Where were you in the last days of The Before?
A year ago this week, my kid and I were traveling back from Sydney, after what I hope was not my last visit with my elderly mother. By the time we landed in Los Angeles after two weeks away, news of a coronavirus outbreak in China had grown increasingly alarming. Wuhan had gone into quarantine, and Italy and Iran were struggling. On Feb. 29, the United States reported its first known COVID-19 death, in Seattle. The same day, a Biogen executive reported symptoms after the company’s two-day conference at the Marriott Long Wharf.
We were a little wary flying back, but not super nervous. Not until we arrived at the terminal, along with what seemed like thousands of other passengers, crammed together, sighing all over each other for over an hour waiting for border protection officers to process us. The CDC was supposed to be screening at LAX, but that wasn’t happening, at least not in that terminal. It was hot, and it smelled bad. I kept holding my breath, as if that would help.
We were freaked out, but we were still our old selves, more or less, albeit in a state of willful disbelief in those last days of innocence. In early March, we lived as if we weren’t already halfway over a world-changing precipice. We joked about occasional, unexplained coughs. Kids went to school. People made plans for dinners out, and parties.
Normal’s last gasp seems like yesterday. It also seems like decades ago. The last year has bent time, both trapping us in a slow, endless loop and dragging us through painful milestones at dizzying speed.
A year later, we are still dizzy, but there is finally hope for better milestones ahead.
And yet memory drifts so easily back to how quickly everything fell away after that final week, the losses accelerating as infections spread and the trickle of deaths built into a flood that swept grief into every corner of the country.
“I’m reading a lot of terrifying projections,” I texted a friend in mid-March. I was afraid the pandemic would spread all the way into summer, and “could peak in July, with more than 100,000 deaths.” I felt panic at that number. It wasn’t even close.
That two-day Biogen conference eventually seeded several hundred thousand infections, spreading its COVID strains to at least 29 other states and several countries. This state recorded its first death on March 20. And then, about a week after that, the first veteran died at the Soldier’s Home in Holyoke — the first of at least 75 souls lost in that one, benighted place.
The shutdown divided us into those who can stay safe at home and those who have no choice but to go out and risk their lives to feed their families. Some kids have the luxury of being bored by remote learning, and some have disappeared from schooling entirely. The pandemic widened the deep chasms that divide and hurt us, laying bare the enraging injustices some of us failed to see before, and too many of us still don’t.
The speed with which the virus spread, the deaths and destruction it left, the lives and livelihoods ruined, and the utter unwillingness, and incompetence, of the federal government in the world’s richest country to stop any of it — it all felt unfathomable.
Until we fathomed it. The luckiest adapted to risk, and restrictions. We got used to the suffering, numb to the numbers. How could we not? We’re approaching 600,000 cases in this state, and some 16,000 have died. Friday alone added another 46 people to the tally. That would have stopped us cold a year ago. More than 500,000 Americans have perished, leaving many millions grieving. At least we’re finally officially recognizing their pain: Lowered flags are the least we owe them.
The miseries of one plague year are bleeding into a second, but we can finally envision an ending: We have vaccines, some economic relief, and a now competent federal government to deliver them.
Our losses have been as unimaginable as they were avoidable. It will have cost us too much, but we’re going to come out of this. Not as who we were a year ago; that will never be. But maybe that’s as it should be.