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A Piece of My Mind
August 10, 2021

A Pandemic of Lights

JAMA. 2021;326(6):481-482. doi:10.1001/jama.2021.12213

Why am I standing about a foot off the path, right in the middle of a group of pink and white caladiums, shaking like the nearby bamboo forest in the wind? I turn but can’t see my husband behind me on this narrow walking section of the local botanical gardens until he waves from his position deep in the mangroves. Rattlesnake, maybe? Falling coconuts? I look back past him and see the reason we are in these positions—a masked couple has walked past us, less than 6 feet away on the narrow path. They appeared to be a perfectly normal couple, gray hair, lightweight jackets, masks, enjoying the evening. Just like us. But we felt fearful anyway.

When did I become afraid of strangers? Not in the “I’m going to be assaulted, raped, and murdered” way, but in the “I don’t want to be anywhere near you” way. Gradually, in my subconscious, everyday people have become potential vectors of a terrible disease, and I don’t care how safe someone says it is, I no longer want to be near another human being.

I can recall many visits to the botanical garden Festival of Lights, ones where joy, not fear walked with me, and the knocking bamboo was a welcome friend. A few years prior, I left Kansas City, a city rich with history and culture, but having the worst weather, ranging from deep snow and cold and furnace-like heat, to retire in Sarasota, Florida. Here, I could revitalize my love of flowers and plants. My career as an emergency medicine physician brought me into an intense life, one that often required specialized knowledge, but also the courage to walk in and take command of a critical situation. I was not afraid of anything; I saw reality and did what I was trained to do. Now, I was tired, but excited to have the time and mental space to devote to my hobbies. The botanical garden became one of my favorite places to walk, think, and learn.

I have been there with my parents as they moved more slowly each year, listening to my mother wonder aloud at the giant nets chasing giant butterflies overhead, strung on wires so that the nets appeared to dart between the limbs and leaves of a banyan tree. Later, after my mother died, my father and I went together; he loved watching the children play on the lighted rope bridge above the lowest treetops. Another time I went with good friends and drank wine while dancing on the lawn among the psychedelic Christmas trees, mesmerized by the wild colors and patterns. For many years now, I’ve followed the boardwalk under the mangroves and watched the light flickering on boats moored in the bay. I’ve strolled holding hands with my husband, the 2 of us in the moment thinking, “This is how it is right now.”

I have been there with friends and loved ones, on warm nights and cool ones, with rain and wind, but I have never been there during a pandemic.

The Festival of Lights this year, at first, was like every other—a few new designs commingled with old standards, couples and families strolling along, little kids running and laughing throughout the Children’s Rainforest. The giant butterflies are still never caught in the net. The flashy pink ersatz flamingos with Santa hats strut, and pretend manatees, also in Santa hats, float in the pond with their liminal reflections shimmering. The saguaro cacti cast their ghostly shadows, and the orange, black, and white koi swim leisurely in their pond with a sculpture of the Buddha, which wore a garland of fresh flowers and had an orchid resting in his lap. Someone rings the gong that once called people to pray. A masked man and a woman sat on a bench watching the waterfall create white foam as it fell into the pond.

The ancient banyan trees line a gravel path, sharing a boundary with roots—old, huge, convoluted, and meandering under a natural arbor made twinkly with firefly lights.

These firefly lanterns hang from the overhead branches of the banyan tree. Made of old-fashioned mason jars, the twinkling lights at dusk reminded me of my childhood, many years ago, running with friends to catch the elusive insects and hold onto their light for a moment. Our only fears were mosquitoes and our mothers’ responses if we stayed out too late.

The changes to the festival this year are small: the children’s play area on the open grassy lawn was missing, and the orchid conservatory was closed. It felt safe—masked people have plenty of room to space out and gaze at the many boats moored offshore.

Then came the bamboo. I wonder if I am so frightened because I am a physician. I know how these viruses spread, how they wreak havoc on our bodies, how they mutate, how they kill. Yes, it’s understandable to have a healthy fear of disease and take precautions, but this feels more atavistic, more violent, more tribal. My mind only sees Mad Max and the decimated world, where people fight over the chance to get a vaccine and anyone can be an enemy.

I want to see my stepson holding his first baby, all that wonder and joy and worry swaddled in a soft blanket with one of those knit caps on their head, but he is hundreds of miles away. I dream of returning to Egypt now that I have learned to translate a bit of hieroglyphics into English. I need to experience a formal meditation retreat in order to grow in my practice. These experiences all feel so distant, as if they will never happen, because I’m still afraid of getting on an airplane. But I am just one of millions of people with desires and fears.

But this is not about the safety of objects—cars, food, airplanes, where I accept a level of known risk. The path of life is impossible to traverse alone. We die without human touch—others’ warm hands, warm bodies. I wonder about my ability to integrate again with humanity, to dissolve my sense of obligatory separation, to simply hug another person.

We will all have wounds after this pandemic, physical, mental, and spiritual. This one is mine to heal.

Section Editor: Preeti Malani, MD, MSJ, Associate Editor.
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Article Information

Corresponding Author: Maureen Hirthler, MD, MFA, 10315 Kingfisher Rd W, Bradenton, FL 34209 (mhirthler@gmail.com).

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.