The plague doctor mask.
A 17th century doctor.
In hindsight, maybe I should have taken the signs more seriously. But back then, my mind was in a much different place.
At that point, in the drab days of mid-February, I was looking for a little relief, so the invitation for a social night out came as a welcome diversion. Specifically, it was an invite to a Mardi Gras-themed dinner party at a friend’s house and, as I had hoped, it provided much camaraderie, punctuated with a collection of colorful masks and decorations, moody candlelight, and wonderful creole-inspired food and drink.
But there was also a tarot card reader present.
After dinner, she set up shop at a small table in the living room, inviting each of us to sit with her, one by one, and draw a couple of cards from the deck to get a glimpse of our inner lives and truths.
That’s when things got kinda spooky.
A little backstory here:
For the last month and a half, I have been a truly absent participant from the wider world, having spent literally every one of the last 42 days inside the confines of my East Hampton home. Even my workload has occurred remotely, thanks to my trusty MacBook, Wi-Fi and the couch.
To put it simply, I’ve been social distancing since long before the current social distancing trend was fashionable and critical to survival.
In truth, my withdrawal from society has had nothing to do with this novel coronavirus and everything to do with surgery. More specifically, hip replacement.
That’s right. In early February, I traveled into Manhattan to willingly be anesthetized, cut open, and fitted with a bit of titanium and ceramic to replace a right hip joint that had basically given up on the world. I was “bone on bone,” as they like to say in orthopedic circles, with a bit of dysplasia and several bone spurs (real ones) thrown in for good measure.
Blame it on genetics, my surgeon said.
So I did, and I got down to business to make it all go away.
Oddly enough, when I went to sleep for surgery that first week in February, all was right in the world. But when I woke up, I realized much had gone awry during my time “down under.”
For one, the impeachment matter, which had been the top news story the previous day, had simply vanished by a vote in the Senate. … And Rush Limbaugh? He was wearing a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
What? Where am I? I wondered as I emerged from sedation, rubbed my eyes and looked to see if someone had placed ruby slippers on my feet under the sheets in my hospital bed.
Alas, my feet were bare. But there was a freshly stapled 7-inch scar on my thigh, so at least I knew I had a new bionic hip to carry me into these uncertain and disquieting times. Thank goodness for well-timed pain medication, I thought, as I lay back down and drifted off into oblivion.
But it wasn’t just the national political stage that seemed surreal. There were other oddities nagging at me about the whole state of things beyond the Union, and I got the sense that I should be paying more attention to signs and coincidences that came my way.
For example, the night before surgery, my husband, Adam, and I drove into Manhattan to stay at a hotel, reasoning it would be easier to get to the hospital on time the next morning. Upon check-in, however, we learned it was actually two hotels — or, rather, one hotel that consisted of two very narrow buildings located directly across the street from one another.
When we were handed our card key, we were informed that our room was across 32nd Street in what they referred to as the “North Tower.”
“Really?” I wondered. “Is that the best term to use in describing tall buildings in Manhattan these days?”
Then I saw our room number written on the key envelope: 911. I kid you not.
Had I been the superstitious type, I might have been inclined to call off the whole operation, but I was determined to power through. Even with the next stranger-than-fiction event that occurred the following morning.
That’s when we pushed the elevator button upon exiting our room and were met with a panel flashing lights with all sorts of confusing symbols instead of floor numbers — indicating that there would be no elevator coming to retrieve us. So we took the stairs and our luggage down all nine floors — not a disaster, mind you, but certainly supremely ironic in that it was the only way out of the North Tower after exiting room 911 on my way to get a hip replacement.
Strange, but true.
Still, I chose to ignore any deeper meaning and came home post-surgery with a sore hip, walker, cane and extra-high potty seats throughout the house (talk about a dignity bring-down). Within a few days, I was working again, albeit from home, probably sooner than I should have. My head was still groggy, my walking skills unsteady, and my sleeping ability limited.
Then came the tarot reading.
That night I drew two cards. The first was the Hanged Man — a guy literally hanging upside down from a scaffold by his right leg (boy, did I know that feeling). The second card, the Three of Swords, pictured a heart plunged through with a trio of blades.
The tarot card reader paused and said that the first card indicated that I was in the throes of a “forced pause,” while the second meant I was trying to do too much too soon. In short, I reasoned, something beyond my control had intervened to hinder me (surgery) and I needed to listen to it by taking a rest and slowing down (work).
At least that’s what it meant on February 22, the day I randomly picked those two tarot cards from the deck. But now, they strike me as being eerily prescient on a global scale.
In the last few days, schools, governments and cultural institutions across the country have shut down, supermarket shelves have been wiped clean by locust-like hoarders, and COVID-19 is spreading like wildfire. In short, the whole country (indeed, the world) has been driven into a “forced pause,” with virtually everything and everyone at a standstill, including the workaholics in our midst.
Given the events of the past couple of weeks and the rapid rise of this disease, in hindsight, I couldn’t have picked a better time in the last century to self-quarantine for a month and a half. Not since the flu pandemic of 1918 have the predictions for our species been so dire.
In the weeks since the Mardi Gras party, there’s another mask that seems to have become particularly relevant, and it’s one I bought a number of years ago on a visit to Venice, a city now eerily deserted under quarantine orders. This mask sits on my mantel and is a replica of the bird-like beak that plague doctors donned to treat illness in the 17th century. If seeing that on your deathbed didn’t scare the hell out of you, I’m not sure what would.
But there was a reason for the design. The theory was that by putting aromatic herbs into the far end of the beak, the doctor would avoid catching the illness, which they thought was spread by miasma, or “bad air.”
At least that’s what I’ve heard.
Apparently, a lot of people in Venice dress as plague doctors to celebrate the city’s Carnival, the last two days of which were canceled this year due to, you guessed it, our own modern-day plague.
On Tuesday, I’m scheduled to travel into New York, which everyone has fled, to meet with my hip surgeon for my six-week follow-up appointment. I was worried about dealing with St. Patrick’s Day parade traffic, but that’s become a non-issue, of course.
In another bit of well-timed irony, I suspect my surgeon may give me the go ahead to resume driving and get back to the office — just as everyone else is leaving the office to go hide and work at home, and the office is officially closed.
With surgical masks nowhere to be found these days, I’m thinking of pressing that plague doctor beak into service for the trip into Manhattan.
Yes, what a month it’s been — interpreting Tarot cards, strange omens and plague masks. What could possibly go wrong? Yet despite the most dire predictions — or perhaps because of them — people do seem to be taking this thing seriously, which means, somehow, we’ll get through it and, hopefully, come out relatively intact on the other side.
In the meantime, all I can say is “Introverts, Unite!” But please be sure to do it in the privacy and safety of your own home.
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One fine body…