Editor’s Note: Thomas Lake is a writer for CNN Digital and the author of “Unprecedented: The Election That Changed Everything.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
It had been a long day, and we needed ice cream. This was last Thursday in Decatur, Georgia, a thousand years ago, when leaving the house still felt like a common occurrence. It was almost twilight, and the star magnolias were blooming. On the way we walked by a high school where no one was learning, with a field where no one was playing, and an auditorium where the spring musical had just been canceled. We stumbled on toward Dairy Queen.
Yes, it was open. No, we would not all go inside. We could see the world changing before our eyes, feel the weight of each small choice. Maybe the virus was in there, or maybe one of us had it already, and maybe we shouldn’t have come at all. What if you got sick for no good reason, and you got other people sick for no good reason, and they got other people sick for no good reason, and someone died because a kid licked a table in a restaurant?
My wife and kids stayed outside. I went in alone. It was nearly deserted. Elsewhere in America, restaurants were closing: some just for now, and some forever. Good people had lost their jobs, and many more would lose them soon. Some of us would go hungry. Some would fight for one more breath. A tremor seemed to pass beneath my feet, rippling from ocean to ocean.
A kind young woman took my order: chocolate shake, strawberry shake, peanut butter shake, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Blizzard. I stood back from the counter, grateful for the debit-card reader that let us complete the transaction without getting too close. Was this distance enough? No one knew. The young man preparing our desserts would breathe on those desserts, as would the woman handing them to me. I ate my Blizzard with a small red spoon and tried not to think too much.
We walked home, past the abandoned school, and I thought about the hierarchy of grief. You were allowed to be sad if a loved one died, or if you were freshly unemployed or if you were busy surviving some other verified catastrophe. I wanted permission to be sad about other things, too. Smaller things. No one had given it to me, so I gave it to myself. And now I give it to you.
You can feel sorrow for the loss of face-to-face banter with the colleague in the next cubicle. For the loss of your birthday party, your vacation, the Friday lunch with your friends. For March Madness, whether you would have played or just watched on TV. For all the gatherings that never were.
You can hurt for the teachers, scrambling to build lesson plans for the students they may not see again. For the seniors, high school and college, alone and adrift, losing what should have been their most glorious days on campus. For the old folks, even the ones who won’t get sick, longing to see their grandchildren.
You can cry about the fear you’ve been made to feel.
The next day on our street, children spilled out of their houses. They mingled with other children. They unabashedly played together. They got dangerously close.
I was afraid and I called my children away. Hustled them into the minivan. Drove them somewhere, anywhere, so my wife could get a moment’s peace. We walked on a trail through the woods, which led to a park, which led to a playground. Not many children were there. Only a few, who saw my children and wanted to play with them. Imagine that. They were climbing around together, having fun, breathing on each other. I said it was time to go.
Where to go, where to go? I drove back to Dairy Queen. There was no sense in any of it. I did not know how to live. It was Friday, a hundred years ago, before all the mandatory closures. This would probably be my last visit to Dairy Queen in a very long time. I hustled inside and saw the same young woman behind the counter.
I thought of all the people like her. Let me say a prayer of thanks for them.
I can work from home, go in my bubble, keep myself safe. I want to thank everyone who has no such choice.
I want to thank the trash collectors, the police officers, the firefighters, the nurses, the doctors and anyone who works in a nursing home. I want to thank all the drivers bringing goods to their destinations. I want to thank those who restock the shelves with Purell and toilet paper. I want to thank everyone at the cash registers: tired, mistreated, breathed-upon, coughed-upon, sneezed-upon, touching the money, some of them risking their lives so we can buy the things that sustain us.
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And the things that comfort us. I ordered a chocolate shake, two strawberry sundaes, a chocolate-and-peanut-butter sundae, a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Blizzard. I slid my card into the reader. She offered me the receipt. I should have said no, but I took it. Touched it. We drove home and sat on the front porch, medicating ourselves with sugar and cream.
Out there in the twilight, the neighbor children played. The birds sang. The pear tree blossomed. It was all so fragile, so precious. This day would end, with no promise of another. I picked up our toddler and held her close.