I sat in an airport in Costa Rica with a crew of teenagers, preparing to return home to Houston after spending the last five days exploring the countryside and helping to build a new home for a wonderful family. Our technology-addicted students looked up from their phones long enough to deliver the shocked announcement, “The Rodeo is closed.”
The Houston Livestock and Rodeo was closed. One of the biggest events of the year in the fourth largest city in the country. And everyone was getting sent home.
I looked at my friend and the fearless leader of our motley crew and said, “I don’t think we’re going back to school.”
And we didn’t.
The week after spring break was spent in preparation for online learning with hopes that this would be a temporary fix and we would be able to return to the building before the end of the year.
We never did.
I didn’t see my classroom again for nearly five months. My husband moved his office out to the garage, I taught from my kitchen table, our second grader learned from the office, and our fifth grader learned from her desk in her bedroom. We started ripping out cabinets and carpet, redoing our bar and our stairwell and making the bed we had been dreaming of making for the past ten years. We avoided people, started wearing masks everywhere, and discovered that our eleven-year-old was capable of watching her brother for short periods of time so we could run errands without exposing them to crowds and germs.
We mourned losses that in the grand scheme of things seem so small, but they were still losses.
Our June date night to see the Barenaked Ladies on tour was cancelled, as was our family Memorial Day weekend to camp in San Antonio and see Kenny Chesney in concert. We celebrated four birthdays in quarantine and away from friends and family. When we decided to stretch our circle to include our immediate neighbors and a small number of friends, we did so with a fear and trepidation that I have never before experienced.
We still managed a seriously socially-distanced camping vacation to Colorado, but even that was full of hesitation. We met up with my sister-in-law, who had been hunkered down even more than we had, and spent two weeks exploring mountains and canyons and sand dunes. While if felt good to get out of town just as numbers began to once again spike at home, the pandemic was always lurking in the corners, reminding us that it was there.
Like many teachers my anxiety soared the closer we got to the beginning of the school year. I questioned every decision being made about my health, the health of my colleagues, and the health of my students. Like many parents, I feared for what my own children’s return to school meant for their health and the health of our family.
Anxiety had never been a regular part of my vocabulary, but now I’ve come to accept it as just one more thing I have to cope with.
In general, our family has faired pretty well during the course of the last year. Until recently, my husband and I were both employed and my job loss was not directly related to the pandemic. Thanks to social distancing and consistent mask wearing and our kids remembering to regularly take over-the-counter allergy medicine for maintenance, our family is the healthiest that we’ve been in years. Our family is not “high risk,” so while we fear the unknowns that could come with COVID-19, we haven’t seen it as life or death so much as we didn’t want to get sick and we wanted to prevent possibly spreading it to others. We’ve watched friends and family deal with varying degrees of illness as they have gotten the coronavirus, but our closest losses to the disease that has taken the lives of over 500,000 Americans has been the losses of others close to us.
We know that in the grand scheme of things, we’re the lucky ones.
But for me the losses over the last year have been about more than the death of loved ones and the drastic changes in our every day lives.
It’s been the loss in trust in others and faith in institutions to do what is best for humanity. It’s been the raw selfishness laid bare and the lack of understanding that we are all connected and dependent on each other for our survival. It’s the praise of being an “essential worker” and the criticism for our very real concerns and fears.
Over the last year I learned just how little empathy people have for others, particularly when they have to make small sacrifices in their own daily lives.
I watched other countries pay their citizens to stay home and citizens take lockdown seriously enough that they have been living relatively normal lives over the last several months while in America we’ve watched hospitals fill up and death tolls increase. And yet on my social media feeds, people have complained about government control and loss of freedoms because those freedoms matter more to them than the lives of others.
I’ve watched people post pictures and memes declaring “My body, my choice,” completely unaware of the irony of claiming to be pro-life (more accurately anti-abortion) and yet using the same argument that pro-choice women use to defend their right to end their pregnancies. I’ve seen the same people who declare “Freedom isn’t free” in relation to Memorial Day complaining about their freedoms being stripped from them because they can’t go into stores without a mask covering their face, a mask designed to protect them and those around them from the spread of a disease that is destroying the long-term health of some and taking the lives of others.
It has been a year of lessons for many of us. It has been a struggle of varying degrees and one that will continue even after our country has this novel coronavirus under control. We have so much to heal, and not just our health. The isolation that many of us have faced has not just been because we have lost the close proximity to our “people.” It’s because we haven’t known who to trust once we’ve left our circles of trust. We haven’t known who has been looking out only for themselves and who has been concerned about the health and well-being of the general population. We’ve watched measures designed to keep us safe become political talking points and maddening levels of hypocrisy and criticism from all directions.
It’s been a long year for all of us and it’s not over yet.
I have hope. My husband is scheduled for his vaccine and we’re constantly looking for where I can schedule mine. I have increasing numbers of friends and family who are also vaccinated and it looks like we could experience a slow return to normal sooner than later. But I’m also aware that it isn’t that easy for all of us. For some of my friends, the isolation will continue as they wait for herd immunity that will protect vulnerable members of their family. For many of us, myself included, there is the general anxiety related to crowds and large groups of people. I don’t know when my body will relax around groups and I will feel relatively safe around strangers.
But we will come out of this. A year ago, I wondered if we would come out of this stronger than we entered it. While I now struggle to believe that is true, I still hope that more of us will use this as an opportunity to build a better and stronger country than whose who choose to cling to the broken past. Healing will come. We will transition to a world with echoes of life before March 2020, but still changed and in some ways significantly different from our lives before.
Whether or not that change will be better is up to us.