When I was a kid, my mother and sister used to castigate me for being too emotional (I cried), not tough enough. "Susie just can't handle hard things," the two of them would smugly agree.
As it turned out, Susie didn't have any choice.
No one has questioned whether I'm tough enough since I walked out of an alley after having been raped and was determined to change the law of rape once I started law school in the fall. "Lemonade stands are my specialty," I used to joke as I juggled professional and personal lemons.
Like most of you my age, I discovered — maybe earlier than most — that you do what you have to do, survive what you cannot change. Not that it's easy. But you do it. And after I collapsed on a sidewalk in New York almost 10 years ago, stressed, exhausted and dehydrated, the doctors were unsure whether I had a seizure, but the sensible neurologist I was lucky enough to see explained to me that anyone can seize if the body is stressed enough, and — this was the important part, since I was always stressed enough — the best way to protect against that is to sleep, seven hours every night.
I used to love to sleep. That was a long time ago. But I learned to turn out the light when I was down to seven hours, to meditate, to breathe slowly, to get to sleep.
And for the last three weeks, it has mostly worked. I say mostly because I am so afraid for the high-risk people I love. Mostly because the idea of taking someone you love to the hospital and never seeing him or her again, of so many people dying alone with no one holding their hand, as I have done too many times, brings me to tears. Mostly because I'm unable to resist spending hours every morning and evening reading six newspapers. But mostly I have been OK.
Last night, for the first time since my father died so many years ago, I could not sleep at all.
The fear wouldn't settle. There was every reason to be terrified for my beloved nanny, second mom to my kids, the woman who for 30 years, through divorce and illness and hard times, has always been by my side. She is fighting bad cancer that Kaiser Permanente failed to diagnose for years, going in and out of the hospital for seven to 10 days for treatments that, at most, may prolong life.
How do I tell her to stop going to the market, to not see her grandchildren, to quarantine with me, when this is the only life she may have? I rail against Kaiser and President Donald Trump and the Chinese government. I do not fall asleep.
I try to do slow breathing: in for four, hold for four, out for four — or 10, if you're hardcore. I close my eyes and picture myself descending to the rocky beach where the fishermen used to sell their catch of lobsters, except it just makes me thing of my sister, who lives right there now and can't leave her apartment because her heart is not strong enough to survive this virus.
One of the hardest things about this pandemic — in addition to everything else that is hard, in addition to the terror of what could happen next — is forgiving yourself. Even harder is forgiving those around you who thought they were young and immortal and have discovered that they are neither. I want to do better than I am: to stay positive for the people I love; to be grateful that there are doctors and nurses and medics and firefighters and police officers and soldiers and day workers who are risking their own lives to try to save ours. I want to use the time to accomplish something: to read great books, to start jogging, to write more. I want to sleep six hours a night.
But last night I couldn't. And maybe I won't tomorrow or the next day. I will stress eat white chocolate. I will forget to eat at all. I will drink too much soda, spend too much time reading the news. I will do so many things wrong. You, too, probably.
But this much we can try to do: be nice in the midst of fear and misery. Nice. Kind. To others. And to ourselves.
To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.