On the Pandemic’s First Anniversary
It's been a full year now of the pandemic, which I began literally shattered. I broke my shoulder in three places, attracting a mostly well-meaning crowd and a pickpocket as I writhed on a cobblestone street in Portugal. I was traveling with my son, who was living in Spain for the year. In the emergency room, signs in Portuguese and English warned about ongoing coughs and fevers. It was February 25, 2020. The virus was on its way.
“Tudo ficará bem” — Everything will be alright, said the EMTs who loaded me into the ambulance, the technician who took my x-rays, and the doctor who said she’d send me back to America with enough painkillers to get me through the eight-hour flight to Boston. I still had not realized we were high-wiring it on the edge of a pandemic.
I boarded my flight the next day, but not before I was detained at the Madrid Airport. Why was I suddenly leaving the country? Isn’t it obvious, I said, sitting in a wheelchair, my arm in a complicated sling. The pain was talking, and I spoke Spanish, which somehow made me more suspicious. Your accent is good, said the immigration officer. My mother is from Cuba. Beautiful country, he said. Suddenly, all was forgiven, and I was wheeled onto the airplane ten minutes before it took off. Half of the people on board were masked and I wondered if I should be masked too. I flew home in a haze of opioids. My seatmate—a sweet college student sent home by his study abroad program—opened my soda can for me. He said my groaning didn’t bother him. An hour later, he moved to another seat.
It turns out that if I had to fracture my shoulder in three places, I picked the right time. My husband had just begun working from home and could shower me and cut my meat. My daughter had Zoom school and moved back to pitch in with my care. Still living in Spain on his Fulbright, my son was now in the epicenter of the virus yet the scholarship was not releasing him. For a moment, I forgot he was an adult and threatened to call the State Department to let my child come home. My son told me in no uncertain terms not to do that. Not now, not ever.
Spain went on full lockdown, and my son came home on March 16, 2020. He went straight to the backroom—an intensive quarantine within a quarantine. We left his meals at the door. Sometimes he scratched on the wall between his room and our den like a sad pup. My son was close, which made us miss dwelling with him all the more intensely. We missed dwelling in the world too. Scratch. Scratch. Scratch.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I was afraid to breathe deeply for fear of taking in deadly germs. I was scared that a friend, who was on a ventilator, would never breathe on his own again. He was sedated to tolerate the breathing tube, and then the tracheotomy. I lay awake at night thinking about his anxiety, his probable feelings of suffocation. My breaths were shallow. I missed fresh air. A year later, my brother-in-law has been admitted to the hospital with a low oxygenation level. Just as God created Adam, my brother-in-law received the breath of life through tubing in his nostrils. He ate solid food for the first time in a week. He stopped crying.
Fear, survivor's guilt, relief, even gratitude circulate in my pandemic ecosystem. I read that it’s powerful to name the year’s losses. The naming itself releases grief. But grief still seeps into my bones, into my muscles like rigid coldness. A year on of this pandemic and the naming has yet to jumpstart significant healing or quell panic.
I’m embarrassed to name my losses. They are luxuries. I’m too lucky, even undeserving, but I speak them anyway because that’s what it means to be human. Here’s what I miss in random order:
Eating indoors at a restaurant
Oh how I miss hugging people
Writing in cafes
Traveling (I’m not a great traveler but nothing beats the feeling of coming home)
Large holiday meals (Passover and Thanksgiving were empty)
All the holidays as we knew them
I can’t stop cringing at my visage on Zoom calls. But the weather is warming up, and I’ll buy more chairs this year to meet and greet in my backyard again. Visiting privileges in my mother’s nursing home will resume. Each time I see her, I will explain why we must have a Plexiglas sheet between us. “Por qué, por qué, por qué,” my mother will wail. I don’t have an answer. I won’t tell her that it seems pointless. I won’t say that COVID germs are indestructible. But I will tell her that I am resilient and so is she.
I turned 60 in this pandemic. My bones knit in this pandemic. I am almost completely gray-haired in this pandemic. I pray harder in this pandemic. I love more deeply in this pandemic.
Judy Bolton-Fasman’s essays and reviews have appeared in major newspapers including the New York Times and literary magazines such as McSweeney’s, Brevity, Cognoscenti, The Rumpus, Catapult and the anthology, The Shell Game: Writers Play With Borrowed Forms. A recent essay has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Judy also has an essay in the forthcoming anthology, (Her)oics: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Coronavirus Pandemic. She is the recipient of the Alonzo G. Davis Fellowship for Latinx writers from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and has been the Erin Donovan Fellow in Non-Fiction at the Mineral School. Her memoir, Asylum: A Memoir of Family Secrets is forthcoming in the fall of 2021.