Little Futures Looking ahead, one story at a time

Editor’s Note | Gravy #77

by Sara Camp Milam

As recently as the first week of March, it seemed completely unremarkable to contemplate the future.

When March began, news reports of Covid-19 clusters on the West Coast seemed far away and overblown here in Oxford, Mississippi. At the SFA office, we polished our plans for a Spring Symposium in Birmingham on the Future of the Restaurant. Speakers would talk about delivery apps and ghost kitchens, living wages and child care. My colleagues looked forward to spring break trips: Seattle. San Francisco. Disney World.

I was just beginning to emerge from a winter of post-traumatic stress and postpartum depression. Just after Thanksgiving, at three weeks of age, my newborn son had contracted respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. You might not have heard of this virus, although you’ve likely experienced it yourself as a mild to moderate cold. In babies, it can be critical. The day after Kirk was diagnosed, after two sleepless nights taking turns holding him upright on our chests as he struggled to breathe through his congestion, he was admitted to our local hospital.

Three nights later, Kirk’s condition had worsened. He needed a transfer to a children’s hospital. It was after midnight when a team of three emergency transport paramedics from Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital arrived to initiate the transfer. Kirk and I couldn’t bring ourselves to watch; we thanked them and stumbled to a waiting area in the hall. We compared trembling hands, racing hearts, hollow stomachs. This is shock, we said. Meanwhile, the paramedics hooked our son up to oxygen and IV fluids and loaded him—methodically, expertly—into a stretcher-mounted incubator for the seventy-five-mile ambulance ride.

We left for Memphis at two in the morning, driving through the thickest fog we’d ever seen. Though we couldn’t have been more than ten or fifteen minutes behind the ambulance, we arrived to the Le Bonheur emergency department to find a team of eight doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, and other technicians already at work on our son.

Nine days later—nine days of counting respirations and heartbeats, of hitting the call button, of pumping breast milk and eventually figuring out how to nurse my son without disturbing his nasal canula—we were released to go home. That night, we saw our daughter, Sally, for the first time in nearly ten days. We had missed her third birthday.

This is shock, we said.

The month that followed was more frightening, more agonizing than our time in the hospital. I was still counting little Kirk’s respirations when they seemed too rapid, unzipping his pajamas to watch his chest rise and fall, holding him next to the shower to breathe in congestion-clearing steam. Only now there was no nurse outside the room. And there was Sally, who wanted her mother to put the baby down right this second, pause Frozen, and help her put on her Elsa dress so that she could sing “Let It Go.”

In those days, my husband and I couldn’t see very far ahead. We were still driving through fog. Most mornings, I held my baby and dozed off in the rocking chair while he slept. Many afternoons, I held him and cried. I feared the germs Sally would bring home from preschool. I feared the germs I would bring home every time I left the house. We changed clothes. We washed hands. We sanitized light switches.

“Remind yourselves that this is temporary,” people told us. “Little by little, it will get better. And eventually, it will be behind you.”

Christmas became New Year’s. January became February. I went back to work and remembered what it meant to me—the projects, the colleagues, the mood-altering power of simply leaving the house. February became March.

Remember March?

Here in August, we’re still driving through fog. We all are. Across the country, millions of stories begin with trauma or suffering or loss and end with “and then this hit.” They are like mine, and not like mine. So many people have it so much harder. This is not fair. It’s not right. I wish I could believe that we’re all in the same boat right now, but I know it’s not that simple.

Millions of stories begin with trauma or suffering or loss and end with “and then this hit.”

In the absence of a clear future, I’ve been feeling around in the fog, looking for meaning. (Ask me for my notes on such lodestars as Frozen II and the Headspace meditation app.) I have laughed, and rolled my eyes, and smacked my forehead at our choice of the future for SFA’s 2020 programming theme. In another year, in another world, the stories in these pages would come to life at our annual Fall Symposium. In that fantasy world, we’d ask not just what futures await our region, but what roles we can take in shaping them. As I’ve read and reread this issue, I’ve asked myself what lessons it might offer. Here’s what surprised me: When asked to imagine the future, nearly every writer began by looking to the past. And when asked to project out, nearly everyone began by turning in.

Maybe, in this fog, that shouldn’t be surprising. Maybe, if any of us could see a little farther ahead of this moment, our imaginations would work differently. I can’t know that for sure. But instead of drawing a bleak conclusion, I’ve chosen to offer a hopeful one, if you’ll accept the challenge that accompanies it.

If we limit our understanding to our own experiences, and to the experiences of those like us, we limit where we can go together.

We don’t know what’s ahead. Even if we try to imagine the future, it’s nearly impossible to do so without drawing on some reservoir of lived or narrated or passed-down experience. But if we limit our understanding to our own experiences, and to the experiences of those like us, we limit where we can go together. I believe that stories hold promise and possibility. Can we read and listen with open minds and open hearts? Can we sit with discomfort? Can we push past the temptation to dismiss the truths that bring us pain?

I’ve edited this journal for ten years, and our companion podcast for six. I’ve attended eleven Fall Symposia and dozens of other SFA events. The day I cease to believe in the power of stories, and in their capacity to build empathy, will be the day I stop doing this work.

My son turned nine months old yesterday. He crawls. He pulls up. He cruises the length of the couch. He says “Da-Da,” to my frustration and delight. We got through that fog. And we’ll get through the next one.

Sara Camp Milam is SFA’s managing editor.

Photo by Brent Gnagey via Unsplash