This interview is one part of a series written by our 2020 CBF Summer Ministry Intern, Emmaline Rogers.
Joe Livesay is still living under a strict quarantine due to his health complications that categorize him as high risk. “I can’t do anything,” he said. “[The virus is] real and it continues to be real and the opening up means nothing to me. So I’m going to be the same way until there’s a proven vaccine…I don’t do anything. [My wife Sandra and I] walk in the afternoons, I read, I don’t go around crowds, I haven’t been in a grocery store since March, I hadn’t been in a drug store. I will drive Sandra and I’ll stay in the car and she will go in… Other than my office and the church, I haven’t been in any buildings. None. My world is really compressed. Very small.”
He approached every question with a smile and would often chuckle during his responses. Each of his words carried the heavy weight of the pandemic and his resulting isolation. “We ate out a lot. And so we’ve lost that. I’ve lost going and talking to judges, even though I’m retired, just go in and visit with them because I practiced for 43 years, and they’re all closed, so I don’t have that camaraderie…” What he has missed the most from his normal routine is “Just anything that deals with going to see people, being with people, going in buildings, going shopping.”
Joe spoke frequently about his sons, one of whom came to Memphis for his job shortly before our interview. “He normally stays with us,” Joe said. “He can’t stay with us. But I got to see him—I haven’t really seen my boys…since Christmas. In person. So I’ve lost interaction with my boys except through Zoom. Which is great, but you know it’s not, you know it’s not the same. …But man, I just really miss being with my boys and their families. There’s no family personal interaction right now.”
I asked about his wife, Sandra. “She’s been really good,” he said, nodding. “Because you know, since I can’t go places, she gets penalized too. She can’t go places. Anytime she has to go to the grocery store, or anywhere, or a restaurant to get take out or something, she’s got a mask on, she’s got sanitizer, she’s got gloves, she’s really cautious about doing anything that would jeopardize my health…she hasn’t said this, but it has to be hard on her.”
His favorite part of the day is taking a walk with Sandra in the afternoon. “We’ll walk 45 minutes to an hour. Just around our neighborhood. First of all, I’m outside. I’m seeing people, you know, when we walk by, and we say hello…Sandra’s very athletic for her age…she runs every morning. But now she’ll walk with me in the afternoons. When you’re retired like we were, you need your space, and so pre-pandemic, we had to find ways to separate. She might stay upstairs and I might stay downstairs, or vice versa, but now, we want to be together. We just need that companionship. And walking gives us that.”
“…I read more, I walk more. There’s not too much I can do, I mean, there’s no work around the house I need to do. I wish there was, although I don’t know a hammer from a screwdriver. It’s just a very solitary, slow day. Sometimes when there’s been a couple days when the walls were cavin’ in on me we’d just get in the car and go drive. You know, to get out. And that helped, just to get out. We’d drive to nowhere, you know.” At the time of the interview, parks were still blocked off and he mourned not being able to drive through them. “There’s not a lot I can do to stay to busy.” Lawyers from his firm still call him for advice like they did before the pandemic, but he told me he has to be so much more careful whenever he goes down to the office to advise them. He has to limit the number of people in the room and stand at least six feet away from them at all times. Joe has been reading mostly fiction to keep himself amused; David Baldacci and C. J. Box were the first two authors he mentioned. He also said his bible study group is reading a book on fear. “It’s perfect timing because I’ve got a lot of fear,” he laughed. “I just read to escape.” He then admitted another time-consuming tactic he’s taken up. “I never did this, but I have downloaded some casino games on the computer and just play those for a while. I’ve never done that in my life! And that’s an escape.”
His greatest fear is “Something happening to me before I can really see my boys. I don’t think it will, but. My oldest son who’s here in town, he and his wife, as soon as the restaurants opened in Nashville, of course they were there. And I tried to convince him not to do that, but they…Alex and his wife have done that, they’re very social people. So I’m very afraid for my boys, that they won’t be as safe as they should [be]. I don’t care if they go out if they’re safe and they do the right things, but I’m worried that I’m not gonna get to see ‘em. And we have a grandchild due at the end of August, my son Adam and his wife… I just want to make sure I’m around to see that baby in August. And I’m afraid that something might happen that would prevent me from doing that. And that’s real. That’s why I’m almost probably too cautious, but there’s no reason for me not to be.”
Joe uses NASCAR as another way to distract from his situation. “That will give me a little escape, it really will.” Watching sports on the television is less amusing to him than races, but he told me that he loved going to games. “We had season tickets to Memphis football and basketball…I can’t go to games [anymore], I’m done. I’m done going to games.”
I asked him if something positive had emerged from quarantine. “For me,” he said, “it’s my neighbors. Seeing my neighbors, meeting my neighbors…I know more neighbors now than I did before it happened. In our neighborhood, it’s a gated community and it’s not real large…A lot of dog-walkers. And there’s just all kinds of opportunities to meet new people. And that’s been a positive to come out of this, because I guarantee you if we had not been quarantined I would still know just the handful people…I know people on the street over the there, the street over there, and it’s given me more community. It’s opened up my community…There’s not a lot of positives [about quarantine]. But that might be near the top of the list. Meeting new people. That I wouldn’t have met otherwise. And they’re all good people, they’re really nice. They might stop when they’re walking their dog, just say hi, we might talk for thirty seconds. But. You get to know ‘em. So that would be the main positive that’s come out of this.”
“We never cooked a lot,” he told me. “In fact, eight years ago, when we were looking for a house, the one we are in now, I tried to find a house without a kitchen because we didn’t need it. They don’t make ‘em.” He laughed. “We have found a new dish. But it’s something you buy at Fresh Market. Their chicken pot pie. We discovered that. And that’s a new meal for us, and it is, for us, it’s fabulous.” In regard to making something themselves, “I’ve learned to sautée fish. Sandra’s learned to bake fish. That might sound rudimentary to you, but we never did that.”
The first thing he’d do if he were able to safely leave his house would be to “Go to my favorite restaurant,” he laughed. “Erling Jensen or Tsunami.” He and Sandra often get curbside pickup from those places. “And this sounds very shallow…I’d probably go hug my boys first. Actually. That’s probably what I really want to do. But if it was just here, Sandra and I would go out and celebrate.” Meals have brought Joe a lot of comfort. “It was sometime near the end of April. I think the walls were caving in on Sandra too. …We said, we need something to cheer us up. So we called Tsunami, which is a fish place if you’ve never heard of it…got it to go, brought it home, ate it. It just lifted out spirits! It really did. Just something as simple as that. It was so good. Just lifted out spirits.”
“I miss church!” he exclaimed. “And I’m not just saying this because we’re sittin’ here at the church, but one thing I was talking about with Stephen: I can’t come back to the church, and this is doctor’s orders, I can’t come back to church until there is a proven vaccine. And I miss seein’ all of my friends. …We always get here early…and I would greet everybody as they come in. Everybody. And boy I miss, I miss that.”
As we neared the end of the interview, I asked him if we’d missed discussing any of his thoughts about the pandemic. “Um. This sounds really bad.” He chuckled and shook his head. “How stupid people are. Everybody has to live their own life, but if they want to risk their life that’s fine, but what they don’t realize [is] they’re risking other people’s lives too. And that just bothers me. I mean, I know people are tired of being cooped up, and I totally understand that, more power to ‘em if the younger people can get out because they’re not affected as bad and that’s fine. But they’re risking their parents, they’re risking their grandparents. And now since more people are taking an ‘I don’t give a damn,’ forgive my language, ‘I don’t give a damn’ attitude, you know, and that really bothers me. We need to take care of our fellow people…I guess because I’m looking at it through my eyes and my limitations. So I don’t know if that comes from jealousy or just… I don’t know where it comes from…They won’t listen. And that bothers me.” He paused. “And that makes me have to hunker down even more so. And that’s not their worry, they don’t really have to worry about me, but their lifestyle now is part of my consequences. And I understand. They don’t know me. But there’s a lot of people like me that they don’t seem to worry about. So. That’s a very selfish thing, I know.”
Even though Tennessee has halted the process towards completely reopening the state, many people have re-emerged and are hoping they will not have to return to March’s isolation and uncertainty. Numbers are spiking and people are looking nervously to schools and colleges, trying not to rely on a miracle but hoping for one anyway. Joe Livesay is hoping for a vaccine. Until then, he will remain sequestered away from the physical nearness that we have all ached for but that remains a dangerous and potentially deadly risk.