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Heart of the Beast 

Traversing the pandemic to say goodbye

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It's midnight and I'm still an hour away for a 12:30 a.m. flight booked just hours before from my home, also hours and worlds away. Another panicked decision, another chance to act with little thought. Like being down at the blackjack table and pulling out the last Franklin in an attempt to see it all in my hands again, with interest. Except this decision will earn nothing. There is no opportunity to double down, surrender or try again. I ask myself what it means to risk so much for emotional gain.

Scrambling to rebook my missed flight, the fees and add-ons wouldn't bother me if I thought the cards were turning in my favor. I battle the impulse to go for broke just to have that last moment with my mother, that last expression of gratitude I'd passed on with others so many times. There won't be another chance so I'm here, all night in the car, my partner, another source of gratitude, next to me, encouraging me to do what it takes and let the chips fall where they may. But these chips have dangers we've never faced, dangers we've been avoiding for the last six months while COVID-19 ravages entire communities.

For some, death in the time of COVID is something to face head-on like the heroes who don the PPE everyday to save lives or at least make their passing less brutal. Others play their part in keeping this enemy at bay. There are also those who kicked and screamed, calling it a hoax, only see it grow and beat on their own door as well as ours. Then there is me, risking myself, my family at home, the family I'm going to see, to find peace in the now blind eyes of the one who gave me life.

Maybe this is a tale told many times over the ages. I didn't bother to find out. I didn't research smallpox or how the flu of 1918 tore apart families and left a hard lesson for us to now ignore. I'm writing this for myself to understand the things I do and how they connect. Taking risks for emotional and/or physical goals. The attempt to reconcile my own actions or lack thereof.

It's 1 p.m. The first leg was uneventful but this flight, from Dallas, a current COVID-19 epicenter, to Ft. Lauderdale, another epicenter, starts with an argument with a woman claiming to have paid an extra $39 for the right to the entire row of seats, including mine. She postures like a mother bear over the 30- year-old vinyl like it's her cub. I take an aisle seat elsewhere and once I am buckled in, the woman in the window seat breaks out a four-course meal packed in from some fast food window in the terminal. Thirty minutes into the flight and she is still the only person on the plane not wearing a mask, and I can smell the mix of lipstick and some form of fried chicken. Live and let be, I tell myself as I feel my heart rate pick up and I adjust the nose wire on the homemade filter mask that caked with dust from months in my truck and using it when I purchase supplies for work. The rubber bands on the rare N95 mask in my pocket wouldn't stay on my ears. So here I am with my dusty, well-used mask wondering how this woman could spend the next 15 minutes after finishing her meal finding ways to avoid putting hers on, first the wipe down and finishing her drink. Then the nose blowing, the hand sanitizing to the gathering of trash and grabbing of the phone as she tilts her head toward the oval window. But I don't really care; I'm looking for reasons to not think about why I'm here. Blame someone else for the eruption welling up inside of me.

I know after I watch my mother die I'll have someone to blame for the havoc I may set upon my house when I cannot isolate properly. If not her, then I'll blame one of the young caregivers who stay around the clock at my mother's tiny condo, keeping her dry and keeping her cries of pain from finding a place in their heads. Four days home from the hospital, discharged to begin a cancer treatment not available to an inpatient. Four days of poor planning handed to my sister to oversee, her wits already thin, her back already strained, her life put on hold to cry for help. Treatment is now impossible. By day three, hospice is there to do what they do best: stop the screams. I would be there already had I not left the house without my wallet and driven two hours in a rush to answer her midnight calls. Sending her back to the hospital means we would never be allowed to see her again.

I know by the captain's announcement we are flying over the Florida swamps, the object of my youthful curiosities, from wondering what lurked below the coffee colored water that might like my bait to watching this beautiful land "managed" to become the streamlined product it is now. Perfect for entire retirement communities, overseen by big petrol and now big pythons, and let's not forget the biggest mouse of them all, trying to roar its way back to life in the center of a sickness that adores being up close and personal, just like Mickey.

In my handful of visits over the past 30 years, after leaving as an adolescent in need of his absent father, I found myself each time listening to the guilt and admonishment my mother gave herself for letting me go. All thinly veiled with obligatory Jewish humor meant for me to share the burden of having left.

Now the burdened returns. Back to pretend my absence did not create a distance as well. To assume I have something to offer now, that at no other time could have been better utilized. I have yet to convince myself that I am not making a huge mistake. I just don't know what that mistake is yet.

Last night while I was pushing the needle past 80 mph on the I-5, she was struggling to recognize her grandchildren. Her own daughter had just fired a thoughtless care provider only to spend six hours herself helpless to halt the increasing din of, "Make it stop!" We are all helpless now and only the biggest scourge of America can bring relief in the tiny, needle-punctured bottle. In my thoughts, it's procured from the hands of people who want us all dead. Twenty years ago I would have laughed at the dichotomy; now I know it's par for the course. The ding of the seatbelt light pauses my breath and diverts my thoughts as we descend into the heart of the beast.

Keith Hamm (he/him) is a longtime, nonessential landscape contractor who believes in science and soul. In honor of Marcia Hamm, he and his family ask for any donations to go to www.guidedog.org.

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Keith Hamm

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