An Ode to the People and Things That Have Helped Me Weather the Pandemic

As columnist Judi Ketteler reflects on how she’s coping with the pandemic, she knows one thing is for certain: This too shall pass.

In 1819, English poet John Keats wrote a series of odes celebrating such things as a nightingale, the goddess Psyche, autumn, and—most famously—a Grecian urn. Two years later, at age 25, he died from tuberculosis, a pandemic that caused one-fourth of the deaths across Europe in the 19th century. One hundred years after that, the Spanish Flu ripped through the world, killing 50 million people. And here we are—eerily, almost exactly 100 years again—in the middle of another pandemic.

Illustration by Julia Yellow

All I can think to do is write an ode. To what, of course, is the question. What do I want to celebrate, pay respect to, or just remember about this strange time?

If I’m being practical, it should be an ode to Fortnite, a game my 11-year-old son has played a lot these past months. A highly social kid, he was the person in the house I thought I’d have to worry about the most with the upheaval of everyday life. But here he is, living the dream. He has stayed in close touch with his friends via the game and earned his way into tournaments he wouldn’t have been able to with school getting in the way. He was playing a tournament based in Egypt the other morning. Or evening. I can’t remember, because time is so silly now.

I catch bits and pieces of my son’s conversations with friends about skins, maps, squads, and arena mode versus creative mode. I don’t understand most of it, but I do understand that he comes to the dinner table happy.

I should write an ode to the people delivering and picking up all the things—to the delivery drivers, the waste collectors, and the “essential workers” who have kept the most basic parts of society running. I would want to express my thanks to those stocking shelves, scanning groceries, and loading trucks, because I am deeply thankful. But it wouldn’t be very authentic if I didn’t acknowledge my privilege in being able to stay home, and how this pandemic has been a story about privilege as much as anything else. My job is writing content, and nothing about my job became any riskier or, in fact, changed much at all. How does one express that mix of guilt and gratefulness?

Love poems are notoriously hard to write, so I suspect an ode to my husband would come off as cheesy. But if I were to write one, I would thank him for being the masked gro­cery shopper, for giving me a great meal to look forward to every day and for helping the kids with their math. I would tell him how much I appreciated his attempts to keep them out of my home office during Zoom, Slack, Skype, Google Meet, and FaceTime meetings with clients, and that he can stand down because the world has now decided that kid interruption is adorable.

It would be nice to write an ode to the homemade signs lining Miami Avenue that I run by every day. They were made by members of the Madeira Hope Squad, a group of high school students focused on raising awareness about mental health and suicide prevention. Simple ones that say “You Matter” have been around town for a while, but a bunch of new ones showed up recently, with messages like “Life Is Tough, But So Are You” and “The Tide Will Turn.” Our community lost a young soul to suicide around this time last year, and I worry so much about the effect the pandemic is having on our children. Not the little ones so much, because they’re probably getting extra cuddles—but the teens trying to find their way. My ode, I’m guessing, would be not so much to the signs but to the idea of staying present to both the hope and the pain of young people.

On that note, so many odes to educators need to be written, from kindergarten teachers to dissertation directors. Teachers thrive in the classroom, so I know this displaced learning was certainly not what they signed up for. My ode would have to specifically call out Mrs. Naegeli and Mrs. Jansen for the texts, videos, e-mails, and FaceTime calls. You checked up on my daughter daily, complimented her on her YouTube videos, and asked her about her trampolines. (Idea: Write an ode to trampolines.) Without a doubt, the two of you got my scared and stressed daughter through the last months of fourth grade intact.

If I truly want to borrow from Keats, I should write an ode to a deity. I would choose Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory, often called the goddess of storytelling. To all those who have told their stories about this virus, I am here to listen, whether the story uplifts or destroys me. From the hopeful stories of people who spent weeks on ventilators and recovered to the anguished stories of people who lost spouses, parents, friends, jobs, businesses, and desperately needed services for children.

Also an ode to the people working in the COVID-19 units of hospitals, faces bruised from masks, walking the line between life and death every day—thoughts of you find me when I peel my quilt back and tuck into bed each night. I think about your grit and endurance, but also your fear and exhaustion. I can’t fix any of it, but I see you.

Other times, I think my ode should really be to something ridiculous, like the Twitter account Animals Being Jerks (@meananimals). Short videos of asshole cats, goats with an attitude, sloppy raccoons, and dogs that will do anything for you to just love them please are the only things that consistently had me wiping tears of laughter from my eyes. A monkey dancing in a splash pool has a role to play when the world is flooded with grief.

It could be an interesting exercise in bipartisanship to write an ode to my governor, Mike DeWine, who I did not vote for but am grateful to have had as a leader. Thank you, sir, for surrounding yourself with people of science. When all of this is over, I would like to invite you over for coffee, so that I can hug you and then set you straight about your other political positions.

But if I’m going to dedicate my ode to a person, how could I not write one to my mom? She’s one of the most resilient ladies I know, and damn funny, too. She was born in 1935 in the middle of the Great Depression, and she came of age during World War II. She raised seven children, buried an adult son in 2009, and lost my dad seven years ago. Even now, whenever I ask her about a particularly difficult time in her life and how she got through it, her answer is always along the lines of, It’s just what we did. And here she is, doing yet another difficult thing, getting through isolation by surrounding herself with NPR and her books and her sewing machine and kind of FaceTime (she doesn’t understand how to hold the iPad, so we mostly just see the top of her head).

Oh, I almost forgot the trampoline ode. We have four of them in our backyard, which seems like the right amount because we’re weird and like to do lots of flips. Though I saw everyone’s magnificent Facebook posts about socially distanced family outings, I couldn’t deal with trying to take my kids on hikes. Instead, we’ve been riding it out on our trampolines. My love of acrobatics has never felt more important than now because, no matter what lockdowns are in place, you are truly free upside-down in the air.

Ultimately, though, if I had to pick my own Grecian urn-type ode subject, I’d choose the little pink stuffed alpaca that sits in my collection of desk tchotchkes. I bought her last year at the Madeira Farmers Market. She caught my eye because she reminded me of a day seven years before when I was at a festival in Bellevue where there were alpacas. My kids were petting them and laughing, and as I took pictures of the scene an unspeakable melancholy swelled in me.

I knew I should be happy, but with two toddlers, a dad who was dying, a confusing marriage, and a career I was trying to rebuild after a recession, I was seized with apprehension and a sense of not being able to stay above the waves. So on that day last year, when I found myself again in front of an alpaca farmer peddling crafts—but this time feeling content after having made it through that difficult season of life—the pink alpaca said to me, See, Judi, things don’t stay stuck forever.

Now, as I look upon her eyes made of thread and her hint of a smile, I feel as astonished as Keats must have felt contemplating the urn and all that it represented for him. And I think, Yes, this too shall pass.

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