Error 526

Error 526

Error 526 by Jack Pemment

By Jack Pemment

The whole day in the office had been leading up to this. A large cross functional online meeting. I had maxed out the most reasonable amount of time one could spend hiding in bathroom stalls in the never-ending quest to recharge, and now it was time to put on my mask and do that thing that kept the paychecks coming in.

The door to the solo meeting room clicked shut and the voices from the many workplace conversations compressed into a stream of low monotone-but-manageable background radiation. I was still busy subtracting the current time from the meeting time so that I could obsess over how much time I didn’t have left to hide in the bathroom.

These rooms had to be booked in advance and were designed so that one person could schedule privacy for an hour at a time from the departure lounge-like atmosphere of the workplace.
If privacy was even a privilege for the non autistic, why did humans do this to themselves? Was it part of the daily penance of willful discomfort so that any relief felt good by comparison? Afterall, people did allow themselves to become hungry so that come lunchtime they didn’t mind the taste of overly regulated offal from an outsourced company with an x in its name. Willfully prescribing the deterioration of concentration and focus among one’s colleagues sure would make the pursuit of privacy an orgasmic endeavor.

Only it wasn’t private.

A twisted candy wrapper, a small punctured carton of blue cheese dressing, a discarded and torn N95 mask, streaks of finger grease on the desk, and the odor from an antisocial antiperspirant meant I was still in here with at least the last three occupants.

I sat down on the fashionably incomplete chair, opened my laptop, and at the end of a surprisingly deep sigh, I pinched the skin on my bottom lip with my teeth and muttered, “Why do we do this to ourselves?”

The blue tooth connected to the noise canceling ear buds that lived permanently in my head during the workday and once I was happy that my camera and microphone were off, I entered the online forum. The first slide of the meeting read Oversight of Third Party Vendors.

I had only been at the company for three weeks and the term third party never failed to highjack my curiosity. Who were the first and second parties? Why was it always a third party? When did the first and second parties take place? Did I miss them? Were there going to be fourth and fifth parties? Was it like a third wheel? Is that why we treated them with the passive aggressiveness usually bestowed on the redheaded stepchild? Do they know they’re the third party? Are we the third party to them? If I yell “Third Party” during Q&A, will I induce a paradox and break the meeting?

The attendance list erupted from three to fifty and the pit of my stomach dropped away as my awareness and wherewithal held hands and floated off into deep space.

I could not possibly focus on all of these people. Would that be okay or would they think I was rude?

Why couldn’t I remember what happened in the last meeting? Had it been traumatic? At the sight of the first flowchart would I be cowering under the desk and screaming for absolution and a sedative?

The first slide changed without warning and a voice crashed out of my headphones only to welcome me to the meeting.
I closed my eyes and the number 526 floated up out of the abyss. I knew it would. It always did. It was like the access code to reset my attention. Numbers always came to me when my mind raced. I had come to believe they were simply error messages.

Error 526: Emotion not found. Return to factory reset.
526 melted away and my eyes fired open. With the skill of landing a space craft on a comet, I clenched onto the host’s voice with everything that I could clench. I pinched the skin on my bottom lip with my teeth and muttered, “Why do we do this to ourselves?”

“It came to our attention,” said the host, “that they were not documenting all of these mistakes.”

Two people came off mute to express their indignation for the thing being reported by the host. For somebody that struggled to derive meaning from meetings, I had begun to conclude that venting and evidence-lacking diatribes were clearly part of the framework.

I had already lost interest in the topic. Whatever it was, it was not worth the belligerent and unapologetic rabble assaulting my brain. I rhythmically gnawed on my lip to massage my sanity and tapped the desk with each pinch of pain. “Why do we do this to ourselves?” I thought, triggering Error 526.

By the time the host’s voice was independent of all other interference, seven and a half minutes had passed. Some of what she was saying sounded vaguely familiar from e-mails earlier in the week.

A flowchart appeared, or maybe it had been there the whole time, with seven steps that could be given to the third party to ensure they documented all of the mistakes. I released my focus on the voice so that I could concentrate on the words observation, identification, innovation, integration, reconciliation, documentation, implementation.

“-ation,” I pondered. A common suffix overly used to extend the length of one’s words when wishing to sound more authoritative. Commonly used in meetings and often accompanied by colorful charts where arrows provide the directionality of thought where logic fails.

I had reached the part of the meeting where my own narrative had supplanted any and all things being discussed.
This was the workplace. This was the next part of life, after college. I was aware that I had overly romanticized the job of a long distance truck driver, and the simple profession of solitary nocturnal hole digger didn’t exist, but I seriously began to wonder how much of my remaining time from now until retirement could reasonably be spent hiding in the bathroom.

Error 526.

An Excel sheet was now buzzing on the screen that would put any intergalactic travel timetable to shame. The font had been reduced so that it could all fit on one slide and it was just small enough that a headache preceded any attempt at reading. The meticulous spacing and gradated color shades used across rows suggested it had been made by anxious nanobots with OCD looking to hide their location by blinding anyone bold enough not to blink for two seconds.

“and so not only will this tool help to enhance our partnership, but it will also help to show auditors, in the event that we are audited, that we have complied with all contemporary regulation.”

The congratulatory pile on began, with as many as ten people at a time coming off mute to express praise. I refused to believe that any of them actually understood this tool, and so by thanking the host they were really just absolving themselves of their ignorance and expressing elation that they now bore no accountability for an issue they only half remembered.
I tasted blood on my lip, but I still could not stop nibbling.
“Well, if there are no further questions, I guess I can hand you all some time back.”

With an entryway of the necessary five seconds of silence, I came off mute.

“I don’t know why this tool has been created. In our meeting with them last week they acknowledged the error and the person responsible for sharing their own tool with us thought we could view it on their portal, but we couldn’t. This has been fixed as was documented in the minutes that were sent to all of you.”
The silence from deep space was deafening.

“You should have all had them in your inbox last week,” I clarified, just in case I had not been understood.

A third of the attendants dropped from the call, which triggered the exit of the next third.

Finally the clear aged tones of a senior manager crackled through. “Couldn’t you have brought that up in the meeting we had on Monday?”

“I wasn’t invited.”

An aggrieved sigh preceded the exit of the remaining attendants and the host closed the meeting.

I was used to feeling alone, but there was something about the speed of everyone’s departure that smarted. Had I not meetinged correctly? I appeared to have ruined something I never wanted to be a part of in the first place, it was like my childhood birthday parties all over again.

I shut my laptop and opened the door. The background radiation immediately split into multiple workplace conversations and nobody seemed to have any idea of what I’d just been through.
I headed for the bathroom and didn’t know if I’d have any lips left by retirement.

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3 min read
Failure to Paint

Failure to Paint

Caleb Cheadle describes the intensity of facing the blank canvas.

The blank canvas loomed large on its easel, slightly off-white thick fibrous strands standing out even from a distance, a mesh of shadow draped across the surface from the East-facing window. The sun was rising on another un-started masterpiece, its critical eye cresting the horizon as it began its daily cycle of observation and oppression, heat exuded heavily by its dispersing rays.
The painter sat on his stool directly in front of the canvas.

He watched the wisps of gray-scale echoes play across the fabric as the sun rose higher and higher outside. Paint was smeared under both eyes from his already-occupied hands rubbing too-tired sockets. The paint was dried, as were the daubs covering the palette, as were the test swatches and home-mixed pigments scattered on the nearby table.

The rising sun began sending its summer rays down to bake the corrugated tin roof. The small window fan on the West side was spinning lazily about its axis, moving air more as a reminder of how hot it was as opposed to offering any relief. At first the blank white walls served to mitigate the heat, dispersing it across the surface before it could collect into an oppressive body. But as the sun kept rising, so too did the temperature, and the walls couldn’t keep up. Sweat beaded at the painter’s brow, breaking free of the pores to trace their way down the painter’s face, catching the outside edge of the eye and turning in to moisten the dried paint before being absently wiped away. And still the painter sat watching his canvas.

The sun built up speed and outpaced the window, leaving the light temporarily constant and steady across the room, except for occasional cloud-shading. The mesh of shadows stopped morphing the canvas, and the painter likewise stopped watching. Instead he went to the closet and exchanged his sitting-stool for a ladder. He carried this to the East wall and unfolded it next to his once-dappled window, leaving it there. He scraped the residue from his palette with an old putty knife, chipped on one corner and then inherited by way of his father many years ago. Then he applied fresh daubs onto the oaken palette in his palm. The canvas stood still and resolute in the center of the room and waited.

The sun set as slowly as it had risen and still the painter was in the garage. The weak fan was now producing cool air, damp and sweet from the summer night outside as it blew through the space, brushing against the blank canvas. There was a new, more faint, mesh of shadow over the canvas, moonlight-silver instead of dawn-gold. The painter didn’t give it a moment’s notice. In such a frenzy was he that the sweat had quickened, tracing new patterns along the slightly-sunken sun-tanned cheeks, some full of pigment as the once-dried paint leaked down the painter’s face. This time the sweat was not absently brushed away, but instead seeped into the collar of a faded t-shirt, a memento from the rock concert where the painter sold Sno-cones to heat-stricken fans.

Eventually the painter left the garage late into the night, the clouds obscuring the stars, and the moonless night offering no reprieve from the blackness of the world. The door was pulled and locked against thieves, as was the East window, but not the West. The lazy fan spun inside it now, a quiet droning to draw in would-be burglars.
And draw a burglar it did. A quick glance through the glass of the door revealed the entire inside. In the center, the blank canvas on its easel. The lazy fan tipped forward into the room but was caught before it tumbled free of the sill. The burglar slipped inside through the opening afforded by the fan’s absence. Picking up the canvas, touching the rough weave of its artifice, the burglar investigated the painting, or the lack thereof. It was discarded.

The burglar surveyed the inside walls from his new perspective within the room. He saw portraits, he saw landscapes, he saw many disjointed images scattered across the walls, with yawning voids of whiteness between them. The mural pieces seemed haphazard, as if the painter was distracted, yet nonetheless they were artfully rendered. Taking a last look around for valuables, the burglar slipped back out the window. The fan tipped back into position.     The painter returned before dawn, the smears of paint gone, and in their absence dark bags were under the painter’s eyes. These eyes didn’t see the discarded canvas, did not register the skeletal easel standing like a hanging-tree in the center of the floor. Instead the painter refreshed his palette and re-ascended his ladder. The sun rose but there was nothing to cast into shadow. No one noticed.

Three times the sun rose and fell before the ladder went into the closet and the stool returned from its depths. The canvas was replaced on the easel, although it never occurred to the painter to question how it had moved in the first place. Perhaps he had moved it himself. Fresh paint was slowly and absentmindedly smeared on the painter, but he remained watching the canvas.

 Eventually the painter approached the canvas, brush in one hand, plunging towards the palette held in the other. The rabbit-bristles hovered over the blue, then the green, then dipped slightly to graze the purple before finally being laid to rest on the table.     

The painter left the garage in shame, the blank canvas sitting on its frame mocking him silently, the shadows once again dancing. The heat began to rise, warping the roof so that low dull echoes reverberated throughout the empty space. The weak fan continued its drone, but no one was there to notice. The no-longer-white walls did not reprise their role of mitigating the heat, but no one was there to chastise them. The blank canvas stood as a monument to the painter’s failure, while the now landscape-muraled and shadow-draped walls surrounded it, an unregistered accomplishment, art produced by the artless.     

Instead, the warm summer rays shined in like a beacon, illuminating that which was hidden. Wherever the sun landed it highlighted a different aspect of a mural. Here was an abstract portrait of the painter’s first dog, a mottled blue-heeler that never stayed still. Another expanse was covered in a field of daisies, but the colors were muted and blood dripped from the petals in a sinister manner. His first girlfriend had enjoyed daisies.

 Across the room was an image of the Sonoran Desert, painted in striking realism so that the cacti looked as though brushing up against them would leave oneself full of needles. That was the window view in the painter’s younger days, before he moved south to the Yucatan Peninsula. Behind the Sonoran landscape was a large and imposing mariachi band, but their instruments were textured like wood and one member appeared to be plucking splinters from his hands. And across all of these images, overlaid by some unconscious design, was a stationary mesh of shadows, painted in faint ghostly lines.     

These shadow lines were done in tribute to the incessant shadow-strands of the canvas, the impossibly blank canvas, and its obsession within the painter’s mind. Here was the product of his efforts, arrayed all before him, yet upon a surface he did not wish. All of these images glared into the room, focusing their weight on the blank canvas on the hanging-tree easel, evidence of life lived and truth expressed up against the newly-seeded emptiness thriving within the painter.

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4 min read
Hiding in Plain Sight

Hiding in Plain Sight

Divergents Lifestyle Editor, Alethia Smith describes the incredible effort required to hide her dyslexia from her peers.

by Althea Smith

Growing up with dyslexia, you learn fairly quickly to blend in. You learn to make yourself smaller. Quieter. You learn to suppress your big personality, to act shy, to be introverted. All in the hope that you will not be singled out.

I had hiding down to a science as I divvied out everyone’s respective roles. For instance, in the case of my parents, I instructed them about to whom they could and could not divulge my secret. It was okay to tell my Sunday School teacher, but not my friends’ parents. In my young mind, I knew, instinctively, that in order to avoid being called on to read in front of the other children, the teacher would need to know and be prepared beforehand. My parents would always end the encounter with “Alethia would not like this shared with anyone else.” I didn’t want my friend’s parents to know because I didn’t trust that they would keep my secret from their children.

With a lot of trial and error, I devised a plan to conduct myself in uncomfortable situations. The way I saw it, I had two choices. I could lie or I could stay quiet. My grandmother advised me to stay quiet. She would quote Abraham Lincoln: “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt”. I know this may seem harsh, but my grandmother was born in the 1920’s as an African-American woman in America, who struggled with reading herself. Her accumulation of 70 years of life in this country had led to her expressing this – her tried and true advice. It was given in love and has served me well through the years. But so has lying. For instance: “I’m so sorry I can’t read today. I forgot my reading glasses at home.” Or I’d excuse myself to go to the restroom, when it was getting close to my turn to read.

My siblings played their assigned roles, as well. Anything I was asked to do in front of others, that they knew I could not do, they automatically took over the task to save me from any embarrassment. My dyslexia became a secret we guarded at all costs.

Eventually, I had “Do not call on Alethia unless she volunteers participation” placed in my IEP as an accommodation. But over the years, I still had teachers who would try and test my resolve. For instance, my biology teacher insisted that I read out loud one day in class. When she called my name, I was startled because it was totally unexpected. I had been in class, for half a semester, by this point and she had never called on me before. She had read my IEP and I had discussed it with her at the beginning of the school year. All I could think was, “Why is she doing this?” I regained my composure and replied, “No, thank you.” She then said, “Alethia, you have such a beautiful voice; we would all like to hear it.”

 I replied for the second time, “No, thank you.” As my peers begin to whisper around me.

“Just read”, my teacher said, “Participation is 90% of your grade, right?”

By this time, I was annoyed. “I’m aware.” I replied.

“Alethia please see me after class” She would not let it go.

One of my good friends leaned in and said, “I don’t understand why didn’t you just read?”

“I didn’t feel like it.”

Then another boy sitting behind me said “You can read. Can’t you?”

“Of course I can read.” I said, “I just don’t feel like it.”

After the class ended I slowly walked up to the front of the classroom where my teacher was sitting grading papers at her desk, as she looked up to address me.

“Alethia, as I mentioned before, participation is 90% of your grade. And you will not be able to pass my class without participating. You have a beautiful voice and I would like to hear it.”

I told her, “I don’t mind participating. I just don’t feel comfortable reading aloud.”

She replied, “Part of your participation grade is reading aloud.” She was forcing my hand and I did not have anyone to support me, at that moment. So I became my own advocate. “

“Miss Brown,” I replied. “I have an IEP that says I do not have to read aloud. And if you keep insisting that I read aloud, I will have to tell my parents. “ She looked at me with an expression of betrayal.

“I’m sorry, Miss Brown,” I blurted. “I have to go. I don’t want to miss my next class.” Then, I left. And from that day she never asked me to read again.

As I grew older and learned to master my environment. I was able to be more myself. I let my personality flourish and became the social butterfly I always was. The key to my transformation was freedom in the knowledge that no one could make me do anything I didn’t want to do, including reading out loud. I also found that the more I appeared “normal,” no one questioned my abilities. So I began to study and emulate other successful people in my circle, as an observational learning tool. I would take all of the best qualities I admired in a person and ask myself why I was drawn to this style, belief, or personality. 

I was careful to hold my core beliefs close. But, I became a mirror giving back to people the best version of myself. By the time I entered high school, I made friends quickly. I knew that to make friends, you had to show how friendly you were. So I talked to everyone and excluded no one. I would join all of the social clubs I was interested in. My objective was to be seen on campus as much as possible. I knew this was important because I had mostly Special Education courses with only three mainstream classes. And I also knew that if I was not seen in the general common areas, classmates would begin to question me about my classes and which teachers I had for what subjects, so they could link up with me during the day.

There were two Special Education classrooms in the school basement, as well as Driver’s Ed, and Woodshop. So it was easy to cover my tracks when I was spotted in or leaving the basement. If asked what class I had I would always say Drivers Ed. When I could no longer use Driver’s Ed as an alibi because I had my license and was driving to school by my 16th birthday, I would then say that I had woodshop or I was vesting a friend in another class. I would say anything to hide my secret. I would even sit away from the doors that lead into the special ed classroom because it had little small square windows through which you could peer inside the room. 

By the end of high school, I was in three school plays, choir, gospel choir, and was the manager of show choir. I threw myself into the activities, like the Ladies of Elegance Cotillion, where I won the title of Queen of the Ball. I was active on the prom committee and homecoming committee and was voted “most friendly” out of a graduating class of almost 400. Also I invited everyone to a slew of social events – my parties were legendary – all while keeping my secret.

I didn’t know it then but high school was the testing ground of how I conduct my life. Always leading with my strengths. Always hiding in plain sight.  

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3 min read
Reasonable Accommodation

Reasonable Accommodation

by Ben Mitchell 2019 This piece is the narrative intro for a scholarly article, "The Bigotry of Normal" currently under review by the Harvard Educational Review.

I shift awkwardly at the front desk, filling out a name tag and ignoring the parade of teenagers coming and going through the large glass doors to my right. There is a certain lethargic restlessness to a rural high school, young people energetically waiting for life to begin and graying public servants passively marking time until retirement. The friendly woman keeping gate, behind the glass buzzes the large metal door.

“You can go down to the conference room now. They are waiting for you.” She says.

“Thank you.” I bleat stepping carefully through the entry, down the dimly lit corridor lined with yellow tile and vaguely optimistic posters, featuring attractive young people encouraging everyone to “make good choices.” For those of us with diagnosed learning disabilities, large institutional school buildings are deeply disturbing places, but I am a professional.

It is 2017.  I have been hired to run a transition program for high school students with learning disabilities, preparing for life in the real world.  Drawing students from several regional New Hampshire high schools , my job is to provide pre-employment training for IEP students -- resume writing, cover letter writing, explicit instruction in soft skills, even a weekly internship for the students to gain on-the-job experience. Being a starkly funded Department of Education partnership with a private non-profit, I recruit the students, teach the classes, collect the reporting paperwork, even drive the bus. I’ve been working with “at-risk” students since I was still an undergrad, so it all seems fairly straightforward. As a person diagnosed with Dyslexia and ADHD, I have spent the past thirty years working around the field of Special Education, hoping to make a difference in the lives of as many students as possible.

Part of the job is to visit the sending high schools and meet with Special Ed departments to recruit appropriate students.  On this particular day, I am meeting with a “Tutor” -- an uncertified para-professional assigned to preside over a room full of neurodivergent students and help them complete their assignments.

 I emerge into the windowless conference room, an oblong table surrounded by metal folding chairs, and I am greeted by the Vocational Rehabilitation Case Manager and the Tutor.  She is young and energetic, gaining confidence after a few years in the trenches, and we are to discuss the transition program to see if any of her students might be a good fit. We exchanged banal pleasantries and then get around to the subject at hand - an 18 year old dyslexic student, at risk of flunking his senior year because of his homework and attendance records.  I present the program as an opportunity for him to earn some Extended Learning Opportunity (ELO) credits and even find a new focus -- working for money. The discussion seems to be going well, but then the Tutor expresses her frank concern.

“He just doesn’t accept reality.” She says. “He seems to live in his own magical reality with no idea what is waiting for him in the real world.” Now part of my role is to evaluate prospective students’ readiness for the program, so I probe a bit deeper.

“Can you give me an example” I query, hoping to better understand this ‘magical world.’”

“Ok.” She exhales. “Last spring he tried to take an EMT course so that he could qualify for some summer job at the YMCA camp.” She confides recalling the details as she speaks. “But then when it came to the written exam to complete the program, he came to me looking to get extra time on the test.” Many students with diagnosed learning disabilities are entitled to extra time under federal law, and he was hoping she would help him advocate for this accommodation.

She explains, “He said he could read the test and knew the answers, but he just needed more time.” Then she pauses looking at us incredulously. “Well, I told him that in the real world, he wasn’t going to have me following him around everywhere to do his homework and help him get around the requirements.” She frowns, “I told him that at some point he was going to have to get real.” She smiles proudly at us before going on. “I told him, that if he was an EMT and out on an emergency call, no one was going to give him extra time.” She went on, “I don’t want people working in emergency services who can't even read a multiple choice test.”  She beams proudly, marveling over her powerful personal boundaries.

Now, when I was a younger man, I would have been indignant and started reciting from the ADA, regaling her with tales of friends in the emergency services who read slowly. I would have talked about how many dyslexic people are actually amazing Firefighters and Law Enforcement Officers even Emergency Room Doctors, but I have learned not to rock the boat. I have learned that if I reacted to every insulting statement or ignorant insinuation, I would have lost my mind long ago.   I have learned to choose my battles wisely and to focus on the job at hand.

“Well good,” I chirp. “That is just what we do; we help the students create a realistic plan for after they graduate.” Nevertheless, the student in question is not permitted to join the program, because it will interfere with his credit recovery plan.

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2 min read
ADHD and Procrastination: A Lesson from the Land

ADHD and Procrastination: A Lesson from the Land

By Zoë Kessler, Author of ADHD According to Zoe

ADHD and Procrastination: A Lesson from the Land

I accidentally spent the whole day gardening and landscaping today.

As I worked, I thought about ADHD and procrastination. Am I procrastinating? I thought, knowing I had many other projects lined up, none of which had to do with spending the day in the dirt.

Then I realized some things can’t wait. Like Mother Nature.

If I wait to pull out weeds, the things I want to live, will die; the things I want to die, will live.

Did our ancestors procrastinate?

As I worked the land, I thought about our ancestors. Our pioneering forefathers and foremothers spent their days in hard physical labour just to survive.


Can you imagine Clem telling Martha, “Sorry honey, I don’t feel like planting the crops today”?

Maybe that’s why the simple but demanding farm life is so good for people with ADHD. It’s do or die.

Is ADHD a product of modern lifestyles?

Think about life today. How many ways can you find to procrastinate? Plenty. But no matter what happens, chances are, nobody’s going to keel over if you’re late with your project.

There’s nothing like survival (yours, the crops’, or the animals’) to get you to get it done.

Yesterday’s pioneering families had to work hard. They couldn’t put off for tomorrow what had to be done today. They also got tons of physical exercise – which happens to be one of the best treatments for ADHD.

All this work and fresh air meant they slept well, while today’s ADHD adults struggle with out-of-sync sleep patterns.

Back to the future

It’s said that one reason people with ADHD procrastinate so much is that our ADHD brains don’t hold a picture of the future as easily as others. Lately, as the weather has warmed up, I’ve been walking around the house to see what’s growing and to plan what I’d like to plant.

During my daily lawn inspections, I’ve watched anxiously as the weeds run rampant, overtaking the daffodils, and choking out the hostas before they’ve had a chance to emerge. All I could think about was the future and how much more work it will be if I don’t tackle the weed problem now.

I’ve also been keenly aware of my next-door neighbour. When I first moved in he made a pointed remark about the previous owner who didn’t do any gardening or lawn maintenance. I got the point.

Envisioning a future with a disgruntled next-door neighbour also inspired me to keep up with my yard work.

Procrastination… or not

So today I spent a glorious day in the sunshine pulling up weeds, planting, building, digging, and reveling in the fresh air and sunshine. I was also ensuring that the future would be less work than it otherwise would have been.

But was I procrastinating? Maybe. Maybe not.

A lesson from the land

The next time I’m tempted to procrastinate, maybe I can think of my plants and my pride and use them as a reminder to think about the future.

What will be choked out of my life if I don’t act now? What projects, relationships, or goals will die if I don’t take action immediately? Who will be annoyed if I don’t take responsibility for what I’m responsible for?

They say we can learn from nature. Today, I thank my yard and Mother Nature for reminding me to think about the future when I’m tempted to procrastinate.

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1 min read
Death In A Time of Covid

Death In A Time of Covid

Noah Reed reflects on his father's death during a pandemic. Reed is a writer and a musician in Southern VT. Furthermore Reed works on the front lines of the epidemic, for the indispensable Maple Syrup Industry.

I visited my Dad after having a long walk with my sister, Leslie. We talked about him and we talked about the pandemic. I'm always reminding myself that these are two separate problems that just happen to coincide. This is a valuable little coping tool. Keeping all the various stressors separated keeps them from snowballing into one giant thing.

He asked me if I had any matters I'd like to discuss. I couldn't think of any at first. And then I remembered about the time he taught me to ride a bike. It was a warm Saturday in spring with the temperature somewhere in the low 70’s. I can’t remember what year exactly, except that it, too, was in the low ‘70’s.  The sun warmed my face. I was the last kid in my neighborhood to learn. I was always too afraid I'd fall down and get hurt before I could get going. I felt embarrassed and under pressure. But not from my Dad. I never felt pressured by him for anything. Other members of my family and friends tried to show me how easy riding a bike is, but all they ended up doing was making me feel dumb. It was the patience and warmth of my Dad that I really needed that morning, after so many humiliating failures.

The bike I was using had a banana seat and right behind it was a semi-circular metal bar that served as the handle my Dad promised me he'd hold onto, running along behind me, so I wouldn't fall.

As I pedaled along the street, I saw a giant station wagon headed in my direction, filled with a whole family of kids who’d learned before me. Their windows down, I heard them cheering before I looked over and saw them. I didn't get what they were so excited about until I looked to my right and saw the shadow my Dad and I cast on the ground. And though I glanced for only a split second, I still noticed he wasn't holding onto the back. My attention shot straight ahead. I'm not falling, he's not holding on. I must be riding! 

He remembered the story as I was sharing it with him. Before I could finish, he was telling it right back to me. It felt good to hear it again in his voice. As we talked about it, I thought of a few other things he's done for me I feel grateful for. I wanted to thank him for his influence and presence in my life. 

He planned to end his life on his own terms, instead of letting the disease progress to a catastrophic end. I admire this very much and I am not at all surprised by his choice. I wasn’t sure when exactly he planned to do it, but neither was he. There is a necessary protocol that must be followed in Vermont, prescribed by law in the Death With Dignity Act; Vermont is among the first states to enact such legislation. 

I asked him if he was scared but he said "No." I asked him if he was in any pain and again he told me "No.” I felt relieved knowing these things. 

He told me he was feeling weaker by the day. At one point during our visit, we had to move our chairs into the sun because it was breezy and sort of cold. When it was time to go, I had to bring his walker over to him. He couldn't walk the ten or so feet over to where he'd left it.

We were outside because of the pandemic. His wife was concerned—rightly I think—about his susceptibility. Nor could we visit for very long, anyway, because he gets tired quickly. His condition did seem to have deteriorated in the three weeks since I'd last seen him. 

And then on April 9, 2020, Alijah Reed, my Father and my Dad, ended his own life some time around 10:00 in the morning. 

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