Updated: Sep 22, 2022
To: Sue Perkins
When the pandemic hit, it caught many of us off guard. We lived in an era of unprecedented prosperity. For fifty years, our poor existed in greater comfort and convenience than the wealthy of just a few hundred years prior. Anything a person desired could be acquired at the push of a single button and delivered to them within hours.
People lived to be over a hundred years old in those days. As a result, the human population—the way that we consumed—stretched many natural resources to their brink. We were successful in defying nature by defying death. People were living longer than ever before. Society soared due to rapid advancements in medicine and technology. Cities clamored with tens of millions of people.
Despite our affluence, or maybe because of it, we frequently tore one another apart over minuscule differences of opinion. We mocked and condemned others for their choices and beliefs, while declaring our own unalienable right to be who we want to be, to own what we want to own, and to freely go where we wished.
One of the first major changes that we saw after the virus hit was to the ability to travel freely. Entire nations ordered their citizens to stay inside to prevent the spread of the disease. For the most part, this was an easy sell. People wanted to do their part to stop the spread, but mostly they were afraid of becoming sick themselves. Those who did not comply were arrested.
The media pushed graph after terrifying graph, many with alarming red dots representing the infected spreading across and consuming the world. Up to the minute, trackers tallied the global number of dead and dying. The free press sold fear in bulk and people lined up in droves to buy it all. It was a feeding frenzy, and the rich became richer while the wealthy-poor continued to attack one another with their opinions. The vocal majority, the terrified, echoed their fear and condemned any who defied while the actual majority sat quietly in wait.
Small businesses were ordered shut while corporations with enough lobbyist clout didn’t just remain open, their profits skyrocketed. Their competition had been removed. It was a gold rush for companies that already had higher annual profits than the GDP of many sovereign nations. They would later use those profits to gain an even tighter hold on world governments and policy.
I’m sorry, I know it must seem incredibly odd for me to be telling you these things now. It’s just...there is great power in truth, perhaps not as much power as there is in fear. However, when combined with love, truth can overcome fear. And since I love you, I give you this truth so that all the power a living, emoting being can possess may exist in you. My only hope is that you wield one as an enduring shield and the other an eternal spear.
When the small businesses closed, hundreds of millions of people across the world lost their jobs. People were afraid before, but now they were hungry and afraid, and that is a deadly combination in any animal. The government offered small handouts, here and there. Never enough to get anyone past the point of being hungry and afraid, just enough to keep the people needing the state. They became dependent on the government. But the government, of course, had always been dependent on the people. Every dime the state dished out to its citizens cost the citizens a dollar. Until there were so many dollars that none of them were worth a dime.
The world economy faltered, then made a short-lived comeback and eventually crashed beyond oblivion and into the first global great depression.
Everyone expected chaos and anarchy in the days and weeks after the crash, but it didn’t happen like that. People had been hungry and afraid for months. They’d already been sheltering in place. They’d already isolated themselves from humanity by order of the state. Most of the panic had already gone through them. People made jokes. I suppose that’s all that most people can do when the world is burning around them and they feel so indescribably helpless. I suppose humor is an antidote for fear, even if short lived. And it was fear that had always been the real enemy.
There came a point when the jokes became truly dark, when people began to realize there was no reset button to return us to the prosperous days before. The irony was right there in front of us, along with the wisdom that comes with hindsight. And we saw it, finally, we saw all of it, and the catastrophic error that we had made.
It was a scary time. And I am not ashamed to admit that I, too, was afraid. You were so young then, but so strong, so sure of yourself and your place in the world. Your mother’s eyes were becoming yours more and more in those days. You were as rebellious as your father, but your laugh was undeniably your own, like a new genre of music birthed of jazz and poetry.
It was sometime into the second year of the great global depression when people stopped talking about causation. They stopped making jokes altogether, and they stopped looking for answers because they were too busy looking for food. We were doing better than most. We still owned our land. We grew fruits and vegetables and we had a few chickens that you chased through the trees and into the prickly shrubs. Your mother would scold you, and I would smile from afar without her seeing or she would have scolded me too. “Don’t chase the hens!” she’d say. “You’ll make the eggs come out oval.” And you’d laugh that laugh, and, I swear, despite the world’s despair, there was joy everywhere.
She was the light, your mother. The adversity of those years brought out the grace in her. Where others shriveled, she shined. Her golden hair turned to a mature gray as her soft, supple curves became taunt, lean muscle, perfectly kissed by the sun. She stepped into her mid-thirties with a new found poise I’d always seen hiding behind the ease and privilege of her upbringing.
The two of you worked the land, your little hands pressing seeds into sacred soil, and I watched you watching nature dance up up up toward the sun. And I watched you both grow. You grew like a rose through those thorny days and I did everything in my power to keep you from growing all the way up too soon. But your childhood was not my childhood. But then, mine was not my father’s youth, nor his before him.
One day, you said to me, “Come, Papi, let’s play.” And you ran downhill toward the dry creek bed half a mile from our house and I chased you. You flew a tattered Tibetan prayer flag like a kite behind you. Some relic of your mother’s lifelong spiritual quest. You looked back at me and laughed at my struggle to catch you. “Come on, Papi,” you taunted through effortless steps and rolling giggles. You’d worn that path nearly to a rut over the years. You knew every twist and turn, every rock and fallen log. At just six years old, you could run that trail backward and in your sleep. That’s why it was such a surprise to me when you crashed into the earth forty feet ahead of me.
With the dirt from the impact still in the air, I could hear myself asking you the same question I’d asked a thousand times. The same question I asked every time you fell, “What do we do when we fall, Suzie-bear?” And you would always reply, “We shake it off, Papi.” And you’d stand up and shake your head comically back and forth and say, “I’m okay.” And go on about your adventure.
But this time, a scream came instead. And this scream that came from you was unlike anything I’d ever heard. Your scream was a thousand arrows loosed. Your mother was in the kitchen preparing fresh-squeezed juice to barter for spices at market. The shock-wave of pain and fear found her and the mason jar fell from her hands and shattered at her feet.
I saw you the way no parent ever wants to see their precious child. I saw you contorted, pinned up against a rock twice the size of your slender, little body. I saw the stream of blood running swiftly from a hidden place in your golden hair, past your pearlescent blue eyes and down your left cheek. I saw you clutching your bare left calf just below the knee with both hands. And I didn’t see it at first and I didn’t hear it. I was almost over the top of you when you refilled your lungs. In the brief silence of your inhale, I heard it and then I saw it. Coiled there, an arm’s length from your trembling pink lips, I saw it, the six-foot rattlesnake, well within striking distance of your face.
I wish I could say I was brave. I wish I had been calculated in my response. I was afraid. Your fear pierced me and I reacted to it recklessly. In that fear I behaved in a stupid and reckless way. I did something that would have otherwise been insane. I was afraid, and no fear is greater than being helpless at the sight of a loved one dying. No action seems unreasonable to prevent life’s one painful certainty, if only for a moment.
I don’t remember kicking that flared serpent with my bare foot. I don’t recall repeatedly stomping its head as it struck me. The moment was pure rage, and terror, and love.
Your mother made her way down the path and saw you there. She saw me frantically trampling a bloody patch of earth.
“Pick her up, Sara,” I yelled to your mother. “Get her in the truck.” I hobbled behind, knowing no one was coming. It was up to us to save us. My leg was throbbing and swollen. I could feel the pain that you were experiencing. “It’s okay, Suzi-bear,” I lied to you. It was the only time I ever did.
“Are you bit too?” Sara asked, tears rolling down her face. I don’t know how she could even see the road through her fear. I never saw her afraid the way she was when you were hurt that day. I lied to her too. I know why I lied to you. I needed you to stay calm. I suppose it’s why I lied to both of you.
In the forty minutes it took to get to the hospital, I was able to immobilize and wrap that little leg and calm you down. It was the only time in my life that I ever prayed. I’m not sure who it was I was praying to exactly. Maybe it was more like bartering. Like, whoever is listening, make her okay and I’ll give anything, I’ll do anything.
When we got to the hospital, the doctor asked what kind of snake it was. When I answered, “Dead,” your mother actually laughed. It was a strange laugh and so distant from her character. It was awkward, like a nonsmoker lighting up a cigarette and trying to play off their inexperience with such things.
You recovered quickly. I think it was all of the strawberry ice cream you conned out of the nurses. The time to settle the deal I made with the universal higher power as I wrapped your leg in the back of the truck came much quicker than I’d expected, and in the form of a hospital bill.
I tell you this for one reason and that’s because it is simply the truth of what happened. There is no value in feeling guilt over it. Nothing that happened was your fault, and even if it was, there’d still be no value in guilt or regret. Those are wasted emotions. If you can fix something, fix it, but never regret. Regret is a lead vest and life is a marathon.
Anti-venom is incredibly expensive. The cost of our lives was our home, our shelter; a price I would pay a thousand times over.
I’m sure that you remember what happened next. You were so devastated. You loved that silly little patch of dirt. You loved sitting beneath the avocado trees, your bony, scuffed knees pulled up tight against you with your round face in a book.
I know that transition was difficult. I know it may have been easier if we had always been on the streets. But we were blessed to have so much for so long. We were blessed to have our health and each other.
I know it sounds cliche, but things can always be worse. That’s why it is so damn important to look at the good things in our lives and give thanks for them. They won’t be there forever, but neither will the pain. Enjoy it all. Or at least appreciate it all.
When the second global pandemic hit, that’s when things got bad. Most people no longer had the luxury of waiting it out in their homes, and they certainly didn’t have stockpiles of food or savings. The government had no way of providing bail outs. And this one, unlike the first one, was without mercy when it came to the healthy and young. They told us it’s a mutated version of the original virus. The people who had contracted and survived the illness a decade before weren’t immune per se, but their tolerance was much higher. Now, they are the ones showing the best chances of survival.
Nature created a solution to our overpopulation and overconsumption, and a benevolent solution by nature’s standards. The deal was simple: cull the herd of the sick and old. And we thought we outsmarted nature by hiding from it. And in the fearful hiding, we collapsed our economy, put billions of people on the streets and in overcrowded shelters. Millions starved to death. The lucky ones suffered malnutrition and inadequate socialized healthcare which left us weak and susceptible. And nature did what nature does best—it corrected an imbalance. She struck us hard.
Perhaps there was some nefarious conspiracy to create this new social order—to more easily incarcerate those who did not comply—or maybe not. More likely, there are simply people who see the opportunity in chaos and leverage it to achieve their own agenda. Politicians use people’s fears to their advantage; so does the media. We’ve already seen the vaccine chips voluntarily implanted into the panicking people. It will only be a matter of time before they are required to make necessary transactions and to travel.
Some people make fortunes while others suffer. That is the truth. It’s disgusting, I know. You may well burn with hate at that reality, but I ask you not to. It’s what is, and if you can't change what is, please don’t waste your one beautiful, imperfect life angry about it. At the same time, do not capitulate to the oppression that follows fear. Defy that pestilent fear, for defiance is the heart of liberty.
Live. Live while you’re alive, my child. Let no man, or government, or fear rob you of your freedom. Understand no one is guaranteed a safe or risk-free life. We must endure our struggle with truth and love and graceful defiance.
Embrace the suffering times, refute the common fear of the flock, and live. Because neither tomorrow nor safety is promised to you. Beware of those who promise either.
My love for you came from the elements which made the first star and will burn with truth in the night sky through eternity. Though this shell soon may, I will never leave you.
James Perkins folds the letter written to his teenage daughter and places it in a clear plastic envelope. He looks up and sees the eyes peering into his 8x10’ cell through the two-inch thick glass window from the other side of the door, as they do every few hours. He places the letter on the small, steel table, lays down,