Author’s Note: Give What Comfort You Can

british museum, pillars, classical architecture
The exterior of the British Museum.

In the last five days, everything has changed.

Three weeks ago, I came down with a bad case of the flu: Chills, fever, cough, vomiting and diarrhea. I’ve been sick ever since, and so has everyone else at the large engineering company where I work.

Last Friday, I went to my doctor for a routine medication check. When I complained that I couldn’t shake the flu, she questioned me about travel and contacts, and said she had to consult with her team.

She came back 25 minutes later in a hazmat suit, and  administered a flu panel and a Covid-19 test. The process was surprisingly unpleasant — I coughed and sneezed violently, and by the time it was over, my eyes and nose were streaming. She admitted that I was the first patient she’d tested, and that they “weren’t getting much guidance from above,” or training about how to use the test kits and protective equipment. She and the techs and nurses were nervous, but decisive, firm and brave.

After that, I stocked up on groceries at Trader Joe’s — no toilet paper or bottled water, the wine selection fairly thin — then emailed my boss and chief engineer with the bad news that I was under doctor’s orders to self-isolate. I’d been home sick a lot, but I still had to call or text a surprising number of people: friends, family, my cleaners and masseuse.  I was touched to get an email from my program director asking if I needed anything, and offering to fetch me food or medication. I know he would do it, too — he’s famous for bringing bags of hamburgers and fries to flight test teams working around the clock.

On Sunday, my company ordered everyone to work from home, though there were only 12 confirmed cases in my state. By then, everything was canceled or likely to be, from tabletop gaming to Record Store Day to my niece’s high school graduation For weeks I’ve been talking with my audiophile friends about having a vinyl party: We’d each play one side of our favorite record, and we’d invite kids who need to experience the miracle of vintage vinyl. That will have to wait until fall now.

Yesterday I got good news: My Covid-19 test was negative. After I finished working from home, I ventured out into the world again, and it was strange and frightening and beautiful all at once.

I went to the clinic that tested me to fill prescriptions for antibiotics and asthma, and to take a routine blood test. Now they have a team dedicated to walk-in testing for flu and Covid-19.

One of the techs who drew my blood told me that he lived through the AIDS crisis in San Francisco. He said, “I never thought I’d make it to 60. That was my one goal, and now I’m 61. I’m doing a lot of small things now. Just listening to the birds and walking outside and feeling the sun. It sounds stupid, but it’s true. I’m going to keep coming into work until they tell me to stop. After all, I took an oath.”

Turns out we both lived in the Lower Castro district in 1992, and now we’re neighbors again after almost 30 years. We both remember the beauty and terror and loss of those years. Before AIDS, homosexuality was a nameless, shameful crime. After AIDS, everyone was forced to admit that someone they knew or admired was gay, and no one could deny the courage of the activists who fought for testing and drugs and medical care, and for the right to hold hands and kiss and marry.

After that I went back to my Trader Joe’s. They were metering the number of people who could shop at once, and limiting purchases. An employee was standing out front controlling the line and making sure everyone had a freshly disinfected shopping cart. I asked if they had toilet paper.

“Oh, no. That’s been going quick. Give us a call just before we open and we’ll see what we can do.”

The guy behind me in line said, “The Target on Oracle Road has it every morning at eight — you can even call to reserve it.”

When I got inside, the shelves were sadly bare. No canned or frozen food, and the only meat was the most expensive cuts of steak. I bought two, and resolved to learn the French technique of pan-cooking and making a wine and butter sauce. I got the last few vegetables and fresh herbs, and was pleased to see that though the onions were gone, there were shallots, which I like better anyway. I bantered with the clerk as I checked out — weirdly, he used to work at a truck rental company I use — and drove off with my haul.

The streets were quiet and the sunset was lovely. I kept thinking that human beings are very kind and adaptable and good. An artificial intelligence would break down if you offered it steak and shallots instead of mild Italian sausage and sweet onions. That’s why I love people, and why our lives and happiness matter more than the stock market or technology. We survived polio and AIDS and two world wars; the Black Plague inspired Boccaccio’s Decameron and Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. We are miraculous and beautiful creatures.

I’m scared. I’m afraid I won’t get better, even with an antibiotic and prednisone. I’m afraid I’ll get laid off. I’m afraid for my mom, who is in her 70s and immunosuppressed. I’m worried about the local restaurants I love, and the folks who wash and fold my clothes. I’m scared for people making minimum wage, or living off tips, and for people trying to survive without health insurance. My sister is a professional violinist, and her orchestra will almost surely go bankrupt. The New York Times had a photo of the main staircase of the British Museum, and I started to cry because I was there just three months ago, and it’s empty now.

My state has gone from 12 to 27 cases in five days.

Because I’m a writer, this makes me think about the importance of art, and art making. I write to console myself, of course, but also because I’m driven to capture aspects of life that are familiar but rarely acknowledged. Inglorion’s experience of being shunned and publicly humiliated, but also the lessons he learns from Father Nate: Give what comfort you can. Tend the sick. Feed the hungry. Shelter the poor.

To that I’ll add: Stay at home. Wash your hands. If you can, support local business, either by keeping subscriptions and memberships and regular services, or by buying gift cards for better times. Blow people kisses. Wave at them through your windows. Sing at the top of your voice, so that your neighbors can hear you. Call people you haven’t talked to in awhile. Check in with kids and old folks, and anyone who has diabetes or respiratory problems, or who is immunosuppressed.

We only have each other, and that’s enough. Rome has been besieged and plague-ridden since it was founded from the ashes of Troy. It’s still here, and still so beautiful it makes you cry.

Tomorrow I will publish the last episode of The Magnificent Five. The next volume, The Last Days of Tereus Shelawn, is already written, and scheduled for publication three days a week through the end of May. In the background, I’ll be writing the next book of Inglorion’s adventures, Duke of the Underdark. I know the arc of the story — the beginning and end — but the color and flavor will come from the joys and fears of my own life, just like they always have.

I hope you’re safe, healthy and happy, and that you’ll get some joy and consolation from the stories I’m telling.


J.A. Thompson

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