by Robert P. Barsanti
My mother wanted to go to Disney World.
For most of my young life, she had expressed this wish, although in her own Irish tongue and manner. My father was a skier and felt that any trip in February had best be about snow and chairlifts, not sand and roller coasters. As a result, our vacations tended to involve heading north instead of heading south. Even after her sister took my cousins to Disney World three times—a normal, middle class rite of passage—my father would not relent.
When my mother finally arranged the Disney trip, she got sick.
Afterwards, my father couldn’t bear to go by himself.
For many, Nantucket is that DisneyWorld. By that, I don’t mean the “I bought this pass” entitlement that drives the wrong way down Main Street, but, instead, the promise of mouse ears on the calendar and the hope for a moment in the sun when the kids are smiling, the lines are short, and Cinderella has something special for you. In the second (or third) spike for the pandemic, Mom and Dad pointed to this weekend, called up a hotel, and imagined the day on-island. They asked their friends who had been here, they read the articles, and they Yelped. As the kids struggled through online school, as Zoom and Meet clogged up the house internet, and as they wiped down their groceries, That Long Weekend on Nantucket hung out in the future, like the moon in the evening. Then, as the social distance shrunk, the masks slipped, and the vaccination rate climbed, the weekend slipped over the horizon, came into the harbor, then pulled into the slip. They packed their swimsuits.
And on that prayed, promised, and paid-for weekend, the wind turned, the thermometer hit 44 degrees, and the rain dropped in clouds. I saw the family downtown at a dive shop/toy store/hat rack. The three little girls had matching pink raincoats decorated with frogs, Mom was in a polar fleece, and Dad wore shorts and loafers. They were shopping for Legos.
I did not catch Dad’s eye, because I have been there. I have been looking at a weather report with pointless hope, I have put a brave face on a tough day, and I have taken everyone for a wet drive to look at the waves. I have answered the question “How much are we paying for this?”
Be strong, Brother. Be strong.
You came here. Some people never make it to Disney World.
Empathy is hard. As Americans, we tend to look at the world from inside the locked metal bubble of a speeding car, with the air conditioning on and the Rolling Stones rocking. In our old normal, the rest of the world flashes past our windshield and into the rear view mirror at about 80 miles an hour. Empathy is not our strong suit as a nation; nor are we, as an island, any more caring about the people on their white bikes trying to find their way to Cisco.
The pandemic brought out the best and worst of us. In the best, we thought about others, socially distanced, wore a mask, and took sensible precautions. At the worst, all of our tendencies to roll up the windows and crank the volume were smiled at and encouraged. If you are lucky enough to have enough money and career to spend the year indoors, without the personal vampires popping up in your shadows, the pandemic was an annoyance, aggravation, and streaming marathon.
But 40 percent of Americans reported problems with mental health or drug use over the last year. More heroin overdoses, more suicides, more abuse, more battery, more of all of the vampires that rise when the doors close, the shades fall, and the shadows grow. We have learned in the grinding wheel of island history that those particular vampires flourish in our foggy darkness.
On this cold and damp Memorial Day, we slipped into our new normal. The unmasked lined up on Daves Street, they sat down to Lobster Thermidor, and they walked with their kids to get brownie ice cream downtown. But the new normal is a cracked plate; it will break at a glance. It needs to be kept, protected, placed, and watched with a kind eye. It has seen some stuff.
When the sun returns with the stripers and the bluefish, the island will appear normal again. The lilacs will have bloomed, the trees will have become a deep green, and the bicyclists will ignore the bike lanes. Everything outside my car looks as it always looks in May, save for the Figawis and their tent.
But the island isn’t the same. Nor are its residents, nor its workers, nor its visitors. To expect everyone to rewind to 2019 and fire up the barbecue and fireworks is to miss the fundamental grief and damage that has been done to everyone.
Everyone has had moments of fear, panic, and grief. Everyone has seen their luck tested. Everyone has had to hang on for a moment, look out the window, and wonder what was really going to happen after all. Everyone hurts.
So, when I go to the grocery store now and still see masks on faces, I figure they have had to weep in the dark. They had to hold their breath. They had to hold the vampires at bay, as best they could, with whatever they could, as long as they could. We are an island preyed on by loneliness, depression, and heroin. It isn’t Disney World.
Nor has it been for our visitors. They have come here with the hope of sun, smiles, and selfies. They left a winter of gray grappling with their own vampires in order to come here, breathe deep, and settle in. Like many other dreams, this one fell apart in the rain.
And, while they are looking at the gloom from a familiar porthole on Broad Street, my heart will go out to them.