When I was a child I was taught that I would never die. In April of this year, testing my sense of smell with a bottle of bleach to my nose while alone in my Brooklyn apartment, the constant peal of ambulances echoing in the streets below, I wished I still believed.
I was raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses to think Armageddon was something to look forward to. God would destroy the wicked world as we know it, to be replaced with a theocracy in which people like my family could live in eternal peace. We didn’t believe in heaven, but that the dead would be resurrected on a perfected Earth free of sickness and death. If I was very good, and went door to door warning neighbors of their impending doom, I would survive even when the world I knew was wiped away.
Most of my peers avoided college because a degree would be useless in paradise. Some even put off marriage or children, waiting for a perfect world to make a perfect family.
This was a difficult year to stop believing in Armageddon. But in truth, I’d gradually outgrown a faith built on the same sort of blind adherence that helped the outgoing president build a devoted and dogmatic base. I had admitted it to myself, but not my family. And so while many New Yorkers were fleeing the city to shelter with their families out of state, I was dodging my parents’ phone calls.
To cheerfully anticipate the end of the world might have sounded ridiculous a year ago, but now every other tweet that populates my feed is a link to another preposterous news story accompanied by an only half-sarcastic wish for the end of days. And the headlines themselves are full of apocalyptic fervor: how to grocery shop for the apocalypse, what to wear for the apocalypse, how to job-search during the apocalypse.
I fell back on an old reflex to comfort myself — remembering a scripture about the Day of the Lord coming as a thief in the night, surprising us when we least expect it. Surely the end couldn’t arrive while Twitter was calling for it.
“I couldn’t die now, with nothing to look forward to.”
My neighbor got sick first. Ambulances were coming by daily, either to see one of the three men who lived in the garden apartment of my building, or to the nonprofit next-door, which provided the social workers who checked in on them regularly. Sometimes the ambulance arrived at night, the flashing lights bursting through my bedroom windows and waking me up. I never saw anyone leave on a stretcher, but I had only seen two of my neighbors for weeks.
One day a cleaning crew in full hazmat gear arrived to disinfect the building. I watched them through my peephole while one of my neighbors loudly explained to the other from the front stoop: “The coronavirus is everywhere in there!”
When I started to cough, I called a doctor who told me to stay home but not seek out testing, since I was so mildly ill and tests were hard to come by. Staying home was exactly what had gotten me sick in this case, but of course I complied. When I lost my sense of taste and smell, I started to panic and soothed myself by making dinners out of anything with a fun shape or texture to keep things interesting.
Cacio e pepe with a hard-boiled egg? Sure, why not. One hundred saltines and some canned fish? Fine. My boyfriend left bags of cough syrup and Gatorade on my doorstep and waved to me from the sidewalk when I came downstairs to retrieve them.
By the end of my 14-day confinement, during which my worst symptoms were a persistent cough and a raging case of health anxiety, I was frantically scanning articles about “COVID toes” and mild cases that took a sudden turn toward death.
A particularly vivid piece about sudden cardiac arrest in patients set my own heart aflutter. It wasn’t hard to convince me I was on the verge of a heart attack. But who would find me and call 911 when I was locked up alone in my apartment on a Thursday afternoon? I threw on a trenchcoat over my T-shirt and sweatpants and started circling the block so at least someone would find me when my heart gave out.
Death is nothing when you anticipate a resurrection — just blink your eyes and awake in perfection. But when you stop believing, the prospect is enough to have you pacing the sidewalk hoping someone will rescue you. I couldn’t die now, with nothing to look forward to.
When I did speak to my parents, I tried to distract them with small talk about my probable COVID case, and my mom sympathized by telling me her dinner the previous night had tasted bland. When they invited me to come stay with them, where a free room is always tied to mandatory service attendance, I demurred, blaming it on the virus. When they invited me to attend online services with them and I couldn’t claim to be busy every weekend of the summer, I responded with a noncommittal thumbs-up emoji.
“Believing the world can survive means accepting that I will die, which isn’t what you want to dwell on when there’s a deadly virus on your doorstep.”
I’d like to say I decided to be honest with them because my deep conviction and righteous indignation moved me, but actually my aunt forced my hand when she found a picture of me and my nonbelieving boyfriend on Instagram — his beard was a dead giveaway that he’s not a member of Jehovah’s clean-shaven fold — and demanded I tell my dad. So I chose the coward’s medium: I sent them an email.
Of course they were heartbroken, they said, and my father tried to convince me that an imperfect religion can still be the right one in the end. After all, when everlasting life is at stake, to not believe is death. And how would any parent react when a child’s life is in peril? It’s the reason most witnesses shun anyone who no longer believes, or believes but doesn’t follow the rules. They say it is done out of love, that they would do anything to encourage a loved one to save themselves.
I’m lucky we trade sparse emails now, and I try to keep the topics light and secular, which in my family means complaining about your health.
In November I got sick again — the flu this time. The symptoms were familiar and I didn’t feel compelled to wander the streets looking for help, though I did need to call my boyfriend to carry my Blue Apron box up three flights of stairs while I was laid out on the couch. I may have outwardly looked like death, but I knew the flu wouldn’t kill me. While people were cheering in the streets when the election results were announced, I could only clap out my bedroom window, but things were looking ever so slightly up.
This year we’ve had more reason than ever to believe the world will unravel, and yet I’m only more convinced that any undoing will be the natural result of our own actions. Maybe Armageddon will come. If nothing else, a climate catastrophe is likely to destroy us. Not divine retribution perhaps, but certainly the wages of our sins. Or maybe we will just escape disaster again and the Earth will live on for millennia, even forever. But I will not.
Believing the world can survive means accepting that I will die, which isn’t what you want to dwell on when there’s a deadly virus on your doorstep. Life matters more when it’s not just an obstacle course between me and paradise — when I can do what makes me happy, not what I’m told will earn me a place in the next, better world. I am living an imperfect life in an imperfect world, and for the first time, I don’t want it to end.