Beneath the Pandemic Sky
How Space Saved Me: An Essay
Editor’s Note: Hi, it’s me. The editor. The writer. The all. This week got away from me because I’m in the very last stages of editing my novel before it’s out of my hands. It has been an intense process. In addition, school was busy and my Pittsburgh Magazine column was due this week and I spent just so much time researching for that. So, here’s my gift to you. This is the essay I’ve never published but that I read at the City of Asylum reading last month. You will recognize one or two early paragraphs from my piece in the Post-Gazette. The rest is a deeply personal thing I wrote about my life and where I’ve come from. I hope you can find something to take from it. Much love to you all. Have a great weekend and I’ll be back next week with my usual bullshit.
I’d long pretended things would change.
The bad can’t stay bad forever. Bad eventually gets replaced with Good with a capital G. I’d remind myself about the get-well card a relative sent me the summer I spent sick with a lung infection -- coughing my way through what should have been the most carefree months of my fifteenth year. Instead, I spent months with my body constantly aching from a racking cough, thick phlegm choking me into short but intense bouts of terror. I’m only 15, but I know. This is what it feels like to die. To drown. To suffocate. To feel life pulled out of your chest.
“IN EVERY LIFE A LITTLE RAIN MUST FALL;
SORRY IT’S MONSOON SEASON.”
The monsoon ended, it did, and my body healed. And like in every life, other storms arose through my teens and early adulthood, sometimes out of the most cerulean skies. The tornadoes of heartbreak. The hurricanes of permanent goodbyes. The howling winds of disappointment. The sky, pouring out the pain, relishing every inch of its powerful reach.
I look at my senior class portrait taken 30 years ago. There’s a space shuttle blasting off in the window behind me, weirdly not obliterating me into ash due to my proximity to the launchpad. My face has been edited to remove evidence of the acne that would be my constant companion into my mid-forties. Because I grew up without the benefit of beauty influencers save for Miss Piggy, I look like a 45-year-old receptionist named Dolores. But it’s me at 17, the girl who loved fighter jets, space and the sky.
I was married a few weeks shy of my 26th birthday. My children were born when I was 28 and 32—a son, then a daughter. Life and then life and then life, the perspective of time making it seem as if there was barely a breath between it all. A writer, I published irreverent humor and bold opinions, but in private, storms had me folding inward. I collapsed in on myself, my personality, and my joys as those storms began to pop up with more frequency. Soon, the ground didn’t have time to dry before the next soaking arrived. Monsoon season, indeed.
I pretended I was happy but I stopped taking care of myself long before the final weather-beaten support posts of my marriage collapsed. My acne raged. My teeth decayed. My self-esteem was relegated to the gutter. I owned two bras. Three pairs of socks. My sparse closet looked like I was on vacation in my own home— all symptoms of a person who was ignoring storms, dancing in them with a frozen smile. I am happy. It is okay that this same storm keeps falling from this same cloud. Eventually, things will change. The bad can’t stay bad forever. Soon, the capital G will come to find me.
That is true.
Bad that doesn’t stay bad forever can become a Good, but it can also become a Very Bad, which is what happened to me just as a mysterious respiratory disease was preparing to alter the world. The rain-rotted floor gave out; I fell through. One storm was just too strong and did too much damage. I separated from my husband after nearly 20 years of marriage. Aged forty-five. A face of acne. Teeth that hurt. Overweight. An autistic teenager’s entire future weighing heavily on my lone shoulders. The pandemic ramped up just as another cloud started to form, but I was at least comforted that it was a new storm from a different cloud— my health.
Scary, lonely visits to a gynecologist. Scary, lonely visits to an imaging clinic. COVID lockdowns and the general pausing of life keeping me in my house during a time when companionship with my sisters or parents might have helped.
The marriage storm was slowly replaced with a stacking of other storms—Divorce. Health issues. Fear. Sadness. Grief. COVID. Fear. Fear. Fearfearfearfear. This is what it feels like to die. To drown. To suffocate. To feel life pulled out of your chest.
I turned further inward as the whole world did too.
Ask anyone in my life and they’ll tell you … I’m static. Whitenoise. I’m never very up just like I’m never very down. Emotions not permitted to breach the hull stay hidden at all costs, especially around my children. To them, I’m not devastated or scared. To them, Mom is handling this divorce pretty well and she’s smiling as she helps me with homework or talks to my support teacher about my bad day and so I’m not going to worry too much.
I don’t know how long I’d have been able to hold up that veneer of “lady surviving just fine” had I not walked out.
No, I didn’t leave my children or my life. I walked out of my house, into the folds of the cold cloak of darkness. I leashed my dogs while my teens spent their evenings on Zoom, YouTube, Google Classroom or whatever virtual proxy for a real life they were currently using in a shut-down world. I walked out the door because I knew tears would fall and my children must never see those tears. Everything is fine. Mom is great. She’s static.
Fear of walking alone in the dark was gone by my fourth night of wandering, bundled up against a cold March wind, the neighborhood quiet because there wasn’t any place for anyone to go. I walked and hid my wet face from the occasional lights of a neighbor’s passing car, grieving the love I had to abandon. The life we had built. I walked until my cheeks dried and I was ready to be Just Fine for my children again. Every night, rain or stars, I walked with my chin down, tears hitting the asphalt while fear spread within me like a replicating virus. I walked through the entire year of 2020, returning nightly to the comforting blanket of the sky, the sole witness of my quiet and lonely falling apart.
In early 2021, as small bursts of healing broke through thinning clouds, I started to lift my chin. Eyes once downward in pain now reached upward in curiosity. And there was the night sky holding out to me all the stars and planets I’d cherished in my youth. The sparkling wonders of the universe beckoned me to return to them. So I did.
Miles spent alone granted the quiet I needed to hear the night sky whisper truths—“Tomorrow isn’t going to be better than today if you don’t do something today to change tomorrow.” Waiting for the bad to turn good was not working; it was time to join the fight. I saw a dermatologist. I went to the dentist to begin a long treatment journey. I re-committed myself to earning my second degree. And I wrote. Shed weight from the miles. And wrote. Watched the miracle of medical science slowly change my skin. And wrote. Under the night sky, plots unfolded. Characters materialized. Dialogue came floating down from the stars.
I mapped those stars with apps, learning their names, how far away they were, when they might die, wondering if they were already fading and I was seeing the births of their ghosts. I walked, often stumbling into parked cars because I’d forget my place was not in the sky but on Earth. I marveled at the vastness of the universe and laughed at how hilariously small I was. The inconsequentiality of my existence on this planet in this galaxy in this possibly unending universe served to weirdly make me feel bigger against my worries and loneliness. Stronger against my fears. Why focus on the pain and the fear when I’ve only this miniscule speck of time and space to live?
I watched the planets traverse the night sky as seasons opened and closed. I learned from the stars which way was home. There was comfort in staying in place and knowing exactly where the stars and planets should be, and there was excitement in venturing down untrod paths to see what new planetary perspectives awaited. I stood in the midst of the awesome unlimited universe and knew that despite its unknowable breadth, this spot right here, with Jupiter there, Saturn there, Venus setting over there, Vega smiling at me from up there—this is my space to occupy and it’s every bit as wondrously celestial as the diamonds my eyes seek out each night.
After 25 years of trying, I completed my first novel thanks to the silent companionship of the stars whose comforting consistency piqued my imagination and reopened my heart to stories. The perspective granted me by the size of the galaxy in which we spin and the universe through which we soar helped me rebuild my self-esteem*. I finished that second degree and I’m on to my third. If my health issues become something more, I’m comforted that billions of lives have come and gone under the watchful eye of stars and planets that have surrounded this theater of Earth and all its players for unimaginable time. I’ll do the best I can for my children so they might know real happiness. I’ll keep trying to change today so that tomorrow will be different. Better. Capital B.
I’ll keep watching the stars and listening for the messages they send me. I’ll never stop walking under the heavenly cloak, even when it sends the storms, because I learned to love it again walking beneath the pandemic sky.
This is what it feels like to live. To swim. To breathe. To feel fear pulled out of your chest.
I now own seven bras.