Dear New Jersey: A Letter from an Old Friend in Italy

Dear New Jersey,

My daughter’s 8th birthday was in mid-March.

We wanted the day to be special. As you probably already know, being under quarantine on your 8th birthday is not the party of a lifetime. Being under quarantine for your 8th birthday in a foreign country, unfortunately, doesn’t make it any better. There were no drive-by friends, no grandparents dropping gifts on the porch, not even takeout from her favorite restaurant. In Italy, all restaurants and shops were closed, permission to leave our properties only granted in the case of an emergency. Buying balloons and streamers didn’t qualify. 

We promised our daughter it would be her “yes” day. I, her older sister and her Dad agreed to enthusiastically partake in the entertainment of her choosing. We opened gifts, we cavorted as elves in the yard, we tangled in twister on the living room floor, we ate the chocolate unicorn cake she and her Dad baked the day before. 

But even the best of intentions couldn’t prevent it.

There was a lull in festivities.

Full of cake and slightly weary, her father and I eyed each other across the room in shared resignation and growing stagnation. A sigh only half escaped my lips before a siren split the uncomfortable silence that had settled over the discarded wrapping paper and half-melted candles clear in half. For the third time that week, we stood helplessly at our living room window and watched an ambulance labor up the steep hill that stretched beside our house, the siren fading as it travelled further into the mountain town above us. Sure enough, twenty minutes later, it went whizzing back down.

“We should make an ‘Andrá Tutto Bene’ sign,” my husband announced. His words wedged under my heart and shifted my body immediately into action, the way that unquestionable truths tend to. 

“Andrá Tutto Bene” roughly translates to “Everything will be fine” or “Everything will be okay.” This phrase, written over rainbows, graced houses up and down our street.  It was beyond time for us to join our Italian neighbors in displaying this sign of hope and love.

“We can probably find an old sheet in the basement,” I suggested, already walking toward the steps. The birthday girl padded behind me, “Let’s use pastels!” she offered, turning right to the craft room as I turned left towards our storage bins.

We didn’t know then that a record number of new coronavirus cases would be reported in Italy that day – 6,557. Even more disturbing, on that day alone, the country would grieve 793 deaths. The highest number of deaths to occur in a single day, 919, would hit the books the following Friday.

I tried to imagine these numbers as people, then as lifeless people – bodies piled at the broken edges of a heartbroken country, but my intellect could not adequately comprehend the 5,991 lives that would be lost by the end of that week, nor the thousands more mourning, alone at home, because gathering at funerals would only bid more more losses. 

During the worst of it, uncertainty filled every breath of life. Yet, across the globe, everyone seemed to know one thing for sure – No one wanted to be Italy.

And that, my Dear New Jersey, is why I am writing to you today. We have so many happy memories and still share some of the closest friends. Remember all those years I played softball on your fields? All those summers in Ocean City, boogie boarding so long that I could still feel your waves move under me in my sleep? I even came back, all the way from Alaska, so you could be at my wedding. As I recited my vows, you winked at me from across the Delaware. Even now, living in Italy, I think of you with every bite of a tomato sandwich, remembering ones so good that bacon and lettuce were optional. 

And no matter where in the world or the country I’ve lived, from Japan to Alaska to Maine to Florida to Italy, I’ve always come home for Christmas. You’ve called me back for eighteen years, light shows at Macy’s, cold cuts from Di Bruno’s, cannolis for dessert and the Nutcracker by the Pennsylvania Ballet. Christmas isn’t Christmas without you.

I love Italy, but I also love you – and because I love you, my greatest wish during this whole pandemic was for you to not become Italy. But you have. It happened during so much upheaval, distraction and denial that I’m afraid you might not even know it. 

As of this writing, New Jersey has suffered from 1,176 deaths per million people. That is more than double Italy’s rate, which is currently 529 per million.

All of my friends and family in Jersey were worried about me here in Italy. Now I’m worried about you.

I wouldn’t be so worried if I hadn’t seen that picture from Ocean City on Saturday. People standing so close they could shoo the seagulls away from each other’s french fries. So few wearing masks, that I wondered if the entire state of New Jersey had run out of old t-shirts. 

And I heard about that protest at that gym in Bellmawr, the one that wanted to open despite the governor’s executive order. I was relieved to see the gym limiting the number of patrons permitted to workout at any given time, and the encouragement to wear masks (contrary to my earlier fears, apparently there are still some available for purchase) — but what about all those protestors? All those people screaming about infringed upon rights? 

Watching here from Italy, the perverted thought that perhaps people are trying to make each other sick, or just don’t care, skittered across my mind like a rat hiding in the sewers. 

Of course that is ridiculous. Right?

…Right?

If anything, watching my home country from so far away more vividly reminds me that we’re all in this together. Our family. Our neighbors. Our doctors. Our teachers. 

The entire world. 

This week, Italy lifted its lockdown restrictions, sort-of. Businesses are now permitted to open while following a strict set of operating protocols, sort of like the ones that only escaped the CDC through leaking pipes. We also have to wear masks everywhere. It is illegal to host gatherings of more than 10 people and we are not authorized to travel outside of our region (regions here are similar to states in the US). 

As of this writing (May 18th), the total number of new cases in all of Italy was 451 in a country 60 million people. We’re still on our toes. We’re still not taking it easy – because this disease did not take it easy on us. Like a good Jersey girl, I’m watching my back.

In comparison, the total number of new cases in Jersey on May 18th was 1,890. That’s with a population 15% the size of Italy’s. In other words, that’s 1,439 more cases with about 50 million less people.

This disease is also not taking it easy on you. 

That little voice in my head that reminds me to dig out my car keys before I’m standing alone in a poorly lit parking lot is poking at me, in the ribs, in the heart, in the head – has my home state lost its street smarts? Is it giving some invisible lurker the advantage?

From the other side of the Atlantic, I’m tossing you my Mace. Please don’t give up. I know it’s difficult and exhausting, but it’s still worth wearing those masks, it’s still worth homeschooling your kids, it’s still worth ordering takeout instead of sitting in a restaurant, it’s still worth pausing just a little longer before opening all of those businesses.

Right now, your infection rate is twenty-eight times greater than Italy’s, and we’re still locking our doors before bed.

Before, I didn’t want you to be Italy, but now, I do. 

Not because you’re not perfect just the way you are. You Are.

It’s just, well, that I can’t imagine Christmas without you.

Please keep up the good fight.

Andrá Tutto Bene.

Forever Your Jersey Girl,

Jean

As of Monday, May 18th, there are 5 states and 1 federal district in the US with higher death rates than Italy. Those regions are New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Washington DC and Louisiana.* There are still more states not listed in this chart with higher infection rates than Italy.


Infections Per MillionDeaths Per MillionTotal Deaths
New York18,5711,46428,480
New Jersey16,8981,17610,448
Connecticut10,6919673,449
Massachusetts12,6308505,862
District of Colombia10,301555392
Louisiana7,4665512,563
Italy3,73552932,007
USA4,68427891,981
  • according to worldometer.com. The writer cross-referenced worldometer’s state population estimates with the US Census Bureau.

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