MARK BRENNAN’s move to the Hudson Valley helped him come to terms with Covid – and much else
My wife and I rounded up our two dogs on March 13th and, in a mild panic, abandoned Manhattan for our house in New York’s Hudson Valley. I shouted a quick goodbye to our cat Sofia, who was deep in sleep on the radiator. We then dashed out the door, certain we would be gone at most three weeks, once the corona virus had blown over. Sofia had only left the apartment twice in her ten years, both times for vaccinations at the veterinarian. I arranged for our trusted housekeeper Laura to feed her and clean her litter box daily. We saw no good reason to put Sofia through the stress of a one-hour car ride, let alone the adjustment to a new living space, since cats hate strange surroundings. Plus, who would keep the pigeons off the apartment’s window ledges and eat the scary, yet thankfully rare, water bugs lurking in our kitchen?
Two weeks later my wife and I jumped back in the car, with the same sense of urgency now in reverse, to rescue Sofia from New York City. In just 14 days, the city had become America’s Covid-19 epicentre. Laura had called us every morning to report on Sofia. But each day I became increasingly concerned as she fretted over her husband Daniel’s sleepless nights coughing up phlegm and gasping for air. Laura, her two daughters, and her brother Pablo, took Daniel to the hospital twice that first week. Both times he tested negative for Covid-19. Finally, after one especially rough night, Daniel returned to the hospital where he was immediately whisked into the intensive care unit. New York’s hastily enacted executive order to prevent the contagion’s spread now prohibited Laura, due to her exposure to Daniel, from entering my apartment building to care for Sofia. I worried that similar troubles might befall Sofia’s backup caretaker. So, despite my dogs’ protestations, we brought Sofia upstate to live out her remaining eight lives.
With two happy dogs, one disoriented cat, a preoccupied wife, three online-classes full of confused students, and a loyal housekeeper whose husband teetered on death, I locked down in quarantine for the pandemic’s duration. Even though the virus destroyed human lives all around us during March and April, my dogs kept me sane as they remained obliviously upbeat. Then one of them died.
Samantha’s demise was as sudden as it was saddening, and all the more dispiriting as it brought the reality of widespread death right into our home. Samantha’s brother Ivan sank into depression after losing his lifelong playmate. Sofia, on the other hand, luxuriated on her sunny country window perch. Instead of hissing at filthy pigeons through grimy urban windows, she now spent her few waking hours watching turkey vultures, red hawks, and bald eagles swoop through the pine trees enveloping our house. She stared, transfixed, not blinking once, when woodpeckers drilled into towering hemlocks. The mood reversals – a happy cat and a sad dog – added to the confusion about the efficacy of masks, the prospects for a vaccine, and the virulence of the virus blaring from my television.
My wife’s anxiety thankfully eased as the financial markets found new equilibrium levels. I adjusted to my new routine as my online classes plodded along. They provided a respite from my solitary habits of reading and writing, even though I felt guilty for shortchanging my students who pretended to learn while I pretended to teach. Laura’s husband spent seven harrowing weeks on a ventilator. Her daily calls in distress to update us on Daniel’s weeks-long ordeal showed me just how rough Covid-19’s unlucky victims had it during the pandemic. Sofia’s new Hudson Valley country life of watching the region’s most spectacular birds of prey energized her. By contrast, my lockdown life with my surviving dog, my harried wife, my disgruntled students, and my distraught housekeeper pretty much sucked, and all the more so after Samantha’s unexpected death.
But then I called the cops on my pity party. Lockdown life didn’t suck. I just entered the second year of my battle against stage 4 throat cancer. Pandemic-induced boredom looks like fun compared to chemo’s paralyzing nausea and radiation’s second degree burns. Luckily, fentanyl eased my pain for those three agonizing months. But it also left me in a haze that prevented me from reading or writing, or even watching television. Students, friends, neighbours, and relatives visited as I stared into space unaware of their presence or the time of day. I don’t remember my conversations with any of them. Even worse, when they now remind me of our chats I have to confess that I have no recollection of our encounters. At the low point of my cancer treatments, I spent my conscious hours in search of empty barf bags when I wasn’t consumed by a fear of imminent death.
Then, as the lockdown dragged on, I oddly found it hard to suppress my glee. New Yorkers have had to force themselves to put on insincere happy faces during the pandemic’s worst moments lest they commit the most unforgivable American sin – pessimism. No fake smiles for me. Freed from the delirium produced by fentanyl, cisplatin, and gabapentin, I can now focus on a book or follow a movie plot for more than two minutes. So I attacked the unread texts that piled up during my year-long hiatus from thinking. I wrote more. And then I remembered my premonitions of death during my treatments. When my doctor told me I had a 50% chance of survival, my first thought was that I would never get to all the books in my unread pile. If pressed, I probably could have thought up some other regrets I might have had based on my premature coin flip of a death sentence. But I didn’t bother with such speculation. Now with Samantha’s death, Daniel’s near death, and the pandemic’s ever-present threat of death as my prod, I resolved to tackle important life goals before cancer tackles me, again.
My 1908 house and its 19 fireplaces, far too large for just two humans, a dog, and a cat, also came with 12 bucolic acres and an overgrown garden. Ivan would spend each morning fruitlessly searching the property for Samantha in the weeks since her death, while I followed him around, trying not to cry. He would sniff, run, sniff again, then jerk his head around toward me as if to say, “I give up. Please tell me where she is.” My outdoor security cameras capture coyotes, foxes, bears, opossums, raccoons, deer, and bobcats traipsing across my property at night along with Amazon and UPS trucks delivering essentials by day. The wild animals’ olfactory feast distracted Ivan temporarily from his sister’s mysterious disappearance. Squirrels and chipmunks tantalize him as they dash across the lawn at daybreak. Turkeys spread their fantails to scare him away. It works. It scares me too when accompanied by their guttural gobbles. And while Ivan asserted canine domain over our little fief, the unkempt garden screamed for my attention.
A fellow professor, Jeff, checked in with me in mid-May just before grades were due. When he mentioned he had been gardening during quarantine I immediately thought of my verdant mess. I asked Jeff if I had missed planting season and how much work it would require to resurrect my garden. Jeff’s thoroughness and attention to detail, his most admirable traits from my perspective as one whose career depends on his organizational skills, kicked into high gear. In addition to answering every one of my questions he even sent me links to the Department of Agriculture’s website so I could determine my village’s temporal growing region. He included pictures from his earliest harvest. With Jeff’s gentle prodding, I took the next step and asked my Portuguese groundskeeper Humberto when he could till my plot so I could start planting. Humberto answered,
I can do it whenever you want Mr. Brennan. But I’ve got to tell you, the groundhogs have eaten everything I planted this year and I’m losing my mind.
Despite Jeff’s enthusiasm, Humberto had provided my first out. I wanted to have a bounty of vegetables like those in Jeff’s photos. But thanks to Humberto’s complaint, I started to imagine excuses to drop the whole gardening idea. Getting dirty hasn’t been my thing since I hung up my football cleats in 1985. My dogs run around the property only to return with ticks and, weeks later, the inevitable Lyme disease diagnosis. My oncologists think my cancer probably came from the 9/11 World Trade Center dust, my preexisting skin cancers, or a combination of the two. With coyotes howling after dark, I didn’t think gardening at night would be safe even if the darkness protected me from the sun. I felt an urge to email Jeff to confess I was a quitter before I even started. Then I remembered how desperately I missed the outdoors when I was stuck indoors during my cancer treatments. So I didn’t email Jeff.
The next morning Ivan and I patrolled the property while my wife made our coffee. In addition to my usual morning duty of overseeing Ivan’s first daily romp, I now had a mission: I pretended to survey the garden’s prospects while in truth searching for more reasons to dismiss the idea. I checked the sprinkler system. The recent heat waves had turned my lawn into the world’s largest bolt of tan corduroy. But the garden looked like a plot of Brazilian rainforest had dropped from the sky right into my yard. I had originally figured I would tell Jeff that, in my reduced physical state, I would not be able to carry water buckets all the way from the house to the garden. My functioning irrigation system cut off that escape hatch. As I wondered which other feeble excuse I could fob off on Jeff, my wife came storming out of the house calling for Ivan. She yelled that the coffee was starting to get cold before demanding to know why I was rooting around the garden. Drawing on what little enthusiasm I had left, I told her of my rapidly faltering plans to provide us with unlimited vegetables for the next few months.
My wife grew up in Indiana. Her father became a gentleman farmer after he tired of the corporate rat race. According to my wife, the children of gentlemen farmers should be known as “involuntary labourers”. My father-in-law’s hobby became my wife and her brother’s childhood nightmare. While her teenage girlfriends hung out at the mall or chatted on the phone, my wife weeded asparagus patches and tied tomato plants to supports. Over the years she has had flashbacks that evidence her long-simmering resentment. If I praised her corn soufflé one night at dinner, she might snap back, “You ought to see how much fun I had when mosquitos ate me alive as I picked my father’s corn”. With each passing day I spent concocting feeble excuses for Jeff, I lost another day of seasonal growth. So I tried to sell my plan to my wife. She exploded:
Great. Don’t ask me to help. I did enough of that as a kid. And I don’t want Humberto out there working 40 hours per week so we can eat a $3,000 zucchini.
The next day I formally dropped the garden idea. I hired a Latin tutor to keep me busy instead. There will be no 2020 fall harvest chez Brennan. But I prefer to focus on the positive. Without gardening I won’t restart the sunburn to skin cancer to throat cancer cycle. Coyotes won’t attack me during my nocturnal weeding sessions. Cancer has provided me with enough laughs so the ticks will have to find someone else to infect with Lyme disease. Thanks to the sprinklers, my garden will still be the lushest 100 square metres on my property. Humberto will have to busy himself with my other 11.9 acres. My wife can sauté a $0.79 zucchini as she reminds me how much her back always hurt while bent over picking green beans. And Ivan has stopped looking for Samantha since his new brother, eight-week old Tony, arrived in September.
And I can now thank my Latin tutor for teaching me the English word “velleity,” which comes from the Latin infinitive velle, meaning to will, wish, desire, or intend. Jeff’s infectious passion, gardening, has become just my latest quarantine velleity: a wish or desire not strong enough to prompt one to action. Lucky for me and my personal dignity I won’t have to face Jeff in person this fall; we will both be teaching online. Our physical distance will minimize my red-faced shame. But my shame won’t go away. My newest velleity has prevented me from writing him an email to thank him for his suggestions and encouragement.
MARK G. BRENNAN is Books Editor of Chronicles