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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Danette Newton scoops a fresh batch of hand sanitizer into a tank before bottling in Lass and Lions' manufacturing facility on Thursday, March 19, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Lass and Lions vodka distillers normally uses the location to infuse their product with flavors, but has recently began to work on creating 65% alcohol hand sanitizer to help Hamilton County residents in response to the national outbreak of coronavirus creating a shortage in the market.

I broke down. A few days ago. I was doing something small around the house, so small I won't even mention it.

Yet my small moment felt enormous. Already, there were too many small things — my chest tightening when I heard someone cough, not extending my hand to a friend, Clorox-wiping the damn steering wheel — and the weight of it all finally caught me, tapping me on my shoulder, tapping me on my heart.

It wasn't panic.

It was grief.

So many, many things are breaking down.

Our days feel like months. I remember the intensity of 9/11; the towers fell one terrible morning, then the aftermath. This? Our towers are falling in slow motion, stretched out over weeks, months, God knows how long.

I suffer from COVID-19's secondary infection; it is existential. I don't fear the virus; I fear loss.

I miss the Bud Light laughter of Riverbend, standing carefree in a crowd of sweaty thousands. I miss toilet paper aisles. I miss worrying about Freddie Freeman's elbow. I miss hugging my parents.

Look behind you; such normalcy was just here, days ago.

We will always remember our world before this. Sept. 10 to Sept. 11. The winter of 2020. The spring that followed.

We're caught in the threshold between two Americas: pre- and post-pandemic. Our work is to endure. We're all marathon runners now.

Fewer than 10 confirmed cases in Hamilton County? If we had adequate testing, we'd probably see 10 times that many.

How many tests do we lack? How many hospital beds? Why on Earth hasn't Hamilton County ordered the closing of bars and restaurants? We need leaders with vision and voices right now. Press conferences and hotlines aren't enough.

We need women and men to speak to us frankly, bravely, expertly.

Where is the voice that will guide us?

For too long, we've practiced another dangerous form of social distancing. We've distanced ourselves from the possibility that something so achingly microscopic could bring us to our knees.

No matter how painful, COVID-19 is our teacher. We are learning acute lessons about ourselves, others, our priorities — nationally, locally and personally — and how we respond to suffering.

We're being re-educated.

And it hurts.

And we break down.

Yet.

I've found many surprising sources of strength recently, from the grand to the mundane. Even this: many nights, we hunker down and watch Disney films.

"Do the next right thing," sings ice queen Elsa in "Frozen II."

"Dad," my daughter said. "It's Anna, not Elsa."

Sorry. Anna.

When these days overwhelm, what is the next right thing?

It could be starting a spring garden. Or meditating. Or joining the city's virtual phone bank, calling on senior neighbors.

For Lakweshia Ewing and Chris Sands, it meant creating We Over Me, which bands together ordinary people to feed, assist and love on their Chattanooga neighbors.

For Dr. Elizabeth Forrester at Baylor School, it meant bravely working to determine if she and her school's resources could create faster testing protocol for COVID-19. Turns out: they can. Forrester's work can save countless Chattanooga lives. Hospital leaders, what a blessing this must be for you and your staff. This is empathetic science at its best.

For Rose Cox, it meant creating a COVID-19 Community Assistance Facebook group; within minutes of scrolling, you'll see hundreds of people helping one another.

For Erik Clien, owner of Hixson's New York Pizza Department, it meant feeding, for free, any child who walks in his restaurant door.

For Don Sayers and Daniel Ryan, it meant creating serviceindustry.tips, which allows us — remotely, from home — to tip our Chattanooga waiters. Bar and restaurant employees sign up. When the rest of us log on, we're given the name and Venmo link to an area waiter. So far, I've had enough drinks to tip ... well, plenty. Thank you, Don and Daniel.

One friend — an assistant principal — said District 3 school board member Joe Smith showed up to her school with two questions: Who's in need? How can I help?

Lass and Lions Vodka, our city's female-owned vodka distillery, realized that tinkering with the grain alcohol in its vodka recipe could produce hand sanitizer. And they're giving it away.

There are thousands more stories like this. Never forget our nurses, doctors and first responders; the wave is coming. It will crash upon their backs; they will bear its greatest burden. In Italy, they open their house-arrested windows each night to sing and applaud first responders. Could we mimic that here? Each night? Light candles?

"Yes there is fear. Yes there is isolation," writes Brother Richard Hendrick in his poem "Lockdown."

"Yes there is panic buying. Yes there is sickness. Yes there is even death.

"But,

"They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise

"You can hear the birds again."

When future generations cut open the rings of our tree, they will see what these days wrought upon us.

They will see the suffering. The loss.

Yet they will also see our resiliency. Our love. Our deepening wisdom.

And all the next right things we did together.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com.

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David Cook
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