Hometown, epicenter: loss, beauty and hope
Updated: Mar 15, 2021
I can still picture her -- a smiling woman with big glasses, a hearty quick laugh and seemingly constantly outstretched arms that were waiting and willing to catch and hug any of us kids running out of the school building across the street from her house. Didn't matter that we didn't belong to her specifically.
In the small Northern New Jersey town where I grew up? We all belonged to one another.
Our mothers were, to some degree, interchangeable fixers of skinned knees and bruised childhood egos. We ran to all of them. And, we were never ever turned away.
When that lovely lady passed away last year near the start of the pandemic, the loss to our little tight knit community somehow made the lethal force of COVID-19 real in a way I still haven't been able to fully shake. Even though I hadn't known her well at all, the familiarity of this particularly warm and loving person -- who remains a beautiful presence in the mental newsreel of childhood that flashes through my brain -- made everything that was happening feel closer; scarier. I thought of her family's loss and wept.
By contrast, my own journey through pandemic times has been an ordinary one -- I am grateful and blessed to be able to say so, thus far. But, as we mark the first anniversary of COVID-19's impact, I think it's important to document what we've lost, and what we've learned.
Before the Storm
I'd gone "home" to New Jersey in late January for an evening to run a trivia game with my former teacher. We sat in front of a room of about 40 people, many of whom were good old friends from childhood. COVID-19 was troubling, but it was happening in another part of the world with slippage into our nation isolated fully--or so we thought. We had no fear of anything other than running out of questions for the audience.
February. Back in my own family's home in New York, we held my child's science fair at school, where I was lead volunteer. Biggest worries: did we have enough medals, who was going to wipe up the spilled volcano, could everyone fit into a group photo?
Not long after, we had a parent-child winter dance--moms goofing and taking selfies with props while our kids explored all that comes with a first dance.
Those events would be the last normal times I'd enjoy in public before reality shifted.
The changes were both somehow gradual and exceedingly quick. News stories shifting from "this will be like a cold if you get it" to spotty pulling of muted fire alarms by scientists.
By now, early March. I found myself feeling discomfort at Girl Scout Candy Bingo when a mom at my table mentioned her husband was home sick with a fever after traveling to Long Island for work -- she was worried, too. But we all agreed: he couldn't possibly have this virus.
A few days later. Debate over whether we should take my parents -- visiting us upstate -- out to dinner. Seemed silly to be concerned, the virus still felt like a far off iffy thing; hospitals were keeping people with it in isolation. We ate that dinner, garlic bread and warm stuffed clams dripping with just enough butter to make the palates sing and the napkins greasy.
The very next day, a seismic shift: alarms seemed to pulse harder and sound louder by the hour.
Just when I was wondering if my own thoughts had become overly dark, the call confirming that I wasn't misreading the situation came from a close childhood friend, now a physician. "You have asthma, you have risk factors, pull your child from school." What, really? But I thought this was just a cold. "No. Look at Italy. Not since I've seen Italy." When? "Today. Today was the last day of school for your family for now."
And a parting admonition, "April?" Yes.
"All I can tell you is immediately change everything. Wear a mask to the grocery store. Otherwise, don't go out right now."
I called my husband on his way home from work. We had decisions to make -- and we had to make them fast. A hasty trip early the next morning to my child's classroom where -- a day ahead of what would ultimately be a full district closure -- I emptied a desk that had been lovingly and proudly maintained by my kid. Panicked teachers argued loudly in the hallway outside about what should happen next, the ever-calm school nurse had three people yelling in her general direction. The hallmark of my child's school had always been calm professionalism. Everyone was too upset for normal. I knew by their behavior that we weren't wrong to change everything. My eyes welled as I pulled small erasers and big notebooks from the built-in metal cubby. I left a pen and a pencil--kiddo will be back in a few weeks, I hoped.
A few days later, once everything started to close, I received a messenger note from a teacher friend who'd seen me gather our stellar student's belongings that day, the lone wolf parent doing so: "Look who the smart one is now." I wept with relief that somehow I wasn't alone. And that my mom instincts had been advisable, not extreme.
March 13 - Underground
My child and I went to stay at my parents' home so that I could help them and continue to work remotely, while my husband -- at least for a few weeks before shutdown -- continued working in a role that necessitated more human contact. I went to the grocery store first, wearing an N-95 mask from our hardware store that I'd had on hand for dusty messy tasks. Two young guys working in the store pointed at me and laughed out loud: what is wrong with the crazy lady with the mask?! Within two weeks, the only way to enter a grocery store would be with a face covering.
I brought those groceries to my parents house back in North Jersey, thinking we'd only be inconvenienced and worried for a few weeks.
We didn't leave again other than when totally necessary for the better part of three months.
My hometown where my parents have lived for 44 years suddenly was labeled something else entirely: epicenter. Even the common driveway, shared with a neighbor throughout my whole life, felt like a strange and risky place to be. The hospitals where my friends and I had been born were converting cafeterias and attics into COVID wards. A veteran nurse neighbor told me, "I've never seen anything like this. We've been through it all; not this. This is bad."
As we began to piece together that we were living in one of the most infected parts of the country, we spent a tense 14 days wondering if any of us would fall ill. We'd unwittingly been everywhere amid contagion ground zero, like something out of a sci-fi movie I'd likely turn off. By the time my birthday rolled around, early April, I had the only present I wanted: my child, my husband, my parents and I had not come down with Coronavirus.
But, the familiar was being ravaged...and ravaged fast.
By the day, it became not a question of if I'd hear that another childhood friend's parent was sick or dying, it would become a question of when I'd hear the news. Every morning I woke up thinking this had to be a dream. But it wasn't a dream. It was a real-life ongoing nightmare.
The lady I remembered so well as a warm mom standing outside of my elementary school with ready hugs would be so sadly lost to this virus in short order, as would one of my favorite cousins (another giver of the best hugs with the warmest laugh--she was a healthy 90, and I'll always be grateful that most of our family had gathered the fall prior to celebrate her together). I found myself staring at pictures from the day in utter disbelief, repeatedly.
We'd held a 125th anniversary homecoming in my hometown in October 2019. Knowing I had at least hugged and laughed with so many people with whom I'd grown up, especially older people who were suddenly an endangered species, comforted me again and again.
"At least we were all together. At least we hugged. At least we said goodbye somehow."
The death toll kept bearing down. New people in town I didn't know, a father of four, close to my age--gone. A memory wall hastily erected. Strangers walking dogs without masks, dawdling on my parents' front lawn, suddenly felt like enemies in some sort of medical civil war none of us had elected to join. Praying every day that the same doctor friend who'd warned me--maybe even saved me, my parents, my husband, my child--wouldn't fall victim to permanent disability or death. Her peers were dropping around her in terrifying numbers.
Dispatches from upstate were a little better, but not by much. I saw Facebook posts from a beloved nurse friend working in an assisted living, where I knew many residents intimately. She was dressed in protective gear befitting a space alien, her own father begging her to quit her job. Two residents I loved deeply perished quickly. One had made it to the century mark plus, but looked like she was in her 60s and only walked with a cane. We used to giggle like school girls when we sang Tony Bennett songs together. And now, this woman who'd survived everything was taken by a tiny, spikey strange virus. Many labeled the deaths of the very old as no reason to hurt the economy. But, I was losing sweet dear friends.
I found myself trying to explain on Zoom calls to colleagues in other parts of the nation just how bad things were in the places I loved: New Jersey, New York City, Long Island, even upstate New York to some degree. I couldn't really explain it at all, but I saw by their faces that my telling of how things were was shocking and frightening. Sadly, their turn was coming.
By Mother's Day, my husband had been working from home for awhile, and things had calmed down in my parents' neighborhood to the degree that I felt my child and I could go back to New York and simply travel back and forth to help with groceries, prescriptions, and the like.
We had a blessed summer with virus numbers much lower. I felt safer being out and about--not safe, but safer. We craved time with my husband, after so much time apart. We craved nature. We craved mask-free fresh air, and sucked it in wherever it was safe to do so.
Even though I had, thankfully, not been directly hit by COVID-19, I found myself in a strange sort of recovery mode for weeks. I couldn't get enough of laying on a blanket in the sun in my backyard--no people in sight in our rural suburb, vs. the proximity I'd come to no longer enjoy in the tightly spaced pastiche of Bergen County. I wanted to be outside. Alone. Often.
As a foodie, trips to the grocery store had always been luxuriously leisurely. Now, they were always nervous and rushed. No nonsense. In and out. Masked. Hoping others would be masked, too. Gas was pumped wearing gloves. Friends were seen outdoors at a distance, if at all. I still thought maybe I'd wake up from this surrealism, but I'd learned to live beside it as best as possible.
Sounds cliche to say challenging times bring out the best and worst within us. But it's true.
Amid all of this chaos, uncertainty, fear, death, and nearby loss, there were some beautiful moments: Dancing with my mother and daughter in the relative safety of the Jersey backyard when the epicenter was at its worst, while doves could be heard cooing, the roads silent from shutdown, the sky clear blue; a military flyover that made me weep openly, designed to remind us we hadn't been forgotten in Bergen County, NJ while so much of the country remained, at first, largely safe; the sensation of kneading bread dough rhythmically in the kitchen with my daughter; seeing my husband laugh and smile on Zoom when I desperately wanted to hug him in person; the gift of every childhood photo; the realization that every memory we'd taken time to make had been worth it. Just somehow knowing that beauty is always around, even in the middle of horror, is important.
I lost my job of 18 years in summer of 2020. The paperwork even said "reduction in staffing due to COVID-19," in case I'd been uncertain as to why. I embarked on a journey of trying to recreate a career at the midpoint (hopefully!) of life. But the proximal losses of 2020 had taught me, my job wasn't the most important thing. I'd survive the career thing. I'm still working on it. But I'm enjoying the freedom that comes with figuring it out. And I'm armed with the knowledge that holding out for the right fit is worth it...entirely. In our short trip through life, happiness really does count.
I was reminded of the grace we each deserve. Once you know that anyone you encounter may be grappling with life or death moments and their aftermath, your patience grows and extends in ways you might not have previously realized were attainable. May we keep giving one another grace, long after we put away our masks -- hopefully for good.
I was reminded that there are people who have the guts to run into the fire when the rest of us are sheltering. So many frontline people from across all walks of life kept society going when the rest of us had the luxury to simply focus on our own survival. Brave people made community survival possible. I am grateful beyond measure.
My resolve to see health inequities be fully and quickly addressed in our nation was reaffirmed. We lost so many people -- and continue to lose so many people -- because their economic situations forced them into dangerous work situations, or because they didn't have adequate access to medical care. We must do better, and we must continue to fight to do better: each of us; all of us; every day. Every person deserves good health and dignity.
I learned that sadly some people will never be able to put the collective good above their own desires. I hated that lesson, entirely. But, the reality of it made me a wiser human being.
I was reminded that we don't control as much as we think we do. Luck and being in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time sometimes means exceedingly tragic or exceedingly happy end results. All each of us can do is our best. Life is a crapshoot.
My parents, whom I so zealously feared for and tried to protect during the time that they were existing in the epicenter, both have received their second doses of vaccine. Within just a couple of weeks, they will be as safe as a person can get. I look forward to seeing them out and about, relaxed, and happy soon. I am grateful.
I am scheduled for my own vaccine. Science has been miraculously speedy. I am grateful.
Maybe the greatest lesson of all is that there has been one primary thing I've missed. I've missed hugs, especially hugs with elderly folks with whom time is limited to start. Sure, I've missed Broadway shows, and concerts, and relaxed grocery shopping. But if you ask me what is the one thing I don't simply want back, but need back? My answer is simple: I need hugs. I will always need hugs. When I sat with 40 people from my old hometown in January 2020, we were glad to be together at our aforementioned trivia night; none of us realized how very glad we should have been. We didn't know how precious the ability was to gather. We didn't know how lucky we were to still have the ability to have fun together. We didn't realize how short time could be, nor how long absence. We just did what people do. We had fun. Before 2020, I think even the most appreciative among us didn't fully comprehend that ordinary gatherings -- and even the smallest of hugs -- are a most precious gift.
May we never again forget the worth, the power, the privilege, and the blessing of hugs.
I am so lucky, grateful, and blessed that (so far) my pandemic-times journey has been minimally grief-ridden. My nuclear family has remained healthy and safe. I am forever changed, yes, but not in the ways that those who have directly experienced loss and disability have been permanently altered. I dedicate this telling of one person's ordinary pandemic story to those who have passed away due to COVID-19, those living with disability from COVID-19, those who lost loved ones to the pandemic, and those whose lives were impacted in ways that most of us simply don't want to experience or even imagine.
My heart will always be with those most touched by COVID-19 from my hometown of Bogota, NJ and throughout Bergen County. Jersey Strong never was tested so mightily.
I have shared my simple story of the pandemic in the hope that we may each remember what really matters, and what doesn't. If we are truly blessed with the seeming return to relative normalcy that is appearing on our current horizon, may we keep the best things we've learned in these difficult times, and let go of those things that never counted to begin with. May we never forget what truly matters. May we love one another, fully and wholly.
Peace to all. And most of all? Hugs.
RIP to Anna Banana, Antonia, Helen, and Mrs. F. -- a mom to all -- and to so many like them whom we lost.