By Joyce Vance
I know lots of people have already written “coming out from Covid” pieces. I haven’t, until now. I didn’t think I had anything to say, largely because my experience has been relatively benign and, in some regards, pleasant. But now, I have something I want to get off my chest.
I’ve realized that when I talk with the friends I’m starting to see in person again about what my year has been like, I always apologize for how fortunate my family has been. Neither of my high-risk kids got Covid, something I lived in fear of until we were all fully vaccinated. My mom, who is in her 80’s and in a nursing home, tested positive at one point, but never developed symptoms. Beyond that, I had a year that, in many ways, was enjoyable. And I feel guilty about it.
For much of the year, we had all our kids with us. Since their ages range from eighteen to thirty, that was unexpected. And a lot of fun, at least for me—although I’m still trying to lose the weight I put on eating the amazing cardamom buns and other Swedish treats our daughter, who was forced by the pandemic to come home from school in Stockholm, baked for us. Home-baked bread was a daily luxury in our house once we scored yeast and flour.
All six of us in my family were able to mostly work or attend school from home. We had reasonably good internet. I will be forever grateful to the people who exposed themselves to risk by doing my grocery shopping and dropping off my orders. I justified it by tipping them a lot. Our favorite restaurants, Birmingham’s Chez Fon Fon and Bottega, had curbside pick-up, which was a real lifesaver on those days the walls were closing in. I got a stash of toilet paper on the way home from work in late January, when the news from China started to give me a bad feeling, so we never actually ran out (it was close at one point).
It was toilet paper that made the pandemic seem real for my family, even before people around us were getting sick. In March as the rate of new infections skyrocketed and we headed into shutdown, I made one last trip to the closest big supermarket. As we walked in, I told my eighteen-year-old son to go grab some toilet paper from the paper goods aisle while I got fruit, in case it was running low. He laughed at me. And then he came back open-mouthed because when he got there, the aisle was empty. No toilet paper, no paper towels, nothing. We stood in the empty aisle, and of course, we knew.
We knew from the rising infection rates, the tired faces of neighbors who work in local hospitals, many of them quarantining in their basements to protect their families because they lacked PPE. We knew when we started to lose friends and members of our community.
I had the good fortune to be asked by our county health officer to assist in figuring out what our community could produce as substitutes for N95 masks. I met (via Zoom, of course) some amazing people. A community-based sewing cooperative that tells the stories of the civil rights movement through quilting was already organizing to sew masks. A local Facebook page organized hundreds of seamstresses. I spent countless hours researching mask design and fabrication. In a matter of weeks, leaders in the medical community went from telling us their people would never use masks that weren’t manufactured to the N95 standard to asking how many cloth masks we could produce. Although my role was to coordinate with people who were already hard at work, I got to feel useful in the early days of the pandemic.
I spent a lot of time gardening, a benefit of time saved when I stopped commuting. And then came the chickens. If you don’t already know and you’re interested, you can see them on my Instagram feed. They started out as cute tiny chicks and have grown into a pack of little dinosaurs who keep us stocked with eggs. They’ve also deigned to befriend our dogs, Trouble, Fig, and Bella, who spent most of the year at my side as I worked.
I had a lot of time for introspection alone in my basement office, seeing my students only on Zoom. I learned to get up from my desk and get dinner started so we could have family meals, and that I could listen to books I needed to read for work on headphones while walking Bella. I didn’t have formal office hours, but I was able to be present for my students, heading off unnecessary stress for them with impromptu late night or weekend meetings so we could work through any confusion that cropped up as they studied our materials. I put down my work whenever my youngest stuck his head in my door — I learned a lot from and about him in those short conversations while he stretched his legs between classes. I tossed in endless loads of laundry without interrupting my train of thought while planning my classes (although with apologies to my students, that was undoubtedly how I came up with the idea of using videos of the chickens to explain conspiracy law.) I drank coffee with the chickens to start my day. Instead of sitting at my desk all day and ending up hunched over by the time I was finished, I kept a yoga mat in my office. And I used it.
In other words, I recognize that I am one of those privileged people for whom the pandemic, while at times frightening or disruptive, was not tragic. And I feel guilty, no matter how many donations I make to food pantries and other programs.
I know I always will. People lost their jobs and their businesses. A dear friend lost her fiancée. Others lost family members; some more than one. Millions died across the world. But my family is intact.
I’m writing this because I’m increasingly aware it’s not just me. There are lots of people who feel guilty for all sorts of different things that happened this past year. We’re each going to have to find a way to make peace with that. It probably won’t be easy. But even as we try to help those around us who are struggling, it’s important to give voice to our own feelings, our own experience of the pandemic. If we don’t, it will overwhelm us. Instead of giving into guilt, I hope I can carry forward and share the lessons I’ve learned. My plan is to use them to encourage my students, as we talk about their future plans, to use this year to craft career paths that let them better balance work and life. Instead of feeling guilty, maybe we can all face our experiences with honesty and turn them into courage and compassion.