AMES — Meeting my friends Rob and Bridgett Marble as they came through the area on their move from Arizona to Minnesota wasn’t supposed to be the way it was.
Then again, nothing much is.
COVID-19 has changed pretty much everything.
They were pumping gas at a station on the east side of Ames when I pulled up to meet them. Both in blue Nitrile gloves. The USDA labs, where they have the really nasty bugs, were just to the north.
We waved, talked from 10 feet away and then moved the U-haul truck to unload a few things into my car.
Their breakfast was a sandwich and muffin from inside the store eaten with the smell of hand sanitizer lingering in the air. I wasn’t hungry.
We talked for a bit, tried to catch up.
That breakfast was supposed to have lasted a while, a meal with old friends in a decent restaurant. Not a standup sandwich with the hood of my car for a table.
Rob never did take off his gloves.
On the way, I mostly had the roads to myself. Eerie for an early Friday morning.
Lincoln Way in Ames takes you through the campus. I counted four people on the sidewalks. A jogger, someone walking their dog … two pedestrians.
An empty campus with little life. Without the students, it’s just a collection of buildings.
My wife, Carol, is sheltering in place with her daughter and our granddaughter Lydia. They’re in Ames for the duration.
I decided to stop, we could safely visit through the window.
I had to stand in the flower bed. They got as close to the window as they could. We both put our phones on speaker to talk.
I made a photograph on film, realizing as I put the camera down that the window screen would blur their faces.
It seems apt. So close to those I love yet far enough away that the image becomes unclear. Something like a memory but right there. Something in a dream you can’t quite touch.
I left them a four pack of Dr. Pepper on the step. Carol put a sandwich bag with two cookies that her and Lydia had made out in return. Lydia wanted “Bakka Han” to have some cookies.
I felt helpless and lost halfway across the yard. Then I walked up and picked up the cookies. They were wonderful, each in the sort of beautiful odd shapes that only a 4-year-old can make when they smash cookie dough.
I returned to my car, Tex, my German shepherd, sniffed my ear from the back seat.
If he could talk, I’m sure it would be something like “Cookies? I smell cookies. Can I have a cookie?”
He muzzled my arm a few miles up the road. Dogs do that when they sense their humans aren’t okay. I reached down and petted his head. Dogs are like that.
I’ve learned something the hard way over the years, it’s okay, not to be okay. It’s okay to miss those you love and it’s okay to feel that intensely. It’s okay to cry while driving down a highway with almost nobody on it with a big dog in the backseat that pushes his nose into your arm.
Part of me regrets stopping. It was a painful experience in many ways but for almost all of us, there’s going to be some of that as this pandemic plays out.
Embrace them if you can, tell them you love them if you can’t.
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