Remember the Alamo? When it comes to history, the man in the White House seems to have limited recall—or a grand sense of irony. To stage one of his last presidential appearances near the site of that great American trouncing at the hands of the Mexican army—well, what can I say? But if it’s a promise of revenge--Remember the Alamo! Second time’s a charm!—it’s both a past and a future I don’t want to dwell on. As photo ops go, the message of this one may have been too subtle or too complicated for our turbulent times.
Meanwhile, the vaccination waltz is playing out more like a rugby game. My brother and sister, both doctors, describe secret passwords leading to semi-clandestine gatherings for healthcare workers in sports arenas in California and Texas. My brother announced he waited in line for three hours and finally got vaccinated on first base. Over and over I’ve heard the words, “You have to be in the right place at the right time.” Wow. Really? Our ideas about an orderly progression of all things Pfizer and Moderna—scrap that script.
There are tales of relative youngsters side-stepping the system by figuring out where the anti-vaxxers live and showing up there. Plenty of vaccine in Lake Havasu City, I heard last week. See London Bridge while you’re at it. And then came surprising news. Apparently, my grandfather was the grandson of a little-known chemist named Charles Erhart who, with his cousin Charles Pfizer, emigrated from Germany in 1849 and started a chemical company in Brooklyn, New York. Soon enough they were producing pharmaceuticals to treat parasites, and painkillers and antiseptics for the casualties of the Civil War. In 1891, when my great-great-grandfather died, Pfizer, playing by the rules, bought out his cousin’s share of the business for half its value. For the grand sum of $119,350, paid to the Erhart heirs, Charles Pfizer became the head of the company that would then go on to create Viagra and the COVID-19 vaccine.
Was this our family Alamo? Were we trounced by the fickle fortunes of the pharmaceutical duo, the cousins who tossed a coin and called heads you win, tails you lose, but death will do the deciding? Great-great-grandfather, it turns out, was on the confectionary side of things. He made things sweet, palatable. It was he who made the medicine go down. That’s worth a lot more than money to me, to know I carry the genetic matter of a man who softened the blow. Who eased the pain. Who made the bitter pill easier to swallow. We could use him around here these days, passing off medicine as candy—not to prey on a national gullibility, but to deliver to us what we are hesitant to accept and so badly need: a curative, a kind word, a country.
It isn’t over. We have a tendency to think this way: anything that begins, ends. Sometimes it’s convenient to think of endings as disappearances, eradications, events that never happened. But history is not a record of entombed facts. History teaches the ever-presence of all that was. There is no ridding ourselves of what was once, for it turns into what will be. The past and future converge in a place called the present. The present is where endings live on.
There are so many words for what happened on Wednesday—enough to cause a weariness of language. Who is deeply surprised? No one, I suspect. Only the most naïve. I turn away from the logistical recaps and opinions generated by those events, to take a look at what happens inside me when I feel a threat to an order and predictability I didn’t even know I took for granted. We’ve been walking a tightrope for at least four years, learning to navigate the constant threats to order and predictability. We’ve gotten quite good at it. Our most workable strategy has been to shrug it off. There are many tragic historical precedents for this. Many. But that’s what we do, we turn away, we reach saturation and turn toward the east where the sun is rising.
But then something arrives that pushes us beyond our ability to imagine or navigate, and we sit in front of our screens and watch in shock and some of us cry. And then for a day or two the air feels electric. The thing we thought ending or ended, rattles the house, rattles the enclosure in which we’ve imprisoned it, or tried to. I know I’ve tried to wall off the disturbances in order to do my work, but the clanging sounds like the start of a prison riot, spoons percussing against the bars of a wild thing’s cage.
I recently saw two women, two partners judging by the energy between them, standing in a kitchen and talking to one another. The one was distressed and spoke her fears. The other listened intently, openly, and came toward her to put her arms around her. And she said, “Don’t be afraid. It will be alright. Whatever happens, we’ll manage.” When I heard those words, I felt like a stone was lifted off my heart. I left the kitchen then to give the two the privacy they deserved, but those words, those three sentences, stayed with me and have stayed with me since. It was the purest form of comfort: Don’t be afraid. I didn’t know I needed comfort but those words shot right into me and took care of something, and right then I decided I too would be a promulgator of those words. I would offer them sincerely, because we need to be told we are safe with each other and held by each other and we’ll manage together. And it’s true, we’ll manage it, whatever it is, and better two than one, and if we look around and are open to it, there are always at least two.
I know. People will argue it may be time to be afraid, and we aren’t safe or held, and knowing that is what gets things done. It isn’t. It moves us into a reactive place that often sends us in the wrong direction. Try this. No matter what your inner weather is right now, say to yourself, Don’t be afraid. It will be alright. Say it with conviction. See if the clamor doesn’t die down and the world feel safer, friendlier, more familiar. This is a present we have to live in, after all. This is the convergence of two great vehicles, the past and the future. We’re little in the scheme of things. We’re a mouse in the Colosseum. We’re right here where endings live on and become the next thing, and the next, and the next. Don’t be afraid. It will be alright. Whatever happens, we’ll manage.
A place to discuss writing or anything on your mind. All visitors are invited to join the conversation by commenting on posts, asking questions, and joining the newsletter below for even more opportunities to connect and converse!