by Dian Parker
In the 1400s the artist Piero della Francesca moved from town to town in Italy dodging the bubonic plague. And yet, he still kept painting. So who am I to rant about COVID and its variants restricting my travel plans? I still write every day, holed up in my study, watching the snow fall out the window, relatively safe in my little bubble of a home. The wind gusted to 45 MPH last night and is still raging. The driveway is a sheet of ice, making it necessary to wear cleats to get down to the mailbox. Iranian and Afghan refugees are pouring into the U.S. Most cities and towns are unprepared for the numbers, plus not many Americans speak Farsi. A good friend has COVID. She can’t taste or smell; said it felt like she had restless leg syndrome in her brain. A healthcare worker, she’s eager to get back to work because her colleagues are overworked, overwrought, and quitting. “People are dying,” she told me on the phone this morning when I asked why she was going. I exclaimed, “But don’t you die!” As if she had the power to stop a deadly plague.
When I was in my twenties, I directed Chekhov’s The Three Sisters. I was much too young to understand his dark humor about life, aging, and death. I particularly liked Vershinin’s long rambling monologues, his tangential outbursts about life and longing. “Everything comes to an end. Here we are parting (looks at his watch). Thank you for everything. Forgive me if anything was amiss…. I have talked a great deal…. (Laughs) Life is hard…. (Looks at this watch). It’s time for me to go!” And yet, he doesn’t go. He has so much more, as he says, “to theorize about.” He longs for a house that is filled with light and masses of flowers.
No one wants to go. Even Chekhov eventually went. He died at the young age of 44. He was famous. Many rich and powerful people attended his funeral.
Chekhov wrote over five hundred stories and fourteen critically acclaimed plays. He died of a hemorrhage in the brain due to tuberculosis, just three years after marrying his great love, Olga Knipper. She was the leading lady in his plays at the Moscow Art Theatre. Olga later recounted that the doctor had ordered a bottle of champagne for Chekhov at the end. “Anton took a full glass, examined it, smiled at me and said, ‘It’s a long time since I drank champagne.’ He drained it and lay quietly on his left side, and was soon silent forever.” She later wrote that after he was dead, “a huge black moth kept crashing painfully into the light bulbs and darting about the room.”
From Germany, where he died, Chekhov’s coffin was sent home to Russia on a green freight train, marked, FOR OYSTERS. Chekhov, like Piero Della Francesca, lived and died during a plague. This sixth cholera pandemic was in Europe, Asia, and Africa from 1899 to 1923, killing 800,000 people. Our current COVID-19 pandemic has been worldwide for the last two years, with an estimated 5.3 to as many as 20 million deaths.
Like Vershinin, no one wants to go but everyone does, one way or another. In his final monologue, Vershinin ends with “Don’t forget me!…. Let me go!….Time is up!”
Yet another brutal ending for us is war, which Piero knew well. The Italian biographer of artists, Vasari, a close friend of Michelangelo’s, wrote, “Piero used a battlescene to express very effectively fear, animosity, alertness, vehemence, and other emotions typical of men in combat.”
Piero’s Battle between Heraclius and Chosroes looks very much like the plague in the painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Triumph of Death, 1562:
Life is constantly in flux, like molecules and plagues, war and creativity. Trying to keep up, like reading all the classics or writing down all my ideas, is nearly impossible when everything comes to an end. As if I have all the time in the world to reread Chekhov while tornadoes are ravishing homes and land, while carbon dioxide is pouring into the atmosphere, while air strikes decimate civilians, while another close friend dies of cancer. As if life goes on and on and on, without an end.
Piero Della Francesco found the time to create, as did Chekhov and Bruegel the Elder. As do all the people on the planet have time to live, and create, and to die. We all have time. May it be long enough for that glass of champagne.
Dian Parker’s writing has been published in numerous literary journals and magazines. She has traveled extensively, living in the Middle East, including Syria before its heartbreaking devastation. She ran White River Gallery, curating twenty exhibits, before the pandemic forced her to close. She paints in oil and black walnut ink she makes herself. www.dianparker.com