Welcome to my world.
I sincerely wish you didn’t need to visit it.
I’ve been singing the “Happy Birthday” song twice while washing hands since the day more than 30 years ago when I walked out — in a daze — of the office of the rheumatologist who diagnosed me with rheumatoid arthritis and prescribed me medications that would suppress my immune system.
Even before Bishop Ronald Gainer of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg announced that Mass wouldn’t be obligatory during the COVID-19 crisis, and before that eliminated the sign of peace during worship, I didn’t participate in that ritual. I hated rebuffing a hand extended with love, but I couldn’t take the chance of grasping it.
I’ve been stocking up on hand sanitizer for years and carry it everywhere I go. (It was especially useful when professional etiquette required me to shake hands at work. We’ve all been relieved of that requirement, for now at least.)
My colleagues may roll their eyes when they see me washing my hands — again — but good hand hygiene, as the experts call it, is a survival tactic.
And compared to other people with even more serious medical conditions, I’ve been fortunate. So incredibly fortunate. My disease is chronic but manageable.
I worry now for senior citizens and for younger people whose immune systems are compromised by heart disease, lung disease and other chronic illnesses.
In April 2016, I lost my eldest sister to metastatic breast cancer. Before she died, we established a strict protocol for visitors to the home she shared with our mom: They had to leave their shoes on the front porch. Use the hand sanitizer on the small table just inside the front door. Keep a safe distance from my sister. And put on a medical mask if they had even the slightest of sniffles. Masks were in plentiful supply then, because not as many families — thankfully — were faced with the anxiety-provoking need to be vigilant against infectious disease.
We lost our amazing and loving mom in November. I’m torn these days between wanting her to soothe my fears over COVID-19 and thinking just how worried I’d be if she was still with us. My heart contracts at the thought of her suffering through another respiratory illness, but still longs for her presence.
She, of course, would be more worried about other people. About the children who will miss school — with its routines and regular meals — now that Pennsylvania public schools have been forced by the coronavirus crisis to close temporarily. About the homeless who lack access to basics like soap and water. About the nurses and doctors working long hours to care for those afflicted with COVID-19. She’d be saying Hail Marys for all of them.
It’s no sin, however, if many of us are bothered by lesser concerns.
The coronavirus pandemic is, let’s face it, a gigantic pain in the neck. Some of us are going to miss events to which we’ve been looking forward for months — opening day of baseball season, March Madness, family gatherings, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.
My family has been marching in the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Philadelphia since before I was born. We generally meet for Mass at St. Patrick’s Church in Rittenhouse Square and then have breakfast together — kids and adults wearing Aran sweaters, Irish tweed caps and green ribbons — at a nearby Irish pub. We’d toast one another with the Gaelic word for health, “slainte.” But not this year.
That parade — along with parades in other cities — has been canceled, and necessarily so. If there’s anything the Irish understand, it’s offering disappointments up to God.
(A seasonal aside: The famed “luck of the Irish” has nothing actually to do with Ireland, but rather originated with the Irish and Irish American miners who mined gold and silver during the late 19th century. The phrase, “the luck of the Irish,” as Edward T. O’Donnell, an associate professor of history at Holy Cross College, explains on the website IrishCentral, “carried with it a certain tone of derision, as if to say, only by sheer luck, as opposed to brains, could these fools succeed.”)
Now back to the matter at hand.
These next weeks may be difficult. But the human spirit is resilient. We can practice the social distancing that’s required of us — gently declining handshakes, staying at home as much as possible — without feeling distant from one another.
This is very corny, but I’ve always told myself that I have rheumatoid arthritis — it doesn’t have me. Likewise, we can be properly concerned about this coronavirus, without it stealing our optimism and generosity.
As the late, great Irish poet and playwright Seamus Heaney advised, “Even if the hopes you started out with are dashed, hope has to be maintained.”
Indeed it must.
Suzanne Cassidy is the Opinion editor at LNP. Email: email@example.com. Phone: 717-291-8694. Twitter: @SuzCassidyLNP.