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  • Writer's pictureDon Rearden

We Are Stronger Together

Our mountain bunker sits silent, save for the crackling woodstove. Annette rests on the couch, a soft golden ray of evening sun streams in through the window lighting her face. Little Dolce sleeps in a curled black ball at her feet, and Hawkeye beside her on the floor. The quiet makes for easier writing than the normal evening chaos when the kids are here. Those two goofballs are having the time of their life with cousins in Palmer. We are family quarantining together, so our kids can go to my sister’s house for a few days after each of Annette’s chemo treatments to give her a few days of rest and recovery. My brother-in-law Uriah has made an enormous sacrifice for us and his own kids, by moving out so he can continue to work the front lines as a pharmacist. What a gift my sister is giving us, by taking the kids, schooling and caring for them, while we’re here in our peaceful block bungalow. I almost feel guilty. Almost.

Annette’s strength and resilience through all of this continues to inspire me. Two weeks after her first treatment, and the cough that took her in to the doctor initially is gone. Gone. This past Wednesday, the day before her second dance with the red devil, we walked our neighborhood, a 2.5 mile loop and at one point I thought I’d have to tell her to slow the hell down. She was feeling that good.

On Thursday, the day of her treatment, Annette rose early and took the dogs for a jaunt , and then we walked that evening, post chemo, and she beat me at Scrabble (which never happens). We live on a mountain, so our daily strolls are anything but typical. We are lucky to live out in the woods where we can breathe fresh air. The terrain is never flat, and we’re likely to see some sort of creature. Maintaining social distancing is easy from them, usually. Bears haven’t entered the equation yet, but with the budding pussy willows and melting snow, that could change any day now.

As our Alaskan season shifts from winter to that period when moose and dog turds sprout from shrinking snowbanks like chocolate irises, I can only think about how the rest of the world is dealing with this pandemic and how -- as unbelievable as it seems -- America has emerged as the leader in deaths. After all, America first was the slogan. For years I have feared something like this would happen. I went so far as to write a book about it, wrote poem after poem, spoke at countless panels about how we weren’t ready, and now that it has arrived, exactly like my character Red in The Raven's Gift, I am not feeling vindicated or proud. I am instead heartbroken and worried for all those people struggling and suffering and losing their loved ones. Worried for all my dear friends who are our front line of defense, doctors, nurses, and firefighters ill-equipped, and risking themselves for others ---for us.

And here I am in my cozy home, by the fire with my dogs and my love. But she faces her own battle, and my focus must be on her and keeping her safe and cared for. With chemotherapy your white blood cells, those warriors against disease, your immunity against all that could ail you, is obliterated. The common cold or a stomach bug could be deadly, and then something like a coronavirus hits you? Forget about it. At the same time as we’re maintaining social distancing, washing our hands like mad, and cleaning and re-cleaning, we’re lucky in a way that so many others are having to do the same thing. It’s almost as if the world has paused to give Annette this little bubble of safety. So while we can’t have visitors, and all those wonderful well-wishers to visit and buoy her through this, we also don’t need to worry about someone bringing any type of sickness into the house.

People do continue to make the trek up the mountain to drop off food and goodies on our porch, and we appreciate that and can’t thank you enough. The generosity of so many brings me to tears when I think about it. We are grateful for your notes and messages of kindness and for the inspiration in this crazy time.

I know many are antsy and think that opening up the economy and getting back to business as usual is imperative, but as someone who has studied pandemics a little too much, I hope we can continue to hold out and hunker, lock down, stay home, stay put, shelter in place, whatever you want to call it. Business as usual and a slow response to this situation is what put America first in terms of catastrophic loss in this worldwide pandemic. We can and must do better. I wish together we could all take a page from Annette’s playbook and think of this coronavirus like a cancer, and despite the hardship, pain, and fear, our new single focus in life could be to put our energy, resources, and our heart into overcoming this pandemic for our health, happiness, and well-being.

I've been writing a poem a day for April, and here is a little haiku for chemo round two. A nod to one of Annette's favorite bands, The Rollingstones.

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