On the last morning of our vacation, Dan woke up with sciatica. We bundled him and all of our gear into our rented SUV and headed back to the city. It took three and half weeks, pain meds, physical therapy house calls, acupuncture, muscle relaxants and lots of patience for him to become ambulatory again. I somehow managed — without killing either one of us– to get him in and out of the bathtub and to his required COVID test and weekly cancer treatments.
Daily life for me became an endless cycle of caregiving, dog walking, meal prep, laundry and trips to the pharmacy or the grocery. Our usual division of labor no longer existed. His immobility meant that he needed me to help him with every life task, including fetching the microwaveable heat pad or the ice pack or the resupply of water or snacks or pills. We both had trouble sleeping, he on the floor and me in the bed. Exhausted by the middle of week three, I wondered whether I would ever have the energy to work on my book or my blog again. I too felt paralyzed.
Of course our personal melodrama was taking place with the backdrop of the dumpster fire that is our current political morass. Just one example: the Post Office dysfunction that I wrote about in my last post got very personal when Dan’s prescribed pain medicine took two weeks to arrive, by which time it was unnecessary. It was infuriating to listen to Postmaster General DeJoy insist that his “reforms” had created greater efficiency as I watched Dan suffer needlessly. Now, during this last weekend of August, my fatigue is finally lifting, but I am struggling to regain my usual optimism.
Dan will be fine. I will be fine. We will recover our energy and our routine, such as it has become during this time of so much restriction due to COVID. But Jacob Blake will not. His paralysis will be permanent. His partner will have to take on the life that I have had for the past month, with no promise of an end. His children will never get over watching their father crumple under a hale of bullets fired at point blank by a public servant sworn to protect not traumatize them.
Police brutality like that which led to the death of George Floyd and the paralysis of Jacob Blake has been going on for decades. And so has police brutality toward protesters. 1968 was a turning point year filled with racial violence, civil unrest and antiwar demonstrations. I was nineteen years old then. It was a pivotal year for me personally too, the year that I lost my innocence, if not my virginity.
The Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the ensuing riots had shocked and mobilized many young people, myself among them. Protesting peacefully against the war and my university’s racist policies towards its Harlem neighbors, I was kettled and beaten by the tactical police force of the NYPD, resulting in a fractured collar bone which healed in time and an even more broken trust in law enforcement, which did not.
That fall I lost a close friend in Vietnam. The Black short order cook at the restaurant I had waitressed in that summer shared weed with me during our breaks, confided in me about his dream of going to college, made sure the Irish waitresses who resented me didn’t steal my orders. After work we talked for hours about music, politics, books. We were the same age, and I daresay equally bright and ambitious, but our lives held such different potential. I went back to school in the fall. With a low draft number and no hope of buying a medical deferment like President Bonespurs did, my friend was sent to Vietnam, like so many of his Harlem peers. Months later he was dead, a beautiful soul wasted in a senseless, unwinnable war.
Nixon’s November victory and George Wallace’s strong showing on a platform of white supremacy rounded out what until 2020 was the worst year of my life. I felt paralyzed then too. I hadn’t been old enough to vote; the Twenty-Sixth Amendment wasn’t ratified until 1971. The next semester I decided to major in U.S. History, trying to understand how all of this had not just come to pass, but been accepted.
As bad as 1968 was, this year, this summer, this election season feels so much darker, so much more foreboding. Donald Trump is reprising both Richard Nixon’s call for “law and order” and Wallace’s white supremacy, hoping to turn white suburbanites and small town or rural residents against those protesting in urban centers. We seem to be sleepwalking into disunion, distracted by the kinds of personal trials that Dan and I have been navigating, or fighting to keep a larger, more optimistic perspective in the midst of a lost job, a lost relative, a lost dream. And of course, social media and Fox “news” are the “X” factors that didn’t exist in 1968. And then there is the pandemic.
It’s hard to feel as if my story, my memoir, my blog post matters in the face of the enormity of the problems the nation is facing — or refusing to face. One of the slogans of the Second Wave Feminists of the 1960s, “the personal is political,” gives me the resolve to claim space for my experience, to battle the numbness, the immobility that threatens to overwhelm me. Writing my story can be, after all, a part of resisting invisibility, impotence, dehumanization, SILENCE.
When Mitch McConnell chastised Elizabeth Warren like a schoolgirl for refusing to yield her time during a heated Senate debate, his effort to discredit her became the rallying cry for women across the country who felt silenced, their righteous anger minimized. I bought my daughter a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Nevertheless she persisted,” and printed the words in big block letters inside my writing journal. My first presidential primary vote was for Shirley Chisholm; I hope that my recent primary vote for Elizabeth Warren won’t be my last. You can bet I will be voting Biden/Harris this November.
I fully intend to persist, to use my voice, to claim my space, to refuse to contribute to the end of the American experiment in democracy by my silence. Soon it will be September, time to turn the calendar page, time to put the paralysis of August behind me, time to get back into the fray, time to harness my anger into productivity rather than despair. I hope you will join me.