I stare less and less into the mirror these days and am more likely to catch my own image in the computer as my likeness participates in this and that on-line meeting. The computer is much kinder than the mirror. I have not been to see my hair dresser for many months, and so the gray hairs grow fast and wily, floating above the glossy strands of blackest brown that still protrude from my scalp. The grays are coarser and demand to be seen. Still, the mirror shows more than the camera, and I wonder whether that is a kindness or whether there is something harmful in the way that the computer screen hides the ravages of this era, the shock of self-neglect and constant tides of grief upon which I am borne, even as I ground down in the day to day necessities of securing myself, securing my household, and attending to the tedium of survival.
In March 2020, with many more weeks of Milwaukee’s interminably gray winter stretching into the horizon, I wondered whether or not it was possible to have to suffer one more life-changing cataclysm. I only half-joked with my friends and family that I had lived through the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and that I still remember what the world was like before September 11, 2001. Having moved out of New York City in May of 2001, and back to DC, I spent that day calling friends and former roommates in New York, including a few with partners who worked in the towers. A few days later, I learned that two of them did not come home from the towers that day. Over the years, those two losses multiplied to include many more, attached to new friends and relations who also lost a brother, a sister or a husband. The billowing dust and thick ashen smog from the fallen buildings is fixed in my mind, even these years later. It was white gray, and so very dense. The hours of news footage made the dust seem endless.
I inevitably recall the scene that greeted me when we were finally able to open our door following the earthquake in 2010. I can’t shed the brown gray dust and angst-filled cries of many voices calling out to God who are still with me. Picking our way down three stories of rubble, my husband barefoot, the gray dust covered everything, and here and there, a splash of scarlet that I barely registered as we called for people to leave their homes before the aftershocks began. And rubble. So much rubble of concrete and old cinderblocks. Even the ubiquitous bougainvillea in our area of Jacquet, and the hibiscus, too, seemed to be blanketed in a layer of gray dust.
In the days that followed the quake, I camped out on a basketball court with school children whose parents and caregivers had not been able to come and pick them up in the aftermath of the quake. At the private school my in-laws run in Jacquet, we all understood how important it was to radiate calm reassurance to the children. The rumors spun fast and relentlessly, and we assured the children that they were not to listen. That until we knew for sure, we should not believe that this or that building had collapsed. Over two days, every child was picked up by a relative, and so a smaller party, still afraid to enter a building or sleep under a roof, we moved from the basketball court to one of the outdoor classrooms with an aluminum roof. At least if it fell we knew we would survive.
The aftershocks continued. They seemed to become less frequent, but it was hard to know exactly as our tired bodies lost the ability to register them, and so daily life shifted only to a constant sense of movement, an exhausting alertness, and needs for reassurance. The school building and the buildings next door and across the street from it were all surrounded by small walls. Every time a tremor was detected, our heads popped up above the walls and we would make eye contact, affirming the sensation collectively. My own nerves may have been pulverized, but we were one extended nervous system, relatives and strangers, and together were able to trust our ability to sense danger.
Two days after the quake, the smells of death also began to intensify. The bodies under the rubble, the ones that we had told ourselves were not there, asserted themselves. Rescue missions shifted into recovery efforts, and U.S. news media began to speculate about the impending rioting and looting that was inevitably going to break out. Papi Roody and I joked about the natural experiment where we would finally learn whether our fellow humans were more Hobbesian or Rousseauian in character. We also knew that CNN expected nothing better from Haiti than disorder and mayhem, and that their racialized narrative of chaos and burning fires was not what we were experiencing on Delmas 95.
Those days after the quake are often on my mind as I think about the situation of the pandemic. The quake and the pandemic have both brought grief and loss. The spectacle of deaths and injuries was much more immediate during and after the earthquake. The interruption of grief then, as now, was palpable. Without the ability to gather in person and collectively bid farewell to our dead, each loss brings with it more anger and bitterness as even the familiar patterns of mourning are denied to us. From my living room, I’ve attended many virtual funerals. During the last Zoom funeral I attended, I did not know what to do with myself. I wished my warm gray cat had poured himself into my lap, his comforting weight and soft fur a distraction. I did not know what to make of the 7 x 7 grid of distraught faces in gallery view, whether to turn off my camera when the tears fell, or whether it was okay to step away and go get more tissues. In a 7 x 7 grid, my tiny face was even smaller, and the gray in my hair even harder to make out.
For me, that same trust in strangers I experienced in the aftermath of the earthquake is elusive during the pandemic. I worry that my neighbors in Milwaukee, my friends, and relatives are not abiding by the same social contract that I am. Rousseau clearly won the day in Jacquet, but back in the U.S., the experiment is reset and it’s hard to know exactly who has opted in (or out) of what. It’s more than the uncanny sense of COVID as invisible, as asymptomatic, of neighboring bodies as viral and infectious. It is the way in which the era of the pandemic has made masks and social distancing clear political and ideological markers. If one of the neighbors has a “Thin Blue Line” bumper sticker on his car, what does that mean about his approach to the virus? It’s not only that there are ideological markers, it is that in this swiftly shifting topography, I do not know how to read the signs. The neighbor’s recent inability to make eye contact with me or even exchange simple greetings, his eschewing of masks, was oddly offset by him quietly mowing our lawn two weekends back. How do I know if this was kindness or exasperation?
Days upon days pass. The grass grows, and my hair fills with more gray. Milwaukee gives way to the seasonal shift characterized by road work—streets are torn up to be remade. Black and gray rubble piles up to give birth to newly surfaced roads. Driving through the streets, sitting in my living room, watching myself and others on the computer screen, painful memories are folded with others, and like the tenacious coarse curls that float above my non-gray hairs, force their way to my attention. There are not clear parables or fables in the lessons of trauma—only the gray, at once nuisance and halo, circling my bruised but greedy heart.