California, November 23, 2020
Is there another world after this one? Awake from a dream, in Southern California darkness, the dog is in the next room on the floor, the radiant heat warming her old bones, my wife and children asleep, and I am riddled with anxiety. COVID-19 tests, vulnerable students telling me of their sick grandparents and bouts of crippling anxiety, a colleague telling me of his ageing father saying he wants to die because he’s lived too long in this world, another colleague sharing their own family’s struggle with mental illness and a broken care system that proves only too inadequate in these trying times.
It’s a few days before Thanksgiving here in the United States. Arizona has run out of ICU beds, California has imposed a nighttime curfew, while 7000-strong weddings take place in New York with nary a mask in sight. We are trying to rationalize our national response to this pandemic and realizing that the things that previously made America so attractive to people – independence of spirit, self-determination, “pioneer spirit” – are preventing this country from dealing adequately with the unending crisis.
Five-thousand miles away in Trim, a small town in the middle of Ireland, my mother in her ninety-second year teeters between lucidity and dementia on a minute-to-minute basis. She tells me, “I’m ready to go, my bags are packed and I’ve a lovely room picked out upstairs.” By upstairs, she means Heaven, and that her stay here on earth is at an end. She’s been saying this for some years now and my brothers and I nod agreeably and play along. All of this plays out on video-chat, across the Atlantic Ocean, beyond the great breadth of these disunited states of ours. Home has never seemed so far away.
I teach high school English here in Santa Barbara and have been in distance-learning mode since March 13, the last day I saw my students in person. Now I teach from the loneliest classroom in the world, desks empty and my life one of multiple monitors – Macbook, iPad, podcasting microphone and various enhancements to Zoom and Google Classroom – in an effort to deliver instruction, good humor and engagement to teenagers tired of this brave new world of ours.
We listen to Trevor Noah read from Born a Crime, and write poems inspired by Naomi Shihab Nye and Mary Oliver, we journal in our notebooks and share golden lines, they laugh at my bad jokes and even worse taste in 80s anthem rock, as I mouth the words and greet the students as they show up in the Zoom meeting space. There’s no quieter sound than that of thirty teenagers participating in a Zoom classroom discussion.
While my students grapple with isolation and the disconnection of distance learning, my daughter is one of the lucky ones to be back in her third-grade classroom, seeing friends and learning in an almost-normal environment. My fourteen-year-old son is not so fortunate, enduring Zoom school in his freshman year of high school, academically fine, but emotionally and physically struggling. He lives a couple of hundred miles south of here in San Diego and is with us for a month doing school from an even greater distance than normal. It’s helpful that at this moment I’m teaching students his age and can understand even more the pressures and struggles he is going through, the isolation and disconnection from his peers, and it’s allowing us to have important conversations about self-care and social-emotional wellbeing.
My wife keeps us all together, juggling her job working for a local Unitarian Universalist church, finding time to write and paint, all the while coordinating childcare, playdates, making preserves for our farmer’s market business, and multitasking on a level I can’t even wrap my head around. We’re that different, me preferring one or two things on my plate at a time, while she can take on a dozen tasks and somehow make them all work. She’s like one of those plate-spinners you see on TV shows, running from stand to stand, keeping everything moving and just when you think it’s all going to crash and break into pieces, she reaches the metal pole and spins the plate back into its orbit. I’m more like the knife-thrower in the circus, best employed focusing on one task at a time.
Off school for Thanksgiving break, with time to rest and recharge, I realize I’m stranded, unable to visit my family in Ireland (who are still in a forced lockdown with a 5-kilometer travel restriction in place), dreaming terrible dreams, and hopeful for a New Year that brings vaccines and common sense to the table. And at night, the terrible dreams return: a priest hurries along a freeway median with his censer swinging as I drive past. I’m confronted by emergency crews and policemen directing traffic away from some awful crash scene. To my right bodies are piled high at the side of the road, burned and naked. I veer left, following the red-lit wands in the hands of the policemen, and in front of me on the ground are two more corpses, except they begin to move and attempt to rise from the asphalt. I speed up, terrified. A little further away, a woman, naked and body crisped by fire, approaches my car and I put it in reverse but realize I can’t go backwards. As I try to move ahead she puts a hand in the window and stares into my eyes. She is pleading with me, wordlessly. My instinct is to reassure her, so I say, “It’s okay. There’s another life after this one.”
Irishman, James Claffey, is the author of the short fiction collection, Blood a Cold Blue, from Press 53, and The Heart Crossways, a novel from Thrice Publishing. He lives in Santa Barbara with his family.