My Name was Supposed to be Elizabeth Ann

— Stories from the Roads (Not) Taken

I packed books when I left home mid-March, but I have not been able to read them. They require an emotional energy I cannot muster, so they remain unopened in my bag. However, I can still read poetry. Mornings as I drink my coffee, I read my daily poems from Poets.org and The Paris Review. I owe my love of poetry to my senior and AP English teacher Mr. Oberholtzer. Poetry, he explained, is the soul’s soundtrack, articulating experiences for which we have no words and in the process creating a language of shared understanding. 

And sometimes, the universe conspires to play the exact song we need to hear.

One such gift arrived in my inbox April 4 and changed the way I think about my upstate exile.

In Fenton Johnson’s “The Miracle,” the unnamed persona lives confined in a prison house but lets his soul wander free of its walls. On his sojourn, he meets a “browneyed child” from whom he pleads “a flower/That [he] might bear it to [his] lonely cell.” The child picks a common dandelion, “an ugly bloom” that the persona hesitates to accept until he sees in the child’s eyes the love with which the gift is offered, a love that immediately transforms the dandelion into a rose, the poem’s final, joyful image. Therein lies the miracle–the power of love to invoke change and create hope in even the most dire of circumstances.

Week three was tough. Week four, I gathered my dandelions:

  • Jamie, my fifth period team teacher, is the lighthouse in the middle of my virtual storm, and I wish I had a teaspoonful of her patience. The quintessential professional and all-around top-notch human being, she is unfailingly compassionate, hard-working, and cheerful, and she treats every student with dignity and respect regardless of ability or disposition. She runs our class Remind, texting kids to wake up and join our Google Meet, to get help on assignments, and to submit check-ins–all the while teaching her own virtual classes, mediating her three children’s squabbles, overseeing their morning meetings, and coordinating our lessons and grading. Come to think of it, I also wish I had her energy!
  • When my mother-in-law fell, her neighbor Beth stayed with her until the ambulance arrived, texting me updates as my husband drove the seven-plus hours to the Erie PA hospital to which she’d been transported. Beth stayed with her until my husband finally arrived at midnight, her own husband waiting hours in the parking lot because of Covid-19 restrictions. In the days and weeks that followed, she checked in daily, offering food, a shoulder, and a glimpse into her similarly upended life. A teacher’s aide, she became her grandkids’ remote teacher and caregiver so her daughter and son-in-law, both medical professionals, could continue to work. Her many kindnesses made a difficult situation more bearable, and for that my husband and I are grateful. 
  • We are equally grateful to the nurses caring for his mother, first in the hospital and now at the rehab facility. People who see her as more than a patient. Who cry with us and share their stories of loss and upheaval. Who help her place calls when she’s upset and crack her window so we can chat six-feet away through the glass. Nurses who remind us of our daughter. I should be there with you and Dad, Miss told me over the phone. But you are, I said. In everything you do for your patients and their loved ones, you are with us in these remarkable women.
  • Mark, my best friend and husband of over thirty years, sometimes sees me more clearly than I see myself. Every night as we returned from window-visiting his mother, he detoured us through back roads and neighboring towns, telling me fascinating stories about the region’s history and his own, helping me feel grounded in a place to which I never before felt connected and in the process creating treasured new memories we can share. True story–when you find a good one, you hold on tight.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As I write, it’s Easter Sunday. Yesterday afternoon, we buckled into our two vehicles and crisscrossed the nearly deserted state back home. His mom continues to improve under the facility’s excellent supervision, and we need to tend our own lives and determine our next steps for her care. Soon, we’ll cross the state once more and bring her here with us. 

Meanwhile, the sun shines on an extraordinary ordinary day. I’ve been waiting over three weeks to do this, I said as I hugged my kids. Healthy, thank heavens, and glad of a mom-cooked meal. For dinner I prepared not the traditional ham but homemade spaghetti and meatballs, a family favorite, after which the four of us played Apples to Apples and took turns making each other laugh. However, our moods grew somber as we watched the news and debated the extent to which people will learn and grow from our global crisis.

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know the answer to this one: What difference can any of us make in the life of another? 

Everything, when we love.

Corny? Maybe. Each of those I mentioned above would say they were just ordinary souls living ordinary lives and doing what needed to be done in that moment.

But isn’t that the point?

Every minute of every day, we face an infinite variety of choices, each a stone whose toss ripples through those around us in ways we cannot always fathom. Imagine if love were the only force guiding our decisions. Imagine the tiny miracles we could sow in each other’s gardens. 

That’s the world I want to live in when all this too shall pass.

(You can read the full text of Fenton Johnson’s “The Miracle” here: https://poets.org/poem/miracle-0 .)

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