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TNH’s Letters from Quarantine: Benjamin Strawbridge

To put it bluntly, my grandfather was anything but passive. I dare even say, he was a fighter to the bitter end. 

Throughout his 96+ years of existence as a Navy captain who led a battleship against the Japanese in World War II, a full-blooded Armenian whose relatives escaped the Turkish genocide and one of the most upstanding human beings I have and will ever know, Baret Vahan Ajemian, or “Papa,” lived to lead and rarely surrendered to the suggestions – and often complaints – of those around him. He had no qualms living by himself in a giant two-story Hampton house complete with a pool and numerous stairs to climb; driving himself to the store in his ’95 Lincoln tank of a Town Car; cooking nearly every meal in the microwave regardless of its contents (or expiration date); or persistently calling his daughter (my mother) every Monday night asking when me and my brother could visit him again, just one day after we departed his place for another grueling week of high school. 

When people did try to change his ways to make life easier or more convenient, his salvo was almost always the same: don’t worry about me, miss. I’ll be fine. And when they did finally convince him that they were in the right, he never failed in tweaking our plans to his liking, many-a-time resulting in little to no change at all. 

Sinatra would’ve been proud.    

But as I mull over the chaos wrought upon the human race by the COVID-19 virus and the figurative shutdown of society as we know it, the most distressing thought that comes to mind is not how this affects me now, but how it would have affected that very close friend of mine – the one person in my life I trusted more than anyone else and the one who never got tired of calling me his “number-one grandson” – had it wreaked havoc just a few years prior. 

The long version: he would have continued his own ways, brushing off the virus as insignificant next to the power of his stubbornness and love for our family. He would have continued to call Mom up on Mondays to beg for the “boys” to come down again, this time in vain. He would have continued to live life his way in the giant trap-laden danger zone of a house, where the potential for a fall or other life-threatening injury lay at every step and corner. And while he would (reluctantly) obey the social distancing after much persuasion, the lack of company would have driven him – and us – insane. 

And as lonely as he would have been, we as a family would have been equally accompanied by the dread of being caught in a deadly bind. We would have been desperate to at least just drop by and cure him of an inevitable storm cloud of pessimism and melancholy that would have engulfed him in good time thanks to the forced isolation, as we knew that he relied on company to stop his worrying. And yet, we would not have been able to visit him out of fear of transmitting the virus to a near-centenarian, one of the most vulnerable populations, and had he died of the virus, we would have never escaped the inescapable misplaced guilt that our efforts to help him killed him.  

The short version: it would have been devastating and life-scarring. 

Given the current circumstances and how this pandemic might have played out in our family had Papa lived to experience it, this is one of the few times that I am grateful that he died peacefully in his sleep when he did, assured of himself at last knowing that his family was in the good hands of fate. He fortunately died without the fear that a mysterious disease would, in just two years’ time, destroy all semblance of “normalcy,” and as much as I miss him so, I am blessed that he cannot suffer what we are enduring right now.  

This is all perhaps the best way to describe my true feelings on the social isolation that this COVID-19 pandemic has brought upon me: it could definitely be a lot better and we wish we knew what to do; but it also could be a whole lot worse. 

After three and a half years of a college life filled with unexpected destinies, friendships, adventures and a personal evolution that brought me from personal loneliness and uncertainty into my best life yet, I am depressingly and ironically concluding that career as it started: alone, unoccupied and afraid. 

I had hoped that this last semester would have ended my four years at UNH with a triumphant and tearful farewell, surrounded by the colors blue and white and peers united by a year symbolizing a clear vision of the future that laid before us. Now, the class of 2020 is blind, only able to see the walls of their homes and the virtual versions of faces resembling friends. 

As I write this, I write this out of sorrow and woe, not just for me and my class, but also for the world around me, one that we had hoped I could have embraced as a graduate ready to tackle internships, budding careers, social issues, the election, relationships and more. And now, it could be years before we can slowly resume our progress and emerge from our collective suspended animation. A vaccine is ideally 12 months (but more like 18 months) away, and any hopes of ending our six-foot barriers are even farther off. 

But I guess my biggest concern to come from the endgame of this coronavirus is what our world will look like when this finally ends: what’s being viewed right now as more courteous and convenient (such as concerns over “acceptable” physical contact and the end of handshakes) could end up feeling like paranoia for some, while the increased reliance on virtual everything (Zoom meetings, social media, online classes/courses) has the potential to decrease our desire to go places and do things in-person if it is that much easier to just do everything in our bedrooms wearing pajama pants all day. 

I also guess that I could end up sounding just as stubborn and old-fashioned as my Papa always was; after all, he was never well-known as a fan of change…or the internet, for that matter. 

In other words, this was not the senior year I planned for. This was not the senior year any of us planned for. But COVID or no COVID, this senior year ends up fulfilling its traditional self-fulfilling prophecy regardless: it thrusts us out of the safety of the college world and into the dangers and uncertainty of the real world. And in this real world deep inside a grey area of disease, misinformation, outrageous politics, and a November wrought with Biden v. Trump ferment, senior year remains a tradition after all.  

Because traditions are like Papa: no matter how hard you try to change them or hope that they’ll change themselves, they never will.  

Or as Frank would put it, that’s life. 

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