The Surreal Nature of a Modern Pandemic

It’s been nearly four weeks since I last saw my students. Three weeks ago I was with a group of students spending our spring break building a house in Costa Rica and marveling that two major Texas events had been cancelled thanks to fears over a novel coronavirus. Two weeks ago I was making plans for my own students while getting my two children set up at home so they could learn from two separate places in the house, indefinitely.

And all of those things feel like they happened a year ago.

As a yearbook adviser I had been tracking the news about what is now called COVID-19 so that I could keep updating our “year-in-review.” I became more interested when my cousin suddenly cancelled her return home to China where her husband works at an international school; they instead flew back to the States after a vacation in Europe. Both the dystopia-loving English teacher and disaster-fascinated history major sides of my academic persona craved more information about the history that was unfolding before our eyes.

I knew what COVID could do. I saw that it was spreading. I saw the potential for what could happen in the United States, but it seemed so unlikely to fully disrupt my life that I flippantly joked to my husband that if things started to close down in the US, we would just take a vacation to the Grand Canyon and online school from there.

But then reality hit. Our lives came to a screeching halt. And it all just feels so surreal.

I know that there are hospitals filling up. I know people who are particularly susceptible to the effects of the virus. I’m watching the numbers climb around the world and our country and I’m slowly learning of people who know people who are sick. I know that sooner or later, I am going to personally know someone who is sick, and based on current trajectories, it looks like it will be sooner. And I keep praying that everyone in my house will remain healthy.

I watch the news, I read articles, and I continue to communicate with loved ones who are close to the current epicenters (although I’m sure Houston will be one soon enough), but I feel so removed from everything. For over two weeks, the only public spaces our kids have seen have been trails at a park so that we could ride our bikes away from everyone else. When we have needed to go to the store, it’s been me or my husband. We made one trip to Lowe’s together to get some items to finally take care of house projects that have gone too long undone and we decided never again. We decided we just couldn’t take the chance to be together in public.

All of that information and I wasn’t prepared for what a pandemic would mean in the 21st century.

I wasn’t prepared to jump at every sniffle, sneeze, and cough from every member of my family in the middle of allergy season.

I wasn’t prepared to be both teacher and homeschool mom.

I wasn’t prepared to be thankful for all the ways my husband’s company is considered essential, for now.

I wasn’t prepared to commemorate Holy Week and celebrate Easter in front of a television in my living room.

I wasn’t prepared to be afraid of even little things like ordering take-out or grabbing unpackaged produce at the grocery store.

And I wasn’t prepared to feel oddly comforted by my introverted-self being at home while also craving some kind of human connection outside of my loving immediate family.

Because how can you individually prepare for an event that is both predictable in occurrence and unpredictable in the very real ways it is impacting our daily lives?

I have nowhere to go but deadlines still loom.

I want to a change of scenery but I can’t go too far.

I want to take care of my friends and family but we are either too far away to physically check in or too reasonably cautious to risk the possibility that one of us might be contagious.

We’ve taken our duty to our fellow humans and our family seriously. We’ve let our kids play with our next-door neighbors, aware that even that goes against the strictest of guidelines, but we’ve done so to maintain our sanity. We’ve cleaned and keep telling our kids to wash their hands. We’ve stayed away from most stores while doing our best to keep supporting trusted local businesses.

We’ve talked about our summer plans for a vacation in Colorado and our attendance at two concerts that we desperately want to attend, fully aware that our disappointment may be the cost of keeping people alive.

And it all feels so surreal.

Our country is suffering and will continue to suffer, but someday we will emerge from the economic, emotional, and psychological pain inflicted by COVID-19. The historian in me knows this. Global pandemics are not new, but our ability to predict and treat them is. Unlike plagues of the past, we are not also fighting a multi-country war and we have advanced science and highly-trained medical professionals risking their lives and working around the clock to save as many lives as possible.

While it still doesn’t feel real as I healthily sit at home grinding through helping my children with elementary homework and grading high school English assignments, it doesn’t take much to remind me that outside of our house the struggle to get our country through COVID-19 is very real. And with all the ways this can and probably will change our country (in some ways I hope for the better), it will fully hit home soon enough, because eventually the detached surreal will become very real for our family.

But even when that happens, our family will keep doing our part, because it will take all of us to get through this together, apart.