A nearly empty Opera Quays in Sydney's Central Business District as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, March 17, 2020 (Paul Lovelace / Alamy Stock Photo)

Forewarning of the pandemic came to our family with a festive package dropped at the door by a neighbor. Such packages are a common part of the celebration of Purim, when we remember the miraculous undoing of a genocidal decree against the Jews of Persia. But in Sydney, where we live, common courtesy is rare, and common kindness is—let us say—even rarer. “Please let us know if you need anything,” said the note with the package. “Anything that is understocked at the shops—soap, toilet paper, medicines.” We had never seen this neighbor before or even spoken to her. We were mystified; something was awry.

We are a family of three generations living in my parents’ home in Sydney. I moved back here just before the virus struck, after thirty years in the United States. “What are you waiting for?” my daughter asked and asked, until I capitulated. I left behind a son at Johns Hopkins University, and he began a barrage of exhortations that ended in our three generations isolating together in my parents’ home a few days after Purim. That was three weeks ago from the time I’m writing this. It is hard now to believe we once lived another way. And it is even harder to resist thinking that we may never get out of this way of living. My parents are healthy but old, and the time between now and a cure or vaccine is indefinite.

We are isolated in the house, my parents, my daughter, and I. No one comes in, and we don’t go where other people are. If we choose to live with one another, we can only be with one another. If my daughter or I want to see anyone else, we cannot come back home until this virus ends. That is the choice: either the family or everyone else, not both. The price we pay for being together is being separated from the rest of the world.

My father, who always prayed twice daily with his community at synagogue, came home to pray alone. Prayer alone is blessed, but wherever ten are assembled in a minyan, the Divine Presence dwells among them (Avot 3:6), in the miniature sanctuary in the places where Jews have been exiled (Ezekiel 11:16). My father is nearly ninety. The very place where religious Jews like my father find solace became a prime source of transmission of the virus. My father’s father put on prayer garments in the Nazi camps. “But this is different,” my father said. “Here we have a choice to live, and life comes first.”

It dwells among us in secret, this virus, like a ghost. Many with the disease have no symptoms and can pass it to others unknowing, so that one moment we are dancing, the next we cough, the next we choke and fall. Life has slid along a predictable course this century. The century before saw a reduction of death in childbirth and childhood diseases, the taming of heart disease, cures for cancer, even a decline in car fatalities. The blessing of old age is widely shared; since 1900, human life expectancy on Earth has more than doubled. Doctors and clean water keep us alive an ever longer time. And into a world built on the certainty of a limitlessly increasing lifespan the new coronavirus imposes uncertainty. It whips through us and we are astonished: the moment before, we believed we were masters over nature. And now, doctors who have fought successfully to keep us alive are impotent; we are left to fight the disease alone, to prescribe our own medicine, that is, to keep away from one another. Who knows who hides the disease and breathes it to us?

Aloneness was like a migraine, a sickness that never left in the years I stayed behind after my loved ones left

Four winters ago, when I was still in Washington D.C., my son, my daughter, and my sister all left within weeks of one another, for other cities, other continents. I was going nowhere, but I was moving from a state of perpetual accompaniment to aloneness. When I protested to my loved ones about this prospect, they dismissed my fears. “Viva, you will never be alone!” they said. Yet at night I put my head down alone and when morning came, aloneness was still there with me.

Aloneness was like a migraine, a sickness that never left in the years I stayed behind after my loved ones left. No matter how hard I worked, how much I prayed, or how many deeds of kindness I did, the ache never lessened. Aloneness happened to me and I endured it, but my daughter called repeatedly to teach me that it was a condition I could cure, if I chose to. And so I moved 10,000 miles to my parents’ house. With three generations under one roof, the sickness of aloneness has vanished; I have not once wished for a night by myself.

Recently, on a plateau in Tanzania, paleontologists found the hardened footsteps of ancient humans walking across the plain together. These footsteps have become symbols of our human attachment, a confirmation that even in our early years, we traveled with one another. The strongest human need is the need for each other. We wish for connection, we ache when we cannot find it, and we are punished most intolerably when we are cut away from one another.

So when my son at Johns Hopkins told us we must cut ourselves from the rest of humanity for a time indefinite, in order to save our lives, my mother’s first deed was to reach out to those who did not have the comfort we have in each other. She called them to say, “You are not alone.” Our synagogue, which was notorious for its quarrels and lawsuits, has sprung such a large cadre of volunteers that there are more offering to help than there are those who know they can get help. My mother is ringing through her address book to create demand for the volunteers. Young people are flooding social media with offers, and we bridge those offers to the older ones, who don’t know how to ask. One woman burst out into tears when my mother matched her with a buddy. All her food was gone and she had no way to replenish it.

In the company of this virus, I find myself exhausted. Our ecosystem evolves so fast that how we live one day is obsolete and forgotten the next. The uncertainty, the ever-changing laws, the amount of information to consume and discard, and the yearning for an end date, all leave me spent at day’s end, and sleepless at night. What is the plan? we ask. Who is in charge? we wonder. Then we call friends, make face masks, and hang out the washing to dry.

Three weeks have passed since we isolated; the past week was compressed into an hour, whereas the week before was at least a year. These strange derangements of time come with the disorder of circumstance. This week we try living without news, because the week before we were addicted to news. My mind is too empty or too full. Disconnection from the world distorts time, as does excessive immersion in it. The empty mind compresses time and the full one stretches it out. And through these weeks that are years, nothing whatever is going on in Sydney, the weather is beautiful, the air is cleared of bushfires, hardly anyone has died of the virus. The disease lives among us, silent and invisible.

“Do we have enough to do for a year and a half like this?” I ask my mother.

I am waiting; I clear out a closet. So much of what we hold onto the virus has made worthless. Business suits. A handbag. A metro card. Frequent-flyer miles. And other things that were trivial are now more precious than everything else combined. Toilet paper. Rice. Wi-fi. Neighbor on this side, neighbor on that side, neighbor opposite, whose names and faces I never knew.

The neighbor who left us a food package for Purim left another package this week. It is matzah, the unleavened bread we eat on Passover, to remind us how once we were slaves in Egypt and with signs and wonders, God let us free. We eat the unleavened bread and remember that on the night of Exodus, we did not have time to let the dough rise. Redemption might come before the bread rises, or the washing dries, if we are willing to get up and leave when we hear the call.

We are taught that the first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed because of idol worship. The rabbis prayed for that desire to be eradicated from the human vices, and God answered their prayers. The second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed because of baseless hatred, but this time we can be redeemed only by our own deeds of baseless love. Coronavirus love. Each of us alone, together.

Viva Hammer, formerly of the Joint Committee on Taxation in the U.S. Congress, is currently at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute of Brandeis University, where she is completing a book, Child Desire: Large Families in a Small Family World.

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Published in the May 2020 issue: View Contents
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