Who do you worry about most right now?
During this strange, uncharted moment, as the coronavirus creeps into every aspect of our lives, most of us are worrying about other people as well as for ourselves. We worry for strangers we hear about on the news or encounter in passing, the ones who deliver our packages, ring us up at the grocery store, take care of the elderly and the sick.
But there's likely to be someone dear to you whose well-being worries you above all. I receive a lot of email from readers telling me who that person is for them.
For some, it's a parent isolated in a nursing home. One woman wrote to say she worries about her 28-year-old daughter who lives alone and just lost her job. A man wrote to say he worries for his grandkids, who are missing school and friends: What kind of future will they face?
Almost everyone worries about someone, and the other day I put the question to the person I worry about most.
"Who do you worry about most, Gina?"
"I worry so much about the bus drivers," Gina said.
Gina is the youngest of my eight siblings and she has always struggled with various physical and mental challenges. Until our mother died 10 years ago, the two of them always lived together. Since then, Gina has been as surprised as anyone that _ except for a few dramatic bumps in the road _ she has navigated an independent life.
But her life remains complicated, and when COVID-19 hit, my first thought was: What about Gina?
Gina, who lives in Eugene, Oregon, is 55 and survives on disability payments, with help from her siblings. She has diabetes. Her balance is weak. She doesn't drive or have a job. To buy groceries and pick up her medications, as well as for the adventure of traveling around, she rides the city bus almost every day, often for hours, always eager to visit the grocery clerks, pharmacists and bus drivers she counts as close friends. The psychiatrist she long depended on retired a while ago, and she still feels the loss.
"I've come so close to breaking down and sobbing over not being able to ride the bus," she said when I talked to her right after the stay-at-home order went into effect.
I remember those words because I wrote them down. They felt so specific to her life, and yet universal. Who among us isn't newly intimate with the dread of being cut off from movement, freedom, people?
By choice, Gina doesn't have a TV or a smartphone or a computer, machines that confuse and agitate her. She loves words but finds reading hard. Whatever official news she gets comes from the radio, and in the first days of the pandemic, what she heard panicked her.
But then, as she so often does, she shook off the fear and faced the challenge.
"I have learned a lot of lessons having to stay home," she said when we talked on Tuesday.
I asked her what the lessons were.
"I've been very good with my flossing and brushing," she said. "I've been eating better."
She said music has been good company. Mostly she listens to her favorite old CDs, which include the Bee Gees, Dionne Warwick and Alan Jackson.
"And I've gotten much better and more interested in doing word searches," she said. "I've been working on them every day for the past few weeks. I've definitely gotten better."
Gina collects word search books, and nothing satisfies her more than ferreting words out of the grids of letters. She often recognizes words she insists she's never heard.
The other day she discovered "arrogant" and when she learned what it meant, she was elated.
"It means you're full of yourself and you think you're better than everybody else," she said. She laughed loudly. "That's a good word!"
I asked Gina if she'd mind my writing about the fact that she feels she's learning things in the pandemic, and she said sure. But she wanted to add something.
"It's been a very trying time for all of us," she said. "No matter how we cope and deal with this issue, the one thing we all have in common is that this situation has had all of us really scared. I worry about you too."
I still worry about Gina, but less than I did when the pandemic started. A friend in Oregon has set her up on Instacart for groceries. One of her neighbors recruited a young person to pick up her medications. Online from Chicago, I found a place that, after a temporary shortage, could deliver toilet paper in Eugene.
And I take some comfort in the thought that for all of us in this anxious time, worrying about each other is one way we share both burdens and love.
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