I got big jugs. No, not those kinds of jugs. Obviously. I have big jugs of water that I carry up a steep hill and then down again — like, a mile total — every morning, in this land of cul de sacs and homeowners associations.
I start with two gallon jugs, which weigh 17 pounds together, and think it will be easy. But halfway up the hill I feel like the muscles on my forearms are gonna pull off my bones like Buffalo chicken wings. So. Much. Pain. I have to stop at every mailbox.
My God, I think to myself, if I can’t do this, how will I do Africa? In the fall, I am scheduled to leave for the Peace Corps in Uganda as an agribusiness specialist — working with farmers and families — and I’ll need to carry water there. For three miles. Every single day.
If you fail to plan, you plan to fail, I tell myself.
Truth is, carrying water is the least of my worries. I’ve already been through an exhaustive medical clearance yet I know that most volunteers, including me, will still get sick.
Malaria sounds like hell, what with the fever and the runs alone in a hut with no running water or electricity, your only company scorpions and snakes.
That snail fever thing if you go in the lakes or rivers. You never get rid of that one.
And HIV/AIDS, of course.
It’s the mango fly maggots that almost feel like the deal breaker to me. Turns out mango flies lay their eggs in your wet laundry as it dries in the equatorial sun, and then those eggs hatch into maggots that bore under your skin when you wear your clothes.
So it is a surprise to me one day, while hauling my jugs up that hill, that I miss the time when my biggest worries were malaria and mango fly maggots. When it felt safe where I lived and dangerous where I was going and not the other way around. When people in cars stared at me on their way to work and school, when they still went to work and school, before we were all on shelter-in-place orders.
The surge in people taking daily mental health walks means people are talking to me now, from a distance. I tell a few about the Peace Corps, about how I need to get stronger because I’ll be one of the oldest women in my cohort of mostly recent college graduates. As a matter of fact, I’ll be one of the oldest women in Uganda, period — the life expectancy there is the exact age I am now. But mostly I just say I’m using the jugs as weights. You know, now that gyms are closed.
Some days my jugs feel extra heavy. Like when I read that my home city of New York has 45 refrigerated trucks for corpses; or like today when the call comes that my father-in-law died of coronavirus this morning.
We weren’t there for his last breath.
I pick up my jugs and start walking uphill. I don’t catch my breath until the top.
He had outlived his life expectancy, and yet he wasn’t ready. We weren’t ready. What is a life expectancy, really? What exactly do we expect?
(takes deep breath)
The morning of the online funeral (because that’s what we do now during COVID-19), I mask myself and run into the supermarket — for something essential, like chocolate, or wine — and am making my escape down the water aisle when I see them.
I stand there a moment and stare at them, pondering. They are a lot bigger than my gallon containers. Can I carry that weight? What am I, a five-foot-one-inch 56-year-old woman, really made of?
I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore. I don’t know why my attention span is so shot that I keep dog-earing the same exact page of the book I’ve been “reading” every night. I don’t know why so many people have to die. Why someone I loved had to.
But I do know that if I don’t try to carry those bigger jugs, I’ll be allowing myself, my dreams, my purpose, to die a little too. And for some reason, even in the midst of all this madness, this sadness, I feel more committed than ever to the Peace Corps. Stronger, not just physically but mentally. Less scared. More trusting that I can actually make a difference.
So, the morning after the funeral, I pick up my new jugs, all 42 pounds of them, and I take one step and then another. I barely make it from mailbox to mailbox but I just keep going.
I remember the time my older daughter’s arm got pulled out of her socket while playing with her friends and she said that her arm was too long. I feel like right here, right now, my arms are getting too long. They are stretching beyond their capabilities. I am stretching beyond my capabilities.
I don’t know what to expect from the future, but today, I get up that hill . . .
With big jugs.
I usually write articles and books. However, in this weird year-of-years, I wrote and sold my first piece of live theater, encouraged and edited by my older daughter. Titled Big Jugs, it has nothing to do with bikes or growing food but it has lots to do with trusting the journey.
Big Jugs was selected to be included in a live online salon-style theater production this past summer titled For Goodness Sake by the Jewish Women’s Theatre (now known as The Braid), based in Los Angeles. All shows sold out, with people attending virtually from around the world. I participated in a couple of Q and A’s with the audience afterwards. That was fun.
A version of Big Jugs is published above. A funny and heartfelt recording of actor Jasmine Curry performing the final version live at one of the shows is now featured on ChaiFlix, along with a breathtaking diversity of other stories from the show that made me both laugh out loud and cry. You can also see it on YouTube.