“It seems ridiculous,” I find myself saying to friends on an increasingly frequent basis. “I’m home, I’m doing school, conferences, and everything online and on Zoom, I don’t have to travel anywhere, and yet I feel like I’m more tired than I would be after in-person meetings.”
“You know I’m hearing that from so many people,” a friend replied one afternoon from six feet away, her chestnut hair falling around her mask as she nodded her head. “It must be something about having everything virtual—looking through a screen and not having as much in-person interaction. It’s just not the same.”
I look at what has become my daily routine now and I laugh because, compared to the world’s current struggles, it seems silly that it’s so fatiguing, so draining. I joke with family and friends that I live by a new motto, “Eat, sleep, read, write.” The writing typically begins shortly after I’ve fully woken up, had breakfast, done the basic routine. I’ve been writing everything—nonfiction, poetry, essays, my memoir, digital humanities pieces, pieces required for school, pieces that I’m just doing on the side just because the ideas sit before me, coaxing me to see what they become on a page. My writing has become like driving a vehicle. I sit in the driver's seat, checking my mirrors and filling the pages with what lays before my eyes as I go—the scenes of the past that trails behind me in the rearview mirror; the scenes in the windows beside me of the ever-changing world; the scene in the windshield—a glimpse of an upcoming destination, a promising, healthy future. I write everything under the kitchen sink, spending hours on end each day sitting by our picture window, sculpting art out of words.
“You in the middle of something?” my mother asks each sunny afternoon, entering our living room with our warm jackets in hand. “Want to go now? It’s the warmest part of the day.”
“Yeah, let’s go,” I save my work and we are soon exiting our house by way of the wooden wheelchair ramp leading to the backyard.
We make our way around to the front and down the driveway, embarking on what has become our usual route—down the road, around a few bends, down the mountainous hill and back up. I roll my motorized wheelchair alongside my mom as she steps up the steep incline—she is determined to do this as frequently as the weather permits and does it a little faster and easier each time. We talk about life—things that we’ve heard from friends or in the news as the world navigates this unprecedented time, things we need to figure out how to do amid COVID restrictions, stories of the new normal and the cherished past. We look at the surrounding world, noting the beauty that still remains despite the horrible sights that have sprawled across 2020 like a science fiction movie that everybody is forced to binge-watch nonstop.
“Look at that tree,” she said to me one fall day when the foliage was at its peak, vibrant with reds and yellows. “Look at how the sun shines on it—that’s gorgeous.”
“Yeah, it is,” I replied as she stopped to take a picture. “It looks like a flame.”
“Was that always there?” we sometimes ask each other, gesturing towards a unique sign, plant, or structure unfamiliar to our eyes. “It had to have been, right? Never noticed it before.”
“I feel like there are things that have always been there and I’m just noticing them for the first time just because everything has slowed down and I have time to look at my surroundings rather than running off to go somewhere,” my mom keeps saying.
We make our way back up the road and loop around the neighborhood, often running into neighbors, situating ourselves so that we are practically on the opposite side of the street from them, remaining distanced yet within earshot while catching up on happenings of quarantine life. As the sun sets, we head home, ready for the warmth of the house, the gentle ambush of our sweet, fifty-pound beagle-bulldog Biggie as we enter, the taste of home-cooked dinner, the comforts of home.
I write a while longer, wrapping up when my cell phone chimes to signify that there are fifteen or thirty minutes remaining before my first (or second, depending on the day) Zoom meeting of the day. I debate on where to sit—do I feel like going to my bedroom or staying in the living room today? Is there anyone talking or watching TV in the living room? Do I feel like sitting in my room with the gigantic canvas of the Fairfield University Stag logo on the wall as my background (because, let’s face it, we all notice cool Zoom backgrounds)?
“Going on Zoom,” I call to my family as I move through the house. “I’ll be like two hours—I have two back-to-back tonight.”
Following my meetings—and perhaps more writing (I can’t stop. I’m obsessed) and some Netflix—I dive into bed, basically falling asleep as soon as the light goes out.
I'm convinced, though, that it's not my routine that is wiping me out by each day's end, nor is it the shift to virtual alternatives to meetings (although it is undoubtedly part of it—as the saying goes, Zoom fatigue is real). Rather, it is the scenes of 2020. There's an old saying I heard years ago, the author and source now forgotten, unknown. “They are young, but they have old eyes,” it proclaims. The eyes of the world’s population have aged unfathomably this year.
I sit here and think about all the sights that we have all had to digest this year. I remember, particularly in the early days of the pandemic, the news would depict the global COVID case counts, the list naming the countries with the most cases first and descending to those with the least.
Jeez, I recall thinking to myself over the summer. The Olympics were postponed, and this is what replaced the medal counts.
A sickening thought, a sickening parallel.
I remember cringing when protests were running rampant in the U. S., struggles for justice at their height, risk of infection spreading even higher.
I think, too, of my family’s and my social circle—of those who have outrun COVID, of those who still battle the virus or its aftermath, and those who COVID has left untouched but who have fallen victim to other diseases and tragedies; of the number of times this year that I have picked up my phone to type the words “my family and I heard the news and wanted to send our condolences;” of news reports of that car accident that flashed across our screens, of the realization that we know those hit, of the night spent tossing and turning, wondering, waiting, the memories playing in mind of watching them, a husband and wife duo, coach my brothers’ cross country teams beginning when I was just six years old, of them coaching me in middle school, showing me how to run long distances in my walker, to conquer hills and rough terrain alongside my able-bodied friends and peers, to keep running even if others tell me that I don’t belong on the course.
“Have you found anything?” my mother asked, flipping on the light the next morning.
“No,” I sighed as I lay in bed, my phone already in hand, repeating the same search as the night before. “Still just says they’re in serious condition. What would that even mean? Is that worse than critical condition, or better?”
“It says critical is worse, followed by serious,” she replied, consulting her own phone. “So it sounds like they might be stable but not totally out of the woods yet. See if you can get their daughter or their friends or anybody that might know. I’ve made some calls but haven’t heard back from anyone yet.”
I think back to the moment updates on their status came through from their family and our mutual friends—word of fractures, stitches, and non-life-threatening injuries for her; surgery, a spinal cord injury, and a miracle of survival for him. A sigh of relief slid out of me as I shared the news with my mother and brothers, who echoed that sigh. Our dear coaches have a long course ahead of them—one that requires wheelchair accessibility, intensive rehabilitation, and support, but, as we found later, they are still brimming with life, incredible positivity and humor, and their trademark indomitable spirit of determination and perseverance.
I think of the ways in which COVID and 2020 has changed the way of life that was once so much of a given, now what seems like a lifestyle taken for granted. I have Cerebral Palsy, a physical disability that is characterized by weak muscles throughout the body. In normal times, it is very easy for me to pick up the common cold and whatever else is going around, and it is difficult for me to shake whatever I catch, a residual cough rattling inside me for weeks after the virus has fled or become non-contagious with the aid of antibiotics. If a simple cold has those kinds of effects on my body, I can only imagine what COVID would do. Undoubtedly, my body would experience a war, being pushed to its absolute limits while it battles the virus in what I hope would be a successful manner. This, naturally, qualifies me for membership in the category of people highly susceptible for the virus. What a fabulous classification to have.
Since March, I’ve essentially been dodging any risk of exposure. The last time I was at a public gathering was in early March, before COVID made its presence known in Connecticut, before quarantine began, before the world changed in front of our eyes. I don't remember the last time I was in a grocery store. I'm rarely in public places anymore, opting to stay home or outside as my mother or brothers run errands—we've weighed the risks many times over and it just doesn't seem worth it to any of us. If I absolutely have to have an appointment—a physical or something of that nature—that cannot be done virtually, we strategically schedule them, arranging to have the first appointment of the day or the first after lunch, when the offices are freshly sanitized and nearly-vacant. Religiously wearing our masks, my mother and I get in and out before the settings grow more populated.
If I want to see my friends in the rare weeks when cases are holding steady with no major spikes, I have to figure out where might be the best setting with the most space for social distancing. As this typically means meeting outdoors, my friends and I check the weather, scheduling our plans on days that offer the most availability for both parties and the best forecast. Having always had the luxury of socializing on a more frequent and spontaneous basis, it still seems weird to have to be so strategic about when and where to hang out with friends. Weeks or months may pass between the days that I get to see them in person, but I appreciate each time that the opportunity comes to sit and talk to them at a distance, to wheel my chair alongside them as we chat and navigate a walking path, to run in my walker on a track with them, masked, following safety standards, but still together. I cherish the time I spend with friends more than I ever have. I’m fortunate, too, to have friends who gladly adapt to my need to be overly cautious. We are all just happy to see each other in person, even if we are distanced.
Even in the comfort of our own home, the evidence of quarantine and safety measures are perpetually in sight. As they work and navigate the world outside of the house, my brothers take extensive precautions just to come near me. They take the appropriate measures when they are in public, have thankfully remained healthy throughout this year, and have never shown any symptoms, but still they worry that they may become asymptomatic carriers if somebody they encounter has it. They change their clothes, wash up, and don their masks before coming near me.
Sometimes I forget how long it’s been since I’ve seen the bottom half of my brother’s face.
“Hey,” I said to my oldest brother Sean one summer afternoon as I entered our backyard, noticing him out there with our dog. “You have something on your face. What is that?”
“What? It’s a mustache. I’ve had it for like a month.”
So it had been that long since I had seen his face in its entirety.
He looked fine—I was just fulfilling my duty as the little sister to bug my big brothers. Neither brother, Sean nor Brian, has ever been shy about teasing me. Actually, that’s where I learned it from. They overlooked my disability just enough to feel comfortable bugging me, pranking me, driving me crazy periodically growing up. Brian always told our mother that, yes, he was doing the right thing when subjecting me to his shenanigans—he was preparing me for life, for the people who would give me worse treatment than his taking my socks, sneaking up on me, putting snow down the back of my shirt, or carrying out whatever brilliant scheme he thought of.
“What do you mean? It’s just a mustache,” Sean replied.
“Yeah, what up with that?”
He rolled his eyes as he attempted to swallow his amused smile.
“You know that’s funny,” I said as I continued on my way.
It’s the end of an unprecedented year and I now sit here and think of all that has happened and all of the unorthodox, virtual, and in-person interactions I’ve had—it all still seems so surreal, these new ways of life and of the world that have imposed themselves on us so quickly and completely. I think of my friends, of their perceptions of the times, of their assumptions.
I’ve been thinking about you, many have texted me. They know I’m in the at-risk category even without me explaining it to them. How are you? Are you just sitting in your room all day? Have you been able to go outside at all since March? I hear a lot of disabled people are getting depressed right now. Are you?
I laugh, shaking my head at the stereotypes that have consumed their minds, though, in a sad sort of way, I realize that the life they are describing may be reality for some people.
No, I’m doing well, I text back. I’m busier than I thought I’d be with everything virtual. I get outside every day for a few hours, sometimes multiple times. Keeping in good spirits.
I think, too, of how they say they are so disappointed in the year, in the new reality we have had to adjust to, in the restrictions, changes, and cancellations of events, in having to watch so much hardship rattle the world.
“I just can’t wait until 2021 gets here,” some have said to me. “I can’t wait for things to go back to normal.”
Though I have to believe that they know better, they make it sound like it’s all going to happen instantly, like Times Square’s Waterford Crystal Ball is going to drop on New Year’s Eve and the world will magically be restored to its former state. I can’t blame them for looking forward to normalcy—we all do, more than imagined. I, too, hope for a better age for the world to begin in 2021, but I know it is not going to happen right away. As I don’t expect everything to go back to exactly the same condition that it once was, I hope 2021 will eventually permit a new version of the new normal—some combination of the necessary safety measures and more opportunities for in-person gatherings.
Reflecting on 2020 and pondering what kind of year it has been, I can’t help but think of my parents. I'm reminded of a moment I had with my mother during the shutdown. I had rolled myself out to retrieve a textbook from the table in our common area, preparing for another day of virtual learning, of being one step closer to the completion of my bachelor’s degree and the beginning of my master's. I grabbed the book and exhaled the sentiment "I just miss people, being in a real classroom, not on Zoom."
"You miss people? And what am I, a duck?"
"No," I laughed. "You know what I mean. I'm sure I'm not the only person you want to see every day."
At the time, we were quarantining by ourselves, without the company of my brothers as they were still working outside of the house and were afraid of exposing us to any germs that they brought home. By the time we were reunited over the summer, we had not seen Brian in about five months and Sean in about six. This was the longest we had ever been apart.
"Yeah," she sighed. "Well, soon enough. Count your blessings."
That was my late maternal grandmother's saying. She always said it to my mom in the midst of the most inopportune circumstances.
My mother is right, though. There is so much to be grateful for. My family has stayed healthy all year. We have a great circle of friends, peers, educators, a network of support, and the technology to stay connected in these times.
The pace of life’s routine has slowed, no longer resembling marathon speed. Life has simplified, going “back to the basics,” as my mom likes to say. We now value our loved ones more than ever before, realizing what a gift it is to have them in our lives and that they are well. We find ourselves thinking of those with whom we have lost touch and using the newfound abundance of time at home to reach out and reconnect, picking up right where we left off. We find ourselves more often opting to connect with loved ones through means other than shooting off a quick text. We find ourselves choosing the modes of communication with the most human interaction, welcoming the opportunity for phone and video calls as we describe our experiences of navigating these times.
We have the outdoors, the beauty of nature, the space to spread out so that we can see friends at a distance.
This is the year I graduated college with honors and applied, was accepted to, and began graduate school. This is the year my writing has come most abundantly and fluently, illustrating the most beautiful moments of life and daring to depict the tough realities that once seemed so daunting to set in ink. This is the year I’ve most pushed against the boundaries of writing, testing the limits of what is possible on the page and in digital humanities containers. This is the year I taught myself how to write a query letter and found the audacity to send my work to major publications across the country and the world. This is the year my writing has been published nationally and globally. No, I can't call it a bad year when it has held some of my greatest accomplishments.
I think, too, of my late father, who died of cancer in 1999. There's an old story of him that my mother tells from time to time, a scene of my parents at a friend's birthday party during my father’s final decline. Their friend began to complain about how the occasion marked another year, another opportunity for more unwanted aging of the body.
“I’d give anything to have another birthday,” my dad replied quietly, silencing the friend and other guests, putting life back into perspective with the sentiment.
I always remember that story, and I've thought of it many times since 2020 revealed its wicked ways. I suppose we are fortunate to see another year, however twisted and gut-wrenching it may be.
I keep wondering what we will all take away from 2020. As a nonfiction writer, I wonder what will appear on the page of some future memoir that I write of this period of my life. It's a curiosity that I have had throughout most of my life, ever since my second grade teacher recognized my talent and helped me to discover that I wanted to be a writer. I wonder what kind of insights will set in ink when I write about this period in the future. Perhaps echoing poet Laura Kelly Fanucci, I hope the pages of 2020 remind us to cherish the basic elements of life that are too often taken for granted—a clean bill of health, loving family and friends, the sight of each other's faces, the ability to gather in person, having a moment to notice the sun gorgeously illuminating the trees and all that is still beautiful in the world, and simply possessing the gift of a beating heart and more life before us.