My Name was Supposed to be Elizabeth Ann

— Stories from the Roads (Not) Taken

My least favorite chore used to be  grocery shopping. All those hours spent moving items from the shelves to my cart to the belt to the bags to the car to the house to the kitchen, only to hear several hours later, There’s nothing to eat. 

A minor thing to complain about, then.

Not so much now. 

Early March, as China’s crisis became global and Americans prepared for its invasion here, panicked shoppers began hoarding toilet paper and sanitizer, and normally well-stocked grocery shelves stood bare. March 13, I stopped at one of my three local grocery stores after work because I needed a few things and that’s what moms (used to?) do–run errands on their way home from work. By the time I finished and headed to the registers, the check-out line extended across the front of the store and up the farthermost aisle to the dairy section in the back. Harried managers directed customer traffic toward open lanes, and accidental line-jumpers maneuvered apologetically toward the line’s end. I waited nearly an hour for my turn, but the wait passed quickly as I chatted with those waiting with me, each of us theorizing and predicting what’s next.

Two months later, the once mundane chore requires girding myself as if for battle, donning my face mask and gloves, and tucking Clorox wipes in a pocket. (An aside–Who knew locating Clorox wipes in a store would become as rare and magical as spotting a unicorn in the wild?) Along the store’s sidewalk, I wait the mandatory six feet apart from my fellow shoppers as store employees record customers’ entrances and exits on iPads, signalling permission to enter one supplicant at a time. The orderliness of the line, the clear and sensible restrictions–they settle my jitters. They assure me that we can navigate this disaster. We can defeat our invisible enemy with planning and patience and rationality.

Then it’s finally my turn to cross the threshold, and my hopefulness morphs into anger, then despair.

We’re not getting out of this thing anytime soon, and it will be our own damn fault.

*****

Did you do your homework last week?

Good.

In chapter three of Khalid Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, fifth-grader Amir sits with Baba’s smoking room and watches as his father pours and drinks a whiskey, which Islam forbids. Baba, a physically and psychologically imposing character, is an extremely successful businessman and philanthropist whom Afghans revere. With the exception of kite-flying, Baba and Amir are nothing alike, and Amir’s repeatedly unsuccessful attempts to earn his father’s notice dominate his childhood. Baba, the adult Amir explains, “saw the world in black and white. And he got to decide what was black and what was white. You can’t love a person who lives that way without fearing him too. Maybe even hating him a little” (15). This ambivalence forms the core of Amir’s relationship with his father and informs nearly every action the child takes in the opening chapters.

On that day in particular, Amir tells Baba about his teacher Mullah Khan’s insistence that drinking is a “terrible sin” for which Baba must answer on Judgment Day (16).  Baba settles Amir on his lap, then explains, “No matter what the mullah teaches, there is only one sin…theft. Every other sin is a variation of theft. When you kill a man, you steal a life…. When you tell a lie, you steal someone’s right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness…. A man who takes what’s not his to take, be it a life or a loaf of naan…I spit on such a man” (18).

Amir is both exhilarated and frightened by Baba’s vehemence, not only because of the rare moment of notice, but also because the approximately ten-year-old child believes Baba directs that disgust toward Amir, whose birth resulted in his mother’s death.  “[The] truth of it was, I always felt like Baba hated me a little…. After all, I had killed his beloved wife…hadn’t I? The least I could have done was turn out a little more like him. But I hadn’t turned out like him. Not at all” (19). Consequently, Amir feels both compelled to atone for that sin and helpless to live up to Baba’s expectations, a conflict that explains Amir’s eventual betrayal of the younger Hassan, his servant and unacknowledged friend.

That conflicted father-son  relationship also functions as Amir’s “ghost,” which writer K.M. Weiland explains is the observed or experienced event that first, defines a character’s core understanding of himself and his place in the world, and second, shapes a character’s false perception of what he must do to achieve happiness. This ghost arises in the character’s developmental years and becomes hard-wired in his psyche until he actively confronts the ghost’s legacy and works to exorcise it.

Amir’s ghost haunts him for over 26 years.

*****

Inside the grocery store, blue arrows mark a pathway on the floor. Signs written in Spanish and English hang on endcaps and remind shoppers of the CDC’s social distancing requirements.  Yet hardly anyone obeys. They push past me while I lag six-feet away from those ahead. Reach around me for items. Navigate the aisles willy-nilly, ignoring the arrows, their masks yanked beneath their noses or dangling about their necks. These are easy accommodations, requiring a modicum of sacrifice, yet hardly anyone obeys. Before a recent expedition, I ventured to a drugstore and saw behind the pharmacy counter a tech without a mask and a nurse with only his chin covered–both men working and walking and talking near a row of  signs announcing the wearing of masks in ALL businesses is required by Pennsylvania law.

Over one hundred years ago, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919 infected approximately 500,000,000, one-third of the world’s then-population. Medical providers had neither treatments nor vaccines, and the mobilization of troops heading overseas to fight in World War I incited the virus’ spread. Large gatherings were prohibited; schools and theaters closed, retail outlets encouraged to stagger openings, citizens urged to wear masks. According to the CDC website, these recommendations were unevenly enforced, partly because of the war’s demands, partly because of citizens’ aversion to restrictions that they deemed extreme and unnecessary. Ultimately, the flu struck in three waves that killed over 50,000,000 people worldwide, about 675,000 of whom lived  in the United States.

Any of that sound familiar?

In 2020, mandatory stay-at-home orders, social distancing practices, and requiring the wearing of masks are helping to flatten Covid’s infection curve. However, weary Americans and the politicians who pander to them demand an immediate reopening of businesses and schools so we can return to a pre-pandemic normal.

Newsflash: that normal is dead and buried, and most researchers predict a second wave of the virus will hit this fall. In 1918,most deaths occurred in that second wave.

In his 1905 work The Life of Reason: The Phases of Human Progress, George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” a saying often misattributed to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In 2020, we’ve not only forgotten the lessons of the last pandemic, many of us are willfully repeating its mistakes.  That’s why I see ghosts when I grocery shop: I see the ghosts of those long gone, and the ghosts we’re bequeathing our children.

Like Amir, children watch and learn from their significant adults. And what lessons are we teaching them? That our actions lack consequences? That the rules apply only to others? That our rights take precedence over others’ well-being? 

That only some people matter? 

That’s what twelve-year-old Amir thinks when he betrays Hassan in chapter 7: “Maybe Hassan was the price I had to pay, the lamb I had to slay, to win Baba. Was it a fair price? The answer floated to my conscious mind before I could thwart it: He was just a Hazara, wasn’t he” (77). Twenty-six years later, that event–and the fact that he never atoned for his betrayal–haunts Amir as vividly as when he was a fearful child yearning for his father’s love and respect.

I’ve read The Kite Runner at least fifteen times, so I can tell you whether Amir defeats his ghost. However, neither I nor anyone else can tell the outcome of the story we’re currently living, the story history will record for those not yet born.

This too shall pass, yes.

But the more self-centered and ill-informed our response, the longer–and more deadly–the passing.

Think about that the next time you head to the grocery store.

Still not convinced? Read through chapter twelve next week so we can chat some more.

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