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The bars were invisible, but they were there. In front of us. Behind us. Beside us. Inside us. We didn’t live in actual cages, but we were caged. For 16 unpredictable and unparalleled months, so many of us lived hunkered down in fear of the unknown.

Our homes were our cages. We felt safe at home. We had groceries delivered and we disinfected them before putting them away. We wiped down everything: doorknobs, bannisters, remotes, our phones, the mail. We binge-watched TV. Played games. FaceTimed. Read books. Cooked. Baked. Ate. Slept.

We grew used to being caged. We adapted. We worked from home. Children attended school from home. We Zoomed from home. Summer of 2020 came and home expanded to outdoors. Friends visited but always masked and 6 feet apart. We bought outdoor heaters and Comfys, and ate potato chips and clam dip, separate bowls for everyone, and pretended it was summer until late fall.

We continued to stay home. We ordered takeout. We shopped online. Some of us didn’t see our parents, our children, the people we love most in the world for more than a year. Some of us buried people we love.

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For nearly a year we did all that was asked of us. And we waited. And then came the vaccine. And the vaccine, getting the vaccine, being protected by the vaccine, changed everything.

Now? Now I push open doors with my hand, not my elbow and I am aware of this not just as a kind of freedom, but as freedom from fear. I am not thinking that I shouldn’t have touched that. I am not wondering, did I touch my face, too? I am not obsessing about what else I shouldn’t have touched or done, or where I shouldn’t have gone. Or if I get sick, will my family will get sick, too?

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The freedom to touch a doorknob, to mingle, to travel, to stand next to a stranger, to shake hands, to hug, all these everyday things that were taken from us 16 long months ago are back and they all feel familiar and good and welcome. But are they temporary? Is the worst really behind us? Are we out of the woods? Is this the way a pandemic ends, in baby steps that turn quickly into giant steps, leading us back to before?

This newfound freedom isn’t really sudden, I know. It didn’t happen overnight, but it feels as if it did. The smiles of strangers. The random conversations. Crowds. Laughter. Overheard conversations. Music. Joy.

But there was none of this just a month ago, not in Massachusetts, and not here in California, where I am as I write this.

I’m at an inn I have been to before and it looks and feels almost the same as it always has. Guests mill about, stand close, talk and laugh. Waiters pour wine. Glasses clink. Strangers sit beside each other and talk. The staff is masked, but for vaccinated guests, masks are not required.

And this is the news: “US deaths dip below 300 per day for the first time since the early days of March, 2020.” Good news. Finally.

How was it for you? How did you get through it? That’s what strangers ask each other.

A woman from Texas talks about her 92-year-old father who lived with her throughout the pandemic. How her mother died suddenly and he was alone and she moved him in with her and her family and how hard being isolated was for him, for all of them.

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Another woman talks about her 17-year-old son missing the end of his senior year in high school, prom, graduation, everything, then finally going off to college in January, eager to be with friends, only to have the dorms closed and to be sent back home a few weeks later. “It’s been hard,” she says.

Hard. That’s the common word. All our stories different but all the same. Deferred dreams. Postponed plans. Canceled celebrations.

Now we are free again. For how long? Who knows. Because this is the news, too: “Highly contagious Delta variant could cause next COVID-19 wave.” Because it is always something.

So before that wave hits, before whatever is next, I am going to do everything I’ve missed doing. I am going to hug friends and eat at restaurants and travel and visit all the people I haven’t been able to visit, and go to movies and plays and concerts. And have people over, who cares if it’s just for takeout.

We were caged. And now, because of researchers and scientists, we who are vaccinated are finally free.

Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. Read more at beverlybeckham.com.