“Please Take This, Because I Love You and I Might Die”: A COVID Tale

Walking sticks are a big thing for my daughter these days, because of our Mighty Adventures. I write it like that, with the capital letters, because that’s how we say it. “Come, my dear, we must embark upon one of our Mighty Adventures,” I announce in portentous tones, one hand gesturing toward the great beyond on the far side of the front door. All of her seven years leap to their feet, graceful as water in her enthusiasm — “Mighty Adventure, yay!” — and off we go. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, this is how we mark the time.

Here in our corner of New Hampshire, the green-in-brown fact of the woods takes precedent over things like city planning and convenience. The neighborhoods have their own pet forests, occasionally paired with reed-wreathed wetlands, which you will be driving all the way around if you want to get to the local store, thank you. Some of these wee woodlands are surprisingly expansive — lovely, dark and deep, if you will — and the mystery of them holds my little girl in thrall.

These are our Mighty Adventures, and we have our fun. The Rail Trail’s 32 miles runs down the block for a bit. The Chesterfield Gorge is a golf shot down the road. Mt. Monadnock crouches in the distance, pathetic in comparison to actual mountains but a fist in the air here, where the land has not yet rolled into the highlands of the White Mountains. The woods — the real woods beyond city limits — challenge us to see how well we’d fare where the sidewalk really ends.

The woods around the public school four streets over has its own magic, too. A thousand paces into the pines rest a series of strange granite pillars, four feet high and eight inches square with a rusted metal O-ring embedded at the top: Hitching stations for horses, or so I am informed. You stand there in the tamed woods with your hand on that ancient rusted ring and realize there was a day, maybe 200 years ago, when something worth riding a horse to stood in that place.

We need walking sticks. There are bears, bobcats, hawks, fisher cats, coyotes, Republicans and maybe even mountain lions — maybe! — out there on the lurk. One must have a proper walking stick for defense, to mark the pace of your march across the carpet of pine needles and duff, and of course, to poke things.

The size of the stick depends upon the bearer. For my daughter, it must be waist-high, like a Fred Astaire dancing cane. For me, according to my daughter, it must be a Gandalf-sized quasi-log of indeterminate girth. A Mighty Adventure, after all, deserves no less.

I was recounting all this to my mother a few days ago. She is into her 70s, deep in the red zone of COVID-19 concern. Put plainly, if she catches this virus, she will be in mortal peril. She knows this, and has sequestered herself from the world accordingly. She has the phone, the television, the internet, and she has me in the flesh every few days, scrubbed down like Karen Silkwood to thwart any microscopic monsters that may be riding sidecar.

I told her about the Mighty Adventures, about the absolute need for proper walking sticks, and she paused before reaching behind a door. With the stone bluntness of a Boston Irishwoman, she said, “Here,” and thrust into my hands a blackthorn shillelagh that had belonged to my grandfather, who died 20 years ago nearly to the day. He took it on his walks for the vast bulk of his 90 years. Through his hand, it is my history. It is the quintessence of all walking sticks, and nothing you’d ever wish to be swatted with.

It is treasure, the greatest walking stick of all time, and now it is mine because my mother wanted to give it to me in case she died of COVID-19.

I wonder how many exchanges like this are happening right now across the country, and the world, as COVID-19 makes its burn through the population. How many trinkets, necklaces, old coins, letters, journals, simple items of no real worth that are treasures nonetheless, like my grandfather’s blackthorn shillelagh, how many emblems of life and love are being hurriedly handed from one generation down to the next. No ceremony, no note taken of the import of the exchange, merely a “Here,” like a baton passed in full flight.

Please take this, because I love you and I might die.

Have you had that conversation?

Probably you will, and soon, if you already haven’t.

Meanwhile, the president of the United States is so deep into denial over the consequences of his staggered COVID-19 response that he is accusing beleaguered hospitals of allowing their dreary stock of face masks to be stolen on purpose. The spike in cases coming in April will overshadow even the horrors we currently endure, and Donald Trump is blaming medical professionals for the consequences of his own brazen disregard for the menace we face.

None of this, however, has stopped him from bragging about his TV ratings:

There comes a point where words fall pathetically short. How does one go about condemning a man for whom basic morality, decency and honor are a punch line to be yukked about at Mar-a-Lago? How does one shame the utterly shameless? Thousands of people are sick and dying, Trump is crowing about his TV ratings, yet somehow the Earth does not spin into the sun for the gravity of the offense. It is a miracle of physics, or politics, or both, and it is our common plight.

When my daughter and I embark upon our next Mighty Adventure, I will have my grandfather’s blackthorn shillelagh. I will always remember how it came to my hand: Here, because I might die. I will always wonder how may similarly simple treasures — a ring, a book, a photograph — have changed hands in haste because the wildfire of COVID-19 was allowed to burn unchecked for so long.

I will remember that the woods are lovely, dark and deep, and that we all have promises to keep. Some of us are better at it than others.