‘If you’re going through hell, keep going’

We see a light at the end of the tunnel. As we head into the “long, dark winter” Joe Biden predicted in his debate with Donald Trump, more than a thousand Americans are dying every day, and here in Albany County the daily count of new cases has broken the springtime records.

A statewide shutdown brought those earlier highs under control. Now, we have to depend on our own resolve.

The virus surges on as we cover now-daily press conferences held by the county executive and phone conferences held by the governor.

We know from our youth that a light at the end of the tunnel became a false promise as the Vietnam War dragged on and on. But we think of that phrase in a much more uplifting way.

We think of Hieronymus Bosch’s 15th-Century painting, “Ascent of the Blessed,” that depicts souls rising from darkness to enter a tunnel awash in a beckoning bright light.

Or we think of the words penned by Theodore Cuyler after his daughter died in a typhoid epidemic in England in 1882.

“Sometimes we have an experience in life that seems like walking through a long dark tunnel,” wrote Cuyler. “The chilling air and the thick darkness make it hard walking, and the constant wonder is why we are compelled to tread so gloomy a path, while others are in the open day of health and happiness. We can only fix our eyes on the bright light at the end of the tunnel, and we comfort ourselves with the thought that every step we take brings us nearer to the joy and the rest that lie at the end of the way.”

We have, all of us, been imprisoned in the “horrible tomb” described by Cuyler. There is now no place on Earth where others are walking in the open day of health and happiness.

The light that is shining in the distance is a vaccine that Pfizer said last Monday has been 90-percent effective in clinical trials with the all-important Phase III testing yet to go. This Monday, Moderna released data saying its COVID-19 vaccine is 94.5-percent effective.

Both vaccines use a new technique with messenger RNA telling the immune system to make antibodies to the spikes on the coronavirus. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease official, has said that an average American could potentially have access to a coronavirus vaccine by April of 2021.

That gives us hope on several fronts. We’re hopeful that, with an end in sight, the United States Senate, even if it doesn’t turn blue with the two runoff races in Georgia, will see the importance of stimulus funds for state and local governments that have been battling the virus with little federal leadership.

The granting of needed aid no longer looks like a bottomless money pit, but rather a chance to build a bridge to safety and a return to normalcy. That, in turn, could oil the nation’s economic engine.

But the hard walking in chilling air and thick darkness is not over yet. That is the danger of seeing this glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

All of us are tired and longing for a return to normalcy. It’s easy to think we can cast off the cautions we have tried to live by because a vaccine is in sight.

But, as our state and county leaders have repeatedly told us in the last week while numbers spike, now is the time to instead double-down.

We are not blithely pretending there is no sacrifice here. I feel it myself in my deep heart’s core.

Two of my nephews have married and I have not been able to meet their wives. Yes, I’ve seen them on video calls and I love them and embrace them from afar. And yes, I saw pictures of an intimate mountaintop wedding: my nephew sweeping his bride off her feet — no chaste kiss but one of great passion; my sister wearing our grandmother’s pearls and a smile that was more lustrous than the pearls.

But I was not there.

And, perhaps worse, I have not seen the newest member of our family — the first of the next generation. Bonnie was born on her grandmother’s birthday, August 18. My sister is kind to send many pictures of the baby, but my arms ache to hold her. I have not felt her soft, round cheeks or smelled that wonderful new-baby smell.

I was not there.

Last week, my husband’s uncle, beloved in our family, died. In his 80s, Uncle Allen rode his bike every day to check in on my husband’s mother who would not leave her home in Oregon after she suffered a stroke. He tended to her yard and garden — her sanctuary. We could not go to his funeral.

I was not there.

And now Thanksgiving looms. I remember the annual feasts my sister in Vermont prepared — three generations gathering from far-flung places to share in the love of one another. The candles burned bright, the traditional pies and stuffing were served. The old farmhouse was filled with dogs and people and laughter and joy.

I won’t be there.

My sister, in fact, will not host the gathering. Phil Scott, the governor of Vermont — the state with the lowest infection rate in the nation — has wisely said that people from outside an immediate family cannot gather. Scott has noted that, since October, 71 percent of the cases associated with an outbreak are linked to a private party or social gathering.

This is hard. But this is necessary.

I am tired to my bones, tired of writing every day, every single day for 252 days, of the new cases of coronavirus and of the directives I see going unheeded. Our newspaper has written about the jobs lost, the businesses closed, the people who are hungry, and worst of all the people who have died from this disease.

This week, we have yet another obituary of someone felled by the coronavirus. She isn’t just “a woman in her seventies,” a statistic necessarily announced by the county executive — always with appropriate gravity. She was a flesh-and-blood woman of great passion who cared deeply about the town of Westerlo where she lived. Over the years, she wrote many letters to me as editor of The Enterprise, to publish her views on what she saw as the right course for her town. I will miss her.

But, in my sadness, I also feel anger as, still, I see people congregating, people not wearing masks, people acting as if their actions have no consequences for others. Don’t they care about the people who are dying — the mothers and fathers who will no longer be there for their children?

The county executive tells us he is tired. The county’s health commissioner, whose department has tracked every one of over 4,500 cases to keep us all safe, says her staff is taxed past its limit.

If we can’t draw on our inner discipline, outer disciplines will be imposed — our area will be defined as a micro-cluster with more stringent rules.

We cannot let the light at the end of the tunnel, the promise of a vaccine, keep us from following the guidelines that help everyone stay healthy.

After all, what is Thanksgiving about? It’s about pilgrims coming to a new land, a harsh wilderness where many died, and celebrating their survival at harvest time with the natives who made their survival possible.

We are now in that wilderness. We need to help each other survive. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. We can celebrate once we are bathed in that light and the tunnel is behind us — a dark and distant memory.

Until then, we must stay the course. When we reach the light, we will find true joy as we hug one another, knowing we did all we could to save lives when it most mattered.

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