The Deadly Truth About “North Dakota Nice”
A more anguished look on my wife’s face I have never seen in our 26 years together. As the tears welled in her eyes, I saw frustration, despair and deep, deep sorrow. She closed them, said softly, “No, Honey. Just no.”
Our kids have been asking me what we’re going to do for our holiday greeting card for a few weeks now. Most years we’ve had it in the mail by this time. I’ve mentioned it a few times, but my wife has shrugged, said she needed to think about it.
The holiday card is a tradition in our family, as it is in so many others. We’ve sent one out almost every year since our wedding in 1994. Some years procrastination snuck in and we didn’t get to it until after New Year’s, but always, every year, pictures of us and our growing family, dogs, trips and joyful moments. It’s always been a fun way for us and the kids to reflect on the past year.
So about a week ago I brought it up again with my wife, their Mom, our hero.
She’s a registered nurse who, for six months at the beginning of the pandemic, was a charge nurse in her hospital’s Special Care Unit, i.e., Covid-19 unit. Throughout those months she’d get home from work, undress in the garage, stuff her clothes in a bag, put on sweats and spray the bottoms of her shoes with disinfectant. Only then did she come into the house, say hello to us before taking the bag right down to our laundry room, disinfecting her hands and heading immediately upstairs to the shower.
She always seemed OK.
It was another crazy day, she’d usually say when she came back downstairs. She’d smile sometimes. Often she’d comment on how tired she felt.
Living the Dying
At home I talked incessantly about the mishandling of coronavirus on the national, state and local levels. I repeated the latest coronavirus news from the CNN app or shared something I saw on Twitter.
While I indulged my need to talk about it, she was living it.
Covid-19. Every single day.
Mostly she’d simply sigh and say, “Predictable and preventable. It’s all been predictable and preventable.”
She had rage, too, about people who refused to wear masks. But I didn’t notice she usually only expressed that when I brought up antimaskers first.
Nor did she mention the people whose hands she held, the frightened looks in their eyes before they passed away, otherwise alone. Or how she held phones so patients could say one last good-bye to their spouses and kids and grandkids. Or how many husband-wife pairs she’d seen die within a few yards and hours of each other.
Not until I asked, again, about the holiday card.
Not So “North Dakota Nice”
We live in North Dakota.
Throughout the pandemic, the state’s Republican governor has referred to “personal responsibility.” There would be no mask mandate, he said. The state’s people would do the right thing, wear masks in public to protect their neighbors. He famously cried about the politicization of masks for a national audience back in May.
Tears aside, his personal responsibility strategy didn’t take. For many weeks in October and November, if North Dakota had been a nation rather than a state, it would have had the highest per-capita coronavirus infection rate of any country in the world, and for a while it had the highest Covid-19 death rate per capita, as well.
All my life I’ve been hearing about what people call “North Dakota Nice.” It’s supposed to mean we care about each other, look out for our neighbors and do what’s necessary when folks are in a bind. It’s been a point of pride ’round here.
I’ve experienced enough during my 52 years in North Dakota to be dubious, and 2020 substantiated my doubts.
Turns out, for the majority North Dakota Nice doesn’t include taking on the smallest of inconveniences to protect neighbors from a deadly virus, or even friends or family members. Not wearing a mask is about freedom, they say. I guess others’ freedom to be alive doesn’t count.
Finally, on November 14, the governor gave in and issued a mask mandate. Infection rates have been dropping since.
“FACT: NORTH DAKOTANS HELP EACH OTHER. LET’S STOP THE SPREAD,” they shout obscenely in all caps next to pictures of people wearing masks and merrily going about their business.
The pictures are superimposed on spaces shaped like masks.
You can almost see the irony dripping from them.
“No, Honey. Just no.”
My wife hasn’t been working on the Covid-19 unit for a couple of months now, but if cases balloon because people get together over the holidays, she could be called back. For now, other nurses are facing that frightened look every day as they hold their Covid-19 patients’ desperate hands.
Tired. So tired.
Happy times? Smiling faces? Good cheer?
“I can’t,” she said through tears. “Not this year.”