I hope you are all doing well, or as close to well as possible given the circumstances. The pandemic is not over yet, but we have come a long way from where we were this time last year.
Thanksgiving is a time for family and friends. One of the many cruel aspects of the pandemic has been that it prevented us from being able to see one another safely for far too long. Even now, with the benefit of vaccines, we are not quite back to normal, but at least there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Humans are social creatures. It is not in our nature to be separated for so long. Video conferencing, although a wonderful technology, does not substitute for a hug or for sitting at the dinner table surrounded by good company.
The beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic feels like yesterday. The calendar, however, says otherwise. March 2020 is now almost a year and a half ago. Although the origins of COVID can be traced back to late 2019, the world shut down in March, once it became clear that this was no localized outbreak, but a worldwide menace. It changed my life. It changed all our lives.
The pandemic has been a tragedy. It has been a grind, in every conceivable way. In the midst of great suffering, we have been forced to confront what is truly important in life.
Let that sink in for a moment. Tomorrow is a new year. Although the adversity we are facing won’t disappear overnight, it is still a major accomplishment to get to this point, even if we didn’t get here unscathed.
This was originally going to be a “Top Learnings From 2020” post, as I am someone who loves to make lists, but when it comes to 2020, quite frankly, I don’t know where to start. 2020 was a difficult, awful, strange year. It has been a continous learning experience. To condense it into list form feels impossible.
Where do you even start? Hundreds of thousands of lives lost. National wounds re-opened (not that they ever truly closed). The constant stream of anxiety-inducing news stories. Financial ruin for millions. Plans dashed for everyone. For the rest of our lives, we are going to look back on 2020 as a lost year. And in many ways, it was.
But that’s not to say this year was without meaning or instruction. If there was one silver lining to this 365-day trainwreck of a year, 2020 helped clarify what is truly important. It gave us time to reflect, to take stock of our lives, and see if where we are, both on a personal and societal level, is congruent with where we want to be. Reflection is not a bad thing, even if the truths surfaced are painful.
What We Value Most
For me, 2020 helped clarify not just what I valued, but why. I came into 2020 knowing what I valued – my family, friends, faith, health. And I still do value those things. But I didn’t realize just how important they are to me. They say that you don’t realize what you are made of until you encounter adversity. Well, you also don’t realize what you value until adversity threatens its existence. You don’t realize what is important to you until you face the prospect of losing it all at a moment’s notice. Until you face the prospect of profound loss, you don’t realize just how fragile everything is that you hold dear.
2020 saw one health crisis after another for my family. Given the progression of my disease, I am currently living with my parents. Four times I have watched one of them rushed to the emergency room – my father back in February, and my mother in September, November and December. On December 1st, my mother was wheeled out of our house and taken to the hospital in an ambulance, and given the severity of what had happened and how much pain she was in, I was confronted with the fact that I might never see her again.
None of these crises were COVID-related, but we had to deal with that too, on top of everything else. That night, on December 1st, when my mom was rushed to the hospital, they gave her a COVID test, and she tested positive. She had been hospitalized two weeks prior, and was exposed there (my dad and I hadn’t gone anywhere in the previous two weeks). Despite the best precautions, the virus always seems to find a way.
Thankfully, my mom had mild symptoms, and they were able to address it at the hospital, while treating her for her other health issue. A week later, my dad tested positive and dealth with moderate GI issues, and also lost his sense of smell. Somehow, I tested negative twice, even though I was in close contact with him constantly. But it was a nervewracking time nonetheless, especially as we waited for the results.
At the same time (because not enough was going on!), my cousin and her partner got it (he was in the hospital for five days), my aunt and uncle in Massachusetts got it (my aunt was briefly hospitalized), and several others I knew either had it or were exposed to someone who did. None of these groups of people interacted with one another, so the transmissions all happened independently.
During this time, I barely slept. I barely ate. I couldn’t focus, and had to take time off from work. It was the most stressful two weeks of my life.
(By the way, a quick thank you to all my friends and colleagues who reached out during this time. Your support meant the world to us. We read each and every one of your messages.)
When a loved one is in the hospital for any reason, especially for a serious health issue, what matters most in life comes to the forefront. I realized just how much my parents meant to me, and that, at the end of the day, you could have all the money in the world, or perfect mobility, or achieve fame and success, but if the ones you love aren’t around to share your life with, nothing else matters.
I am thankful to say, that after two weeks in the hospital, mom came home on December 14th. The staff at Yale-New Haven Hospital were amazing and treated her, and us, with utmost respect and professionalism, even under such stressful circumstances.
As I write this, my parents are both home (and currently disagreeing over what to have for dinner, which means they are almost back to 100%). My aunt and uncle, although still battling the virus are feeling a little bit better, and my cousin and her partner are both feeling better and back to work.
Despite those stressful two weeks, I feel like the luckiest person in the world. Trust me when I say that I don’t take any of this for granted anymore. I know that the circumstances could have turned out differently. Hundreds of thousands of families have lost loved ones to this virus, and are still in mourning. My heart goes out to all of them. Many times during my parents’ hospitalizations, my mind wandered to the worst-case scenario many, many times, despite my best efforts to shut those thoughts out of my head.
So, yeah. 2020 has been a rough one. But it has shown me, and I’m sure you as well, what makes life worth living, even in the midst of great hardship.
Turning the Page
It will be weird, and also a little liberating, to talk about 2020 in the past tense. The psychological boost of turning the page is a welcome relief, even if the adversity remains. And remian it will.
If you find that the first few days of 2021 don’t feel any better than 2020, don’t lose hope. When suffering has been this pervasive, for this long, it will be hard to feel a renewed sense of optimism from something as simple as a calendar change. But that doesn’t mean 2021 won’t be better.
It is going to take time to get over 2020. We may never fully get over it. It has been a difficult year for us all, and there is no right way to cope with the stress, fear, and the sadness. There is no correct timeframe for struggling with the magnitude of what we’re going through. You might have seen on social media how Shakespeare wrote King Lear during quarantine from the bubonic plague that was raging at the time. Although an interesting tidbit, that doesn’t mean that if we failed to be productive in 2020, if we didn’t write a novel or get in better shape or whatever, that we failed at coping with the crisis.
I consider myself a productivity nut, someone always trying to accomplish new goals, and I derailed in spectacular fashion this year. I’m not sure I hit any of the goals I set for myself back in January. For example, I wanted to lose weight this year, and although I dropped 10+ pounds on WeightWatchers between January and March, as soon as the pandemic hit, I began stress eating with the best of them. (Only to lose the weight again when everything hit the fan in December, although the “too stressed to eat” diet is NOT one I endorse.)
So don’t worry if you didn’t find yourself constantly accomplishing tasks or feeling fulfilled. The ultimate accomplishment was surviving the year, waking up each day glad to be alive. If you are still struggling with it all (and I’m right there with you), that’s ok. Know that pretty much everyone else is as well, whether or not they admit it.
Which brings me to my last point – as we head into 2021, don’t just give yourself a break, but extend that courtesy to others. We all just went through hell, and many are still going through it. We have gotten so accustomed to tearing each other apart due to our differences, real and perceived. We are all suffering. We would do well to give each other a break, give others the benefit of the doubt, and fight against the headwinds of demonization. Try to find some sort of common ground with others first, before dismissing them. This is a world devoid of grace and mercy, and that has exacerbated our suffering in 2020.
The world we want, a pandemic-free world, a more just world, is attainable. We make up that world, and it is on us to exhibit to others the respect we want others to show back to us. (You didn’t expect to make it through this without a Golden Rule reference, did you?)
I hope to see you all again in person next year. I miss you terribly. Wishing you all health, peace, and a restored sense of humor.