I’d like to introduce you to Donna and Russ Lamer, my sister- and brother-in-law. (My husband’s sister). They’ve been hunkered down in Arizona for the past several months. Lucky them, you might say, to be stuck in such a beautiful part of the country. In many ways, they are very fortunate but they have faced a number of challenges beyond being separated from their families. Russ tells their story and also shares how he has been trying to cope.

Russ and Donna Lamer

My wife and I are retired and live in Scottsdale, Arizona in the winter. We have a modest home here. In the spring, summer, and holiday season we live in South Portland, Maine and have a lovely modest home there as well. Normally, we stay in Arizona January to the end of April/first of May. However, this year we planned to return to Maine in late March to be present at the birth of our new grandchild with a birthdate target of April 1st. Then the pandemic hit. I moved our flight to Maine up one week, but the pandemic situation became worse. Through many discussions with our sons in Maine, it was decided that my wife and I should stay in Arizona, and totally isolate until the coronavirus was under control and it was safe to travel again. It is now June and we are still here and don’t know when we will return to Maine. The world is totally different. We are living a new existence. Coping with new routines previously considered to be “boring.”

Since February, we lost our wonderful dog of 16 years, a heartbreaking experience I never want to go through again. We missed the birth of our new and last grandchild. My wife was diagnosed with cancer and required surgery at a nearby hospital, and all I could do was to drop her off at the door and watch her from the outside walk alone down a long and lonely hallway in the early morning hours. That was tough. The good news is that she has nearly recovered. The cancer was caught early and she has a 95% success rate. Even with all of this compounded in three short months, we are grateful. There are so many people struggling to survive. No jobs. No income. No food…and many with children to feed. One way we try to help is by donating to the local food bank.

Russ biking

So how do I cope with living in a small space of the world with a pandemic? Believing in structure, purpose, and activity is my foundation. Staying fit is a top priority for me. I have been a cyclist for nearly 40 years and work hard at maintaining a goal of riding 100 plus miles per week. This is the first Arizona summer we are experiencing so with temperatures of 110 degrees during the day, I have to get up early in the morning the days I ride in order to beat the heat. The infrastructure in Scottsdale for cycling, running, and walking is superb. The one thing I miss about cycling is riding with my friends. Once the pandemic hit, biking solo became the new normal. I thought I could handle that situation easily, but it bothers me that I can’t ride with my friends, and stop along the way and have coffee together at a small outdoor cafe. My wife and I try to walk together every day. Last night we did our walk at 10:15 p.m. The temp was pleasant at just about 100 and there was a breeze that felt refreshing.

Early morning is my time. With a cup of strong French Roast coffee, I sit and read, think, and write. Lately, all three have been focused on the protesting of racial injustice, and racial police brutality not only in our country but others. Being a product of the ’60s and 70’s I know that change can happen through peaceful protest. I often sketch in the mornings. Being an artist I think about what I am going to paint next, and the composition of the painting.

Russ Lamer painting in AZ
Russ Lamer/We the People

I paint every day, mostly every afternoon in a small studio set-up in my garage. I consider myself a contemporary artist who often paints about social issues. On the other side of the coin, I will paint about humor. Two opposite ends of the spectrum. Perhaps it’s because I’m a Gemini. During the initial days of the pandemic, many images went through my head. I quickly did four paintings to get my thoughts and feelings down on canvas. A couple of times I have run out of canvas, and while waiting for an order to arrive, I paint on cardboard and anything else I can find. My art keeps me sane and gives me a voice.

I never was much of a patient person with plants, but I find myself spending hours caring for new plants in our courtyards. We have a fountain out back that I clean frequently. My wife and I are really into watching the birds fly in for a bath or a drink of water. They are pretty much the same characters every day. The one we love the best is a little Hummingbird that flys in, lands  on top of the fountain, and has a wonderful bath where the water bubbles out the top. We have named him Humbee. He arrives several times a day.

AZ sunset

Our lives have definitely changed. We find ourselves doing small things we have taken for granted or have never done in the past. We watch nature like never before. Whether it’s a baby quail that has been separated from its parents or a misplaced prairie dog running around the courtyard. These are little things we may not have noticed before. We are surrounded by mountains and see some of the most beautiful sunsets. But the thing we enjoy most is to FaceTime with our grandchildren, and listen to their adventures, watch their silliness, and answer their many, many questions. We get to do this nearly every day. We have five, and they range in age from 12 years old to 2 months old. We miss giving them hugs.

I’m not sure when we will be able to return to Maine. It’s all so unpredictable, and attempting to guess is a waste of my time. So it is better to go for bike rides, paint, watch nature, laugh and cry with my wife, talk with family by phone and FaceTime, and keep structure in my life. Most of all, be grateful for what I have.

Russ Lamer