Cicada Season: Pandemic, Faith, and Apocalypse

An essay by Jessica Ripka

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Jessica Ripka is a writer I’ve known and admired for a long time. We met at the Tin House writer’s workshop in 2015, when we bonded over our similar Evangelical upbringing in chaotic families. This year, as Americans have declared the end of the pandemic, Jessica’s brother-in-law and sister both died, if not from the disease itself, from the misinformation that is incubating the disease in our country. And I’ve watched as Jessica took temporary custody of her sister’s children and has struggled to come to terms with faith, loss, and the apocalypse.  I invited her to write an essay about it all. You can donate to her GoFundMe for her nieces and nephew here.

This past Christmas, my brother-in-law died unexpectedly in his own bed. He was only fifty-one and never let on to being unwell in a significant way. On a Monday less than six months later, his wife—my sister—died, too. A week after her death, I turned forty. And a week after that, my life as an unwed, childless woman in Los Angeles changed course forever as I stood in a courthouse in Carroll County, Maryland, gaining emergency temporary custody of their three children. 

The day I am writing this is another Monday, eight weeks later. It’s 7:30 in the morning, the sky a gray sheet outside my window.  Smoke seeps like an oil spill across the country, an unwelcome guest from my beloved West Coast to this cheap hotel room in Maryland, close to where my sister and I grew up. Her daughters, ages six and nine, are a Vermeer painting of softly lit bed sheets and blankets; the eleven-year-old son a dark green mountain under his sleeping bag on a camping cot in the corner. I need to part the curtains and let the chalky light wake them, but who wants to wake up to so much gray and ash with no chance of playgrounds? Each day feels like a fast-moving weather system of unpredictability and bad news. A climate change of emotions. 

No one died of COVID, by the way, in case you’re wondering. The death certificates still list “pending” under Cause and it could take months to finalize. The officer on the scene of my brother-in-law’s death recognized clear signs of diabetic shock, while my sister was apparently paralyzed for days only to eventually stop breathing. The house was in total disarray when I arrived this past June. The Christmas tree was still up and a house cat strained to unchain itself from a large cat condo. 

“Get the children to a doctor as soon as you can,” an officer begged me in my sister’s front yard as my mom and I packed up the kids so they wouldn’t be taken by the state. 

Uninsured for more than five years and living in abject poverty, my sister relied on miraculous healing and homeopathic remedies for medical care. She blamed Obama for everything else. The kids told me about my sister’s reluctant decision to go to an ER but refusal to wear the mandated mask upon arrival. She went home instead, not knowing she had less than two weeks to live. 

“I can tell God doesn’t want us to wear masks,” the nine-year-old told me recently in the car. “Because He rewarded Mommy with heaven for not wearing hers.”

I was driving straight into the sunlight when she said this and didn’t know exactly what to say next. I still don’t. 

“The body has all it needs to fend off infection!” is a mantra the kids still proclaim to me regularly while jumping between the hotel beds, a belief echoed throughout the pages of my sister’s journals. They argue with me about the nonexistence of the coronavirus, the dark plot to control America through vaccines, the ineffectiveness of masks. Their fundamentalist faith is still taking shape, but the talking points are already in place. When their father died, my sister had them all try to raise him from the dead for a full twelve hours before calling the authorities. Then when she fell ill, she reached out to a place called Divine Healing Institute, asking for prayer. Her very last email was to them confirming she was “in the midst of miraculous improvement.” Four days later she was gone. The deaths haven’t cast any doubt in the children’s minds about what they believe, though. If anything, they’re digging their heels in even more. I’ve spent the entire pandemic painstakingly avoiding people like this. Now I am legally bound to parenting them. 

“I suspect this will be a years-long conversation for us,” the eleven-year-old told me at dinner the other night, eyes narrow and suspicious after the topic of immunizations came up.

To be fair, I was a lot like them at their age. My parents were a traveling Pentecostal praise duo for more than twenty years, and I caught up quickly to everything they had spiritually spoon-fed to my older brother and sister. I got in trouble with my third grade gym teacher for announcing non-Christian kids were going to hell. Had she had the stamina, I’m sure my mom would have home-schooled us like my sister later did with her own kids. Instead, I was merely pulled out of Halloween parties and Sex Ed. I clung to a radical faith for a long time, though—longer than most. I officially left the church when I turned thirty while the rest of my family and a large portion of America sank in deeper and deeper.

I’ve spent the entire pandemic painstakingly avoiding people like this. Now I am legally bound to parenting them. 

The kids ask me sometimes why I don’t go to church with them, and I’m still very delicate with my responses. It’s about as hard a question as when people ask just how I left the church. What single event got me to wash my hands of it. There’s no polished answer because just about everything takes a boring amount of incremental change and time. Moving to Los Angeles helped. Working in Hollywood helped, too. Expanding my small social bubble to include people full of kindness and curiosity—that really did the trick. At twenty-seven, I told my first therapist I felt like I was un-tethering myself from the only thing I knew and was terrified about drifting endlessly into some dark, cold unknown. I didn’t know then the “unknown” I feared was just the discovery of myself apart from whatever belief system I’d built over time. I already see the kids tethered to their own toxic belief systems, and they’re tightening all the ropes because it keeps them connected to their parents. Trying to sever them in any way feels as necessary and risky as removing a tumor attached to an artery.    

But what a time to propose any kind of change in America. I’m the odd one out in this family when it comes to how the kids should be parented, educated, medicated, and so on. To keep their new lives as close to their old ones as possible seems untenable to me but desirable to other family members. And with YouTube videos and Facebook posts to support whatever belief you’d like, I fight the eerie feeling every day that I somehow am the corrosive one for wanting the children immunized or fed less fast food. What if I’m wrong? What if the children really should do whatever they please and never learn to spell or shower or brush their hair? 

Meanwhile, our planet is burning. My seventeen years living in California have been a front row seat to global warming—something my mom still believes is God’s wrath for legalized abortion and gay marriage. I love her to pieces but every so often, I want to leave her here with the kids to fend for themselves so I can burn in the hellfire of Los Angeles among my hilarious heathen friends. Instead, I’m buying my mom and the kids a small suburban house outside of Baltimore because they have nowhere to live aside from this cheap hotel. Signing a thirty-year home loan during the apocalypse is a strange thing. One full of such hope and absurdity, I simultaneously laughed and cried at the bank while signing the initial deposit check. Who will inherit this house? What will be left of us in thirty years’ time? How much of our undoing will be our own fault?

And yet the incremental march of change keeps happening, for better and for worse. When I first landed, the kids had no set bedtime or routine. No daily vitamins, fresh laundry, clean living space. None of them even used toothpaste or changed their underwear regularly. Too toxic or too much trouble, my sister told them. My mom and I started recalibrating things slowly, step by step, as the siren sound of cicadas filled the air outside. We’ll keep recalibrating until time or money runs out—whichever comes first. I’m glad this happened during what felt like a biblical plague of cicada season, though. Something completely burned into my memory. Seventeen years ago was not only the last cicada season but also the year I cut ties with Maryland to live in L.A.  Seventeen years ago my sister was still alive, my parents were still together, and I still believed in God. I’d be hard-pressed to find a cicada now. Maybe a rogue wing stuck in a door hinge or grocery store welcome mat. A shadow of what our summer used to be. But they’ll be back again, and when I see them I’ll remember what was different back then and how much has changed. How much change is yet to come. 

Men Yell at Me is a newsletter about the places where our bodies and politics collide and yes, the occasional yelling man. Learn more about it and me (Lyz) here. You can sign up to receive the free weekly email, which includes interviews, essays, and original reporting. Subscriptions allow me to pay writers like Jessica and others an above-market rate for their work. Thank you so much for supporting this newsletter.