Instead, the world tasks us with innovations in resilience. It’s not exactly a radical tech disruption, but I have been talking on the phone a lot. The sounds of voices ring dear to me, no matter how long it’s been since we’ve spoken, especially when I remember those few hours after the storm when the cell system became overwhelmed and we couldn’t even make calls. Conversation passes the time, and laughter invariably creeps in. I get to admire the quotidian heroism of my best friend, who works at a cancer hospital in New York City, or that of my brother, a Seattle public defender trying his cases from afar.
For now, my husband and I remain afloat on our little island, unmoored from the known and the comfortable, but safe, or as safe as anyone can count themselves these days. Before dawn, Greg wakes and drives to the place where the people seek treatment and solace, sick not only from the coronavirus but from the gamut of ailments, ordinary and rare, that plague our frail bodies. By night, we watch movies from a blanketed pile of man and beast on the ugly red couch that took four separate trips to Ikea to obtain, a few short years and a lifetime ago. Daily we summon gratitude for the fact of being alive and together, for family support, for the means to buy groceries, for the two little fast-beating hearts that warm our home, for art and beautiful things, and for the part we will play in whatever comes next. ●
Jennifer R. Bernstein is a cofounder and former editor of The New Inquiry. She has written essays and criticism for the The New Republic, The Nation, Pacific Standard, and elsewhere.