We’re a year into the pandemic and it’s still hard to wrap my head around. I read the NY Times when I have downtime during the week, especially their morning email that wraps up big things that are going on. Last week while perusing one of these daily updates, I was caught off-guard by one of their callouts to readers: when did the pandemic become real for you?
I’m not one of those people who tears up when they hit a butterfly while driving but I’ve gotta say, just reading that one sentence prompt made me tear up. Honestly, thinking about everything that we as a collective have lost over the past 12 weary months makes me feel such an existential dread that I’ve tried to put the whole thing out of my mind. I’m incredibly privileged in that I’m not an essential worker, I still work remotely from home (I actually changed jobs to ensure that would happen long-term because I found I’m much more productive this way), I have health insurance and savings so if my husband or myself were to contract Covid it wouldn’t cripple us financially, and we don’t have any kids yet which takes out a world of obstacles that are even more difficult to navigate now than during normal times.
The pandemic became a real beast to me on March 11th, 2020. I was at a leadership conference for DoD Civilians outside of Boston. The Friday before I left the office I remember I left in a hurry because Matt and I had plans with some friends for his birthday (which I would be gone for the following week). I said a hurried goodbye to my coworkers, didn’t empty out my water bottle, and dodged some chatty people on the way out of the building. It was just another Friday and I was pretty pumped about getting to go on a work retreat to meet new people and learn some new skills (not to mention I love to travel and trips were my favorite part of my otherwise boring job).
By then Covid was real. I was following it in the news and paying attention to the memos that were coming out to us about what actions were being taken in very small and isolated areas. Just a few weeks before my leadership conference I had travelled with my boss to train some folks in San Antonio and Austin. Our new friends were freaking out down there because Covid had already reared its ugly head within the base we’d been at.
By the time I boarded the plane on Sunday afternoon I was concerned and playing out some scenarios in my head, making some “the shit has hit the fan” shopping lists on my phone for when I got back, and reminding my husband to wash his hands if a coworker seemed ill. I wasn’t too concerned to stop at the Vineyard Vines in the airport to try on some new jeans. Don’t worry, I didn’t buy them. Holy hell those were expensive pants and I don’t think I’ll ever wear denim again at this rate anyways.
The leadership seminar was great. Monday morning rolled around and the people around me were a great mix of different types of leaders. I loved talking to them and getting to know them both personally and on a professional level (government workers are generally government workers for their whole careers so between the hundred or so people there I was exposed to a lot of different types of workers and environments out there). The first night there, I took the shuttle with a few new friends and we bought super cheap bathing suits at a hardware store (!!!) so we could hang out in the hot tub. It was so much fun. Maybe I’m remembering it being more fun that it actually was since I haven’t really done anything since then.
By Wednesday morning, one of my coworkers (who, granted, worried more than was healthy for her) had message me that one of her friends in a different organization had just been told that all travel was ending for government workers for now – including those who were already TDY (already out and about). I found out later that this wasn’t entirely true but wow. At that moment my heart just stopped. At breakfast that morning our training facilitator encouraged all of us to keep our phones off of us and not to look at the news while we were there because it was a distraction. Lunch came around and a few other people were echoing the “grounded until further notice” rumor as well. Still, the facilitator refused to engage with us on any of it. It was very frustrating but I get it now. Everything was so up in the air at that time and I’m sure she was hearing the same rumors and was just as worried as the rest of us that there really wasn’t another option for her to take.
Thursday rolled around and the people who had flown in through Boston were being told that they might have to figure out a different way home (through Hartford). Thankfully I’d already booked a flight home out of Hartford because I’d initially planned to stay an extra night or two to explore the area a bit more. None of us were very productive at that point. I was texting Matt (his birthday was Thursday) and keeping him up to date on the rumors swirling around and what might happen. I told him to go buy some toilet paper because another attendee’s spouse told him that everywhere around them was entirely sold out (and, honestly, there are 2 of us so we usually buy 6 rolls at a time and only restock when we’re on the last roll and that was a bad place to be last year). I was nervous but so was everyone else and we all found solace knowing that we weren’t alone.
I decided to take a walk after our last session of the day. I went about 6 miles round trip and happened to get back when a few of the other people I’d been hanging out with were on their way out to a bar. They asked me to go with them so I said yes because there still wasn’t a ton of risk at that point.
We went to a little townie bar that they’d gone to for the past few nights. The guy who owned it and also poured the drinks happened to have a microphone and a massive speaker that they sometimes used for musicians who came through. The guys asked him to hook it up so we could do karaoke. He happily obliged and sat back to listen to some of the worst singing I’m sure he’d ever heard. The regulars at the bar seemed to think it was hilarious instead of annoying and I think I ended up paying for one drink out of the five or six I had thanks to a few of my solo and duet performances. It was, truly, fun.
By 2am or so we were all exhausted and dreading waking up in 4 hours so we headed back to the conference center. We talked about our families, our work families, how worried we all were, and what precautions we were planning to undertake when we made it back. It was the kind of open and honest vulnerability that you can only have with people who you kind of know (we’d been together almost constantly for 4 days at that point) and you’re also pretty sure you’ll never see again.
One of the guys was getting married in a couple of months.
Another’s wife worked for an airline and was already being told to prepare for layoffs.
One lived in Detroit which would soon become an epicenter for Covid. His kids’ schools were already talking about what would happen in the coming months (not realizing it would happen faster than that).
It was a somber walk home but we were together. We were all anxious to get back to our loved ones but, even for an introvert like me, there’s such a solidarity that comes from physically seeing another person in a similar situation and knowing that you really aren’t alone.
The next day we all got up, had breakfast together (lots of waffles and pancakes for me to soak up the whiskey from the night before -_-) and said our goodbyes. We had one more session that quickly devolved into what would happen going forward (essentially, they had no idea). We all loaded up onto shuttles at 11AM sharp and left.
My flight to Atlanta didn’t leave for a while so I hung out with a few of the ladies I’d met for a couple of hours. We chatted and tried to avoid the televisions hanging around us, all blasting the same apocalyptic coverage that we couldn’t do anything about at that point. My flight finally started boarding and I said my goodbyes. Unfortunately at that point I didn’t realize I’d never see, or honestly even talk to, most of these people again. I was so concerned with make sure I caught my flight and also trying to stay away from anyone who looked ill that it just didn’t dawn on me.
That’s when the fun started. After boarding my flight (and being stuck in the middle seat between two larger stature people because isn’t that always what happens) we became delayed. The Atlanta airport had something going on with too many flights coming in so we were told we’d be taking off 20 minutes after our scheduled departure. My layover in Atlanta was only 2 hours so I was a little concerned but not overly so.
90 minutes later we finally took off. I had finally finished Legion and was now freaking out about how I would get home. I didn’t have my government-issued charge card with me which is how everything was supposed to be paid for and they’re actually very strict about that. I was really really hoping I wouldn’t have to stay the night in Atlanta because I was so anxious to get home. The flight was about an hour and I don’t think I stopped fidgeting the entire time. I’m sure my seatmates were thrilled about that.
By the time I landed, I’d texted my boss. We texted frequently anyways as she is just a cool person but I’d told her as our plane was going down the runway what had happened and that I was freaking out.
While I was in the air, she’d managed to call the government travel agency that books all of the federal government’s flights, hotels, cars, and similar items. She’d managed to convince them that I needed to get home that night and that the slightly higher price on a 10:30pm flight to Indianapolis would be much cheaper overall than adding on a Saturday flight, extra day of per diem, and a hotel to stay in. In short, she worked a miracle. It might not sound like a lot but trust me – the government travel agency is not easy to work with especially on short notice like that. I was greeted with a flight attendant calling my name over the PA in Atlanta and giving me my updated flight number.
I ended up having about 4 hours to kill at that point (or it felt like it). If you’ve never flown through Atlanta you might not understand this but it was actually more frenzied than normal. There were people everywhere. All of the attendant stations at all of the open gates were packed with people yelling, kids screaming, and angry adolescents trying to eat their frozen yogurt in peace. I managed to find some coffee and a vacant gate near my new departure gate and tried to take my mind off of things by reading.
A gaggle of young flight attendants ended up parking near me to await their next flight. While they were talking and laughing they all got an email from someone who was a higher up letting them all know that their airline anticipated laying off half of its force in the coming weeks. The gears were already grinding to a moaning halt. They just looked at each other and realized that, being as young as they were and clearly still new to their positions, they’d probably be some of the first to be laid off.
I was their age when I graduated college. I remember that feeling of dread with the financial crisis still hanging around about what I would do for work. How would I pay my loans? For my food? My rent? What else could I do other than the shit job I was offered after graduation that barely paid my meager bills? Nothing. I’m sure they were starting to feel the hopelessness that we’d all eventually feel at some point in the coming months – it just hit them early.
I finally got on my flight back to Indianapolis. My boss had even found a window seat for me.
I watched The Office on the flight home. I listened to some music for a while. Mostly I tried to keep my thoughts from spinning out of control as they’re apt to do when I can’t make a list and measure the different factors that I need to consider to make a decision. I think we were the last flight to land that night. On my way to the exit I noticed that the employees who were still walking around were all wearing masks.
Matt picked me up. It had snowed several inches of heavy, wet snow while I was in the air. It was cold and blustery but felt so much more comforting than the stale air of the terminals I’d been breathing all day. Indiana has a way of doing that. It certainly doesn’t have the best views what with all of the fields dotted with a few large cities and it doesn’t really boast the best arts or food scene. Not a lot of history has happened here like on the east coast or even the west coast. Indiana is just nice. There’s really no other way to put it.
I think I realized what was going on earlier than a lot of people because I follow the news (mostly NPR which I like to listen to in the background and I inevitably hear about a ton of different things all day) and I didn’t have any preconceived notions about how the American public would take to doing something as simple as wearing a mask and washing their hands. I’d read books about different pandemics and plagues. I’d also been playing Plague Inc during that winter and, as ridiculous as it sounds, the basis of the game actually has real science behind it (I know that’s absolutely crazy to think real life might mimic a game but hey it worked in this instance). When I left for that conference, I “knew” what was coming but I didn’t get it. I couldn’t fathom what it would actually look like. It was all still a very childish understanding that X, Y, and Z would happen, people would die, but life would continue on and that life probably wouldn’t look very different for me.
To be fair, my family has fared better than many and I feel bad being down about it, especially right now with relief being so very near to us. I’ve noticed that I’m not really a morning person anymore. I’m not a night person either. I’m always tired but I can’t remember the last time I slept through a full night. I can’t focus on anything for very long. I bought a desk bike to try to keep moving while I’m working and that’s helped but it can only do so much.
I don’t really feel like doing anything but then I randomly get this deep sense of dread in the bottom of my gut (thanks #quarantine15, really it’s probably like 10 but it feels like more since I’ve lost a lot of muscle). I want to do something. Anything. I want to see someone who isn’t my husband or brother in law. On those rare occasions when I’ve been able to physically see a friend or family member I become manic with ecstasy at seeing a friendly face only to feel worse after we’ve parted ways again.
I know the dark tunnel that’s been the pandemic is coming to an end but is it just me or is it really dark in here?