Few subjects have escaped becoming politicized, polarizing, and polemic in 2020. When at home, without new television episodes or restaurant reservations, there is little to do to avert one’s eyes from the parade of news updates. In March though, when COVID-19 became an unequivocal public health crisis looming long over each city in the country, the valor of one vocation could not be sullied or spun: healthcare workers.
The week before spring break, I was on the very top of the South Rim in Big Bend when I received a string of text messages. My friend, a writer completing a fellowship at Stanford University, had received a positive COVID test. She told me, far too apologetically for someone who would soon be placed twice in the ICU for respiratory failure, I needed to self-isolate. We had shared an Airbnb the previous weekend. Unfortunately, on top of the mountain with me were 30 of my eighth-grade students. I walked down the mountain in a daze and at a distance, watching the sun soften after baking us for six hours. We offered stubborn students our last water bottles, nut-free granola bars, and sunscreen they only obliged to apply once embarrassingly burnt. I abandoned the trip quickly, afraid to expose anyone to the virus I could be harboring. My students immediately spread a rumor that my boyfriend had left me to explain why I headed home in a hurry. I love middle schoolers.
The following weeks eddied past in a way that only writers, new mothers, older folks, and summer-stranded children are used to. Afternoons stretched and shrunk as seen in a fun house mirror. Meal times felt irrelevant, as did changing out of one set of clothes and into another, only to finally return to pajamas without having left the house. I waited for symptoms, scrambled to find a thermometer, was fine. I passed the exposure period unceremoniously.
As we all quarantined through March and April, I, with the rest of the world, saw the indefatigable healthcare heroes reusing their PPE, then strapping on Glad bags. We watched affected families hold signs up to the ICU window in which their loved one resided. The drive-by last good-byes. Beleaguered Italians with their balcony operas and precariously shared wine from neighbor to neighbor. The body bags with carnations placed on top. Then, John Prine passed. His oeuvre gave voice to the isolated, the audience-less in society. It seemed unfair for him to die without ceremony, without audience. But, this prohibitive way of passing has certainly felt unfair to over five hundred thousand people who have left the world this spring, and I am only writing in June.
My friend survived. And when she re-emerged, she said that the COVID nurses demonstrated an unconditional love she had never witnessed before. They were risking their lives to not only provide care but also peace. They told her stories to keep her mind occupied; they snuck in baked goods on days when it had been difficult to eat; they changed her clothes and bedding when her fever broke in her sleep; they brushed her hair and reassured her she would live to finish her novel; they calmed her mother, stranded across the country. When it got very bad, they only told her to keep breathing.
With this personal story and so many similar anecdotes in mind, I felt motivated to raise some money to bring large-scale meals to healthcare workers in ERs and ICUs in Austin. In three weeks, people donated over $17,500. It was a community-wide effort, fueled by the immense generosity of friends, strangers, colleagues, and families at the school where I teach.
I sourced the food from struggling local restaurants, trying often to purchase from immigrant-owned establishments that might be particularly hard-hit during this season. It was a double win— I could provide tacos, sandwiches, shawarma, bagels, pizza, and pastries to overworked hospital units, while also putting consistent money in the hands of small business owners. The funds were immediately spent; the need was great. Offering food to healthcare workers— and a moment for staff to come together to eat, talk, and take a breath— felt like the least I could do. I hope everyone will consider a specific way they can help to alleviate the weariness of essential workers as they continue to serve our society. And arranging food with the hospital was much easier and safe than I anticipated: just call the main line and let them know that you are wanting to deliver a meal to the most affected units.
When I think about the Christian gospels and the ethics instilled during my time at AOS, I think specifically of agape and how contrarian Jesus’ view of humility feels: to serve while actively anticipating nothing in return; to love as an action unregulated by the reaction; to pledge that no circumstances will be too egregious or unsanitary for grace; to put others’ wellness above your own. When I consider the saints surfacing during this pandemic, I think of the doctors and nurses at the end of their shift, washing their hands, taking off their masks, heating up a meal and putting up their swollen feet; many are even maintaining distance from their families in hope of keeping them healthy. These are good and faithful servants in the purest sense; we owe them our lives.
Katherine Noble is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. She is a recent graduate of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, and she just finished teaching middle school English at St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Austin. She has been the winner of the Keene Prize in Literature, the George H. Mitchell Prize, and the Roy Crane Award for Creative Achievement. Her poems have been published, or are forthcoming, in West Branch, Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, Beloit Poetry Journal, Pleiades, Electric Literature, Southword, and elsewhere. You can read more of her work at katherine-noble.com.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2020 issue of The Delphian.