Culture

A Nonagenarian’s Corona Year

(Stock photo: Milos-Muller/Getty Images)
There were consolations, especially in a daily walk along the edge of Texas countryside.

I am 91 years old and have had both Moderna shots, the second one more than two weeks ago. Unless I turn out to be the rare case that only thought he had been immunized, I have survived the plague year. I did so, like most people young or old, in part by staying home nearly all the time for nearly a year. I got out of the house in one way, though. I walked for an hour every day. My route was along the edge of Texas countryside, with sights, smells, and sounds that had thrilled me since my early childhood.

I was born on Black Thursday — October 24, 1929, the first day, really, of the Great Depression, though the big crash was five days away. My family in the mid 1930s was desperately poor by modern standards. We lived in a pair of canvas tents for a while and then in a one-room, homemade (by my dad) rock cabin without electricity, heat, or running water. But we were far more comfortable and contented in that fragrant brush country than we would have been in an airless big-city flat. And though we once came a single meal away from hunger, we never got all the way there.

The Depression had this in common with COVID-19: our constant awareness of it. Grown people’s awareness, that is. I heard my folks say we were in a depression, but what I saw and felt was just life. Not so during the next decade. We were aware all the time that there was a war on. No more of this, no more of that, for the duration. That was like COVID for sure.

One thing I didn’t have to give up in 2020 was something that may have helped me survive the year of plague and my 90th year. Even during the worst times of COVID it was still okay to walk — just be sure to keep six feet away from people.

I walked mostly in the evenings, but I tried doing it before breakfast a few times. The first time, I got up at 6:30, groaned into my clothes and walking shoes, and stumbled out the door into the cool dawn. I stopped and threw my head back. The breeze, coming off a prairie field a quarter mile away, was proclaiming clover, daisies, and surely some kind of mint. My sense of smell has always been weak, and age has not strengthened it, but amid those nectars Methuselah or Joe Biden would have shut his eyes and smiled. My joints were feeling their age; my nose was six years old on a dewy morning in the 1930s. How could there be killer virions in such air?

As I walked around a bend of the one-lane dirt road I saw a small, dark shape ahead in the grass and weeds. I stopped. An animal, or a plastic trash bag? Then it stirred, and when it raised its head I saw its white, lengthwise stripe. The animal paid me no mind. After a bit, foraging, it turned around in a graceful, headless and tailless swirl of purest black-and-white, a deep-furred, vivified shawl doing a renversé from, maybe, Swan Lake. Beautiful.

I didn’t like getting up early, though, and I went back to evening walks. Sometimes I saw calves grazing in the pasture beyond a barbed-wire fence. When that happened, I stopped. If one of the nearer calves saw me walking in its direction, it would stiffen and stare at me in alarm, no doubt remembering how a man in a broad-brimmed hat like mine had once burned a red-hot iron into its skin. Unless I changed direction and averted my eyes so as not to seem purposeful, the calf would turn and flee, joined by all the rest of its fearful kind. I never worked with cattle, but I had kinfolks, including my dad, who knew the ways of both cattle and ranchers. So I knew that a herd of spooked calves would run off some of the valuable pounds their owner was trying to put on their bones. I turned left, grumbling at animals that had made me miss the nicest part of my walk.

They say that walking is wonderful for the heart. All I can say is that I’ve always walked a lot, that I walked through COVID and that here I still am. I don’t mean to crow about it. I sympathize with young people for whom COVID is still a threat. A couple of times last year, in fact, something like it stepped into my house to the accompaniment, so to speak, of Schubertian chords (Death and the Nonagenarian?).

“Get out of here!” I told it. “Don’t touch me! And don’t give me that ‘I’m a friend’ stuff. I know that 90 and COVID-19 is a bad mix. Heraus!”

I learned from those experiences that death, whenever it comes and from whatever source, won’t likely terrify me as it did Schubert’s poor maiden. When I felt weak and had a sore throat, I immediately thought of what I would do if this was the Plague. I would phone my doctor, then phone each of my two children, then grab the flash drive out of my computer tower and put it in my pocket lest masterworks be lost to posterity. I imagined myself in a hospital room, getting probed, gasping for breath, losing consciousness.

Though not charmed, I felt nothing darker than resignation. What right did I have to be 90 in the first place? I took my temperature. It was low-normal. Not this time, then. I felt relieved, amused at my imaginings, and, mostly, ready to go on with the kind of day COVID-19 had granted me and limited me to. As people did in the Thirties and Forties, I told myself I was here and I was lucky. Maybe the word was blessed.

Donald Mace Williams is a former newspaperman (Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Newsday, Wichita Eagle) and amateur Lieder singer who since retirement has written fiction, poetry, and translations (of Rilke poems and Beowulf). He lives in the Texas Panhandle.

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