In late December 2020, I started saying, “Hang on. The light is coming back, the inauguration will happen, and vaccinations are coming.” I felt hopeful and a little lighter. Then the January 6 attack on the Capitol happened and I went back to feeling anxious and unsettled. After that, I said, “Hang on. The light really is coming back, the inauguration will probably happen, and vaccinations are starting to happen.” It had been ten months since the pandemic had changed daily life and I still felt uncertain about the coming days.
In late January 2020, I attended a Robert Burns birthday party thrown by some neighbors who enjoy celebrating the Scottish poet. At that gathering I stood nose to nose with a woman who had just returned from her job at the Duke campus in Kunshan, China. She was home for the Chinese New Year holiday and reported she had just received notice that she should not count on returning to China for a few weeks. I also learned that many professors at Kunshan came from Wuhan, the suspected center of the pandemic.
On March 2, my colleague Marcy Litle left Seattle where she had been visiting her grandchildren and COVID-19 had begun to spread. She left feeling as though she was fleeing a tidal wave. At that point, it was becoming clear that in North Carolina we were going to need to take serious measures to protect ourselves. I like the way artist Carrie Weems says it: Mask up, back up, and wash up. I took the instructions seriously. My last in-person meeting was with Ethel Radmer on March 11. I took a lovely spring walk in Duke Gardens on March 13, only to discover that evening that the gardens would be closed to the public “for a while.”
I am one of the truly lucky ones. I can work from home (or totally alone in our office), stop going to the grocery store (opting for curbside pickup instead), and only see people (except for my spouse) outdoors wearing masks and staying far apart.
Due to poor national leadership and less than optimal behavior by individuals, the pandemic spread rampantly across this country, disproportionally in Black and brown communities. Some 30 million people in the US are known to have contracted the virus and more than 500,000 have died. Stories of people falling ill crept into my circle of friends: a brother-in-law got sick, relatives who went to a funeral got COVID and died, an elder in a nursing home tested positive.
Then in January, my 90-year-old father-in-law got sick. At first the doctor thought it was his usual winter respiratory infection, but then he tested positive for COVID. In the process of figuring it out, my husband was exposed and went into quarantine. Since I had not been exposed, I decided to move into our office. And there I stayed for two weeks, with a comfortable mattress on the floor, heat, water, and a minimal but usable kitchen. After I settled in, I decided to consider it a retreat.
My father-in-law was sick for a couple of weeks but recovered. My husband tested negative, twice. And after working like I was trying to get tickets to a sold-out rock concert, I finally got appointments for our vaccinations in February.
The Duke Gardens are still closed. My neighbor who works in Kunshan is still in Durham. And I’m now wearing double masks. By the time you read this, I will have had my second vaccination.
I was unprepared for the sense of relief that I felt on January 20 when Biden and Harris were sworn in. I knew I would be happy about the change of leadership, but didn’t realize how much better I would feel. I was also surprised by the relief I felt when I got my first vaccination. It was as though an unwieldy bundle of wet laundry had been lifted off my shoulders. My brain is a little clearer and my step a little lighter.
When I look around, I see that there is much to do. People to vaccinate, ongoing racism to address, farmworkers to protect, people in need of stable income, housing, better access to childcare and health care. It’s time to get back to work. Now, at least, it feels that we have the tools we need to address these problems. It is a matter of coming up with the collective will.
Be kind to yourself, stay safe, and keep working for justice.
This article was first published in the March 2021 issue of South of the Garden, the newsletter of RCWMS. The complete newsletter is available here.