She meant to distract me, the young nurse, as she poked a needle into my hand, searching for an easy vein, while telling me excitedly about the weekend skydiving trip she took with her fiancé. They’d jumped out of a plane! It was thrilling! And then, her eyes intently on the needle she was jabbing into the next vein, she asked me: “What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done?”
“Um,” I replied. “This.”
By this I meant brain surgery, which I had in October to remove a benign tumor from my hearing nerve (and which was the reason for the IV, in the ICU). It was, to say the least, terrifying for me, and everyone who loves me. But really, I could have been referring to all of the last 12 months, the year in which fear was the emotion I (and maybe you?) most often chased away.
MORE LOCALS REFLECTING AFTER A YEAR OF COVID-19
It was fear of this weird ravaging virus, of course—fear that it would make my parents sick (or worse), that my children would come apart at the seams, that the vaccines would all fail, that all we lost would never come back. In the middle of that was fear, too, that my city would figuratively and literally burn to the ground, that we’d have a violent civil war, that America would be lost and never come back. That we’d never learn, never be better, never find a way to come together.
And none of those fears, even now, seem at all irrational. It’s hard sometimes even to breathe for the worry of what we’re experiencing, what we’ve become, what we’re doing to each other, not doing for each other. Are we on the other side of that? It’s hard to say so. And yet. Here we are; here I am.
Maybe—could it be?—what has won out is my natural inclination to tilt towards hope.
I’m a mother; fear is a little wrapped package that lives constantly just out of sight in the (large) part of my brain that is devoted to my children. Perhaps I’ve learned to adapt, to live with this new fear, as I live with that one. Or maybe—could it be?—what has won out is my natural inclination to tilt towards hope; maybe that is the lasting thing I’ll take away from these 12 months (and counting).
I didn’t come through this year with a profound life lesson. (Did you?) I can’t say that Covid and brain surgery and the shitshow that was 2020 have somehow left me appreciating the little things in life more than ever.
But those little things? They mattered.
There was the illuminated heart I saw every night from my bedroom during the lockdown, shining down on the city from the Comcast Tower. The story after story (after story) of people jumping in to help each other, in little and big ways. The socially distanced photos Andrea Cipriani Mecchi took to document Philly families (including mine) in this moment. The encouraging stickers that appeared every six feet on the sidewalk outside my house, where people lined up for food twice a week. The rainbows. The collective tears, the anger, the signs. The books I barreled through. The chips I ate with abandon (because if not now, then when?). The Zoom meetings that started to feel actually not weird. The Zoom happy hours with far-flung friends that meant sort of spending time with far-flung friends. The favorite restaurant down the street that actually made it through with staff intact. The sequined and message-emblazoned and silly face masks that started showing up a few months in. My Martha Rich vote mask.
I am incredibly fortunate. Most of my fears have not been realized. And I am incredibly grateful. For the brilliance of doctors (and surgeons), scientists, nurses, public health officials. For the kindness of neighbors. For the work of activists, artists, educators. For pivots, and compromises, and mail. For luck. For voters.
And, finally, for that little thing I never realized I could be so grateful for: hugging my vaccinated parents, for the first time in more than a year.Header photo courtesy Roxanne Patel Shepelavy, from her first time out wearing a mask in March, 2020.