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Alone Together: Looking Back on One Year in Pandemic

Amid a year of loss and disruption, old resentments gave way to a sense of gratitude for all that I have enjoyed in this life and the days my husband and I still have ahead of us.

Karen Malpede Mar 17

We’re lucky if we are still standing, swathed in universal grief, inward gazing. Last March, the sirens were ubiquitous, and the fear. Our experiences have been unique, yet strangely similar, I think, as if the pandemic ripping us apart solidified bonds that sentient human creatures share.

Last March, the schools shuttered, and I, like many, began to teach on Zoom. Many of my students lost family members; they email asking for extensions; I wrote back condolences. Yet, despite loss of family and jobs, despite attacks on Asian Americans so severe one student’s family barricaded their door with furniture, every one of my 98 students managed to pass the courses with a good grade.

Working on plays of grief and resistance while we pass many a locked-down evening reading aloud, writers from Hardy to Camus, LeGuin, Baldwin, now Kim Stanley Robinson.

In my Theater and Justice classes, at John Jay College, students are allowed after reading plays, to write their own. One woman turns her grandmother’s recent death into a ritual drama; another imagined Black Lives Matter transforming the country in a single moment of clear sight. This semester I have 78 students, and although I only see them in black boxes, as they are not required to show their faces, they feel less committed, as do I. Nevertheless, their work is good—those who are doing it, that is.  They have come to admire Baldwin’s great play, Blues for Mr. Charlie, and someone wrote today that he cannot wait to read The Trojan Women, since he just learned from my lecture that it is a condemnation of the actual invasion by Athens of the Greek island of Melos, and that the war in Troy was fought for gold not Helen. My environmental justice class has a roster of names that come from nearly every continent, first generation immigrants passionate to save the environment.

Though I lost no one close to me to Covid, I like many others care for someone with a potentially fatal illness and might have lost my husband who is also my partner in all my theater work, not to Covid, but from a sudden virulent attack of streptococcal sepsis. Had I been away at work, I might have missed the onset of the uncontrollable shaking. Instead, I was home, in lockdown, at his side and able to respond. His sepsis hit in September between Covid surges when the hospital was again allowing visitors. Later than night, finding him incoherent on the phone (after having been rational when I left the hospital a few hours earlier) I texted his doctor, Perry Cook, that I was going back, knowing visiting hours were over and not knowing how I might get in. “I’ll be there,” his doctor replied. I returned to the hospital and tried to tell the guard barring my way that my husband might be dying upstairs alone when his doctor appeared at my side. Without a word, he escorted me in. We stood at my delusional husband’s bed asking him questions about where he had been on 9/11 he could answer only in broken syllables and groans. Finally, convinced he would not die that night, we both went home. It was the start of a 13-day vigil, during which the doctor, a noted specialist, took to bringing my husband Sumatra coffee and staying to chat, on his morning rounds. He was conveying not just therapeutic medicine but empathy and talk that might have been essential to his ultimate recovery.

Later I learned about Dr. Cook’s losses to Covid-19:  three colleagues and eight of his cancer patients, six of whom were Black Americans. “The patients all waited too long to go to the hospital, he told me, before being taken as strangers by ambulance to the closest public hospital instead of the good academic hospital where they were already known and might have received different care or at least care from people known and trusted by them. Today there are 82 patients in his Brooklyn hospital due to Covid, including 12 on ventilators.

For us, again, like many, there was a long, slow, difficult recovery during which another gifted healer, a woman acupuncturist, came back into our lives at the moment my partner was choking on fluid accumulated in his lungs. With a few needles deftly placed, and in a calming voice, she restored his breath. And so began our continuing conversation about holistic medicine’s overlooked yet effective approaches to chronic and pandemic illness.

Relying upon allopathic and homeopathic medicine, and responsive healers, my husband recovered strength and purpose. He is preparing to perform again this May.  

Last March 14, 2020, we broke the new lockdown restrictions to hold a final rehearsal for my play Blue Valiant in Kathleen Chalfant’s living room. We had to do it. It was a breakthrough rehearsal. The composer was working to see if he might use an improvised piano score as the animal’s voice in this play about a grieving and uncontrollable horse. The results of this bootlegged rehearsal have led to his creation of an astounding score. We will be back in rehearsal this April and are planning two live performances outside at Farm Arts Collective in Pennsylvania, plus a streaming event later on. This is a play written before the pandemic, but its themes of debilitating grief, self-blame and the slow healing brought about through caring for others feel ever more pertinent, now. Suddenly, this is a story with which we are all familiar—even the animals who have lost their human companions to this pandemic.

Troy Too is a short play I wrote for a book while trying to figure out what was happening to our world. Surreal and documentary, it is, like the great play on which it is based, a study in people’s laments when their old life is ripped away. It focuses on Covid, climate and race. Because of Zoom, this play will be an international collaboration with artists from Greece and the US. An old friend, Lydia Koniordou, one of Greece’s greatest tragic actors, and former Minister of Culture under the former Syriza government, will play Hecuba. A new friend, Avra Sidiropoulou, who commissioned the play, will direct. My students will perform the Black Lives Matter choruses. My husband is the condemnatory voice of a fish choked on plastic. This, too, is a play of grieving and resistance.

 I’ve become more vulnerable to joy as well as grief, more thankful for the daughter and grandchildren I cannot even hug, more aware of the importance of remembrance. 

Grief and resistance may be the shared story of this year, when we voted out Donald Trump, and voted in Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and with an astonishing show from Georgia, a Democratic-controlled Senate. Just today, jury selection is underway in the trial of Derek Chauvin, and murder in the third degree has been added to the charges, increasing the chance that a jury will find the man with his knee piercing the neck of another guilty of some sort of malicious murder. And while I am not one for sending people to prison, in general, a guilty verdict is more than necessary at this historical time.  Killings by police declined in cities that had Black Lives Matter protests, we have just learned.

We pass many a locked-down evening reading aloud, writers from Hardy to Camus, LeGuin, Baldwin, now Kim Stanley Robinson. I spend a part of each early morning writing diary notes. This diary writing is a way of making sense of the tumultuous happenings in the world but also has unearthed moments in my life I had long forgot: old lovers, old friends, old efforts—like living in tar paper teepee while building a cabin in the woods without power tools the summer after I finished writing my first book. I’ve come to feel evermore grateful that this life was mine and that I lived it fully without fear. In years before the pandemic, I might have defined my life as a series of profound professional disappointments—plays slammed by critics, opportunities denied or missed, feuds, bouts of suicidal ideation and depression—and those things are true, but they are not what define me any longer. The pandemic diary intensified feelings of love for friends and mentors, family, many of whom died before it hit, yet who formed and taught me.

If I feel always on the verge of tears this long year, it is because I’ve become more vulnerable to joy as well as grief, more thankful for the daughter and grandchildren far away in Texas I cannot even hug, more aware of the importance of remembrance. 

That life is precious and so unfair, that if we are alive today, grieving, feeling, we are so lucky, and that we wish to make a better world to leave behind, these are lessons that seem universal this March. Perhaps, holding to them, we can yet dare the heretofore undoable, a universal turning, an awakening, a new equality, and new commitment to care for endangered nature and planet. I’d ask we not forget the rest of the world: the inequitable distribution of vaccines and so much else, the unbearable famine and war in Yemen, perpetuated by U.S. policy and bombs. Let us remember the sufferings of others not just our own. Isolated, distanced, perhaps the lesson is that we are not alone but responsive and responsible. In this humbled, fragile state, we begin to stumble back into communal life forever changed.

Karen Malpede is a playwright, writer, director and professor. She is the co-founder, together with her partner George Bartenieff of Theater Three Collaborative

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