My 82-year-old mother insists that 2020 was the year that wasn’t. But since she is all too accustomed to me disagreeing with her about many things, the fact we have diverse opinions on this topic isn’t earth-shattering. Because in my experience, as far as happenings go, the year of the coronavirus pandemic was like none other.
It was a year of everything, and throughout its twelve months, the year never stopped glittering. For nine months now, there have been heart-stopping moments where we waited, counting days, deaths, and the number of open hospital beds left to fill with patients, who when stricken with this novel virus, cannot breathe.
The oddness of this year, coupled with stress, highlighted truth
I have noticed that an object can be iridescent only when diffracted light shines on it. Without light, its glitter remains hidden in murky darkness. In that, things can only glitter when light reveals their true nature.
In the year 2020, glitter exposed discord and disfunction. We anticipated an election that would put an end to a malignant Presidential administration, one serving only the man in the Oval Office. We endured an election cycle that seemingly had no end. Horrified, we watched the President use frivolous lawsuits, arm-twisting, and threats to elected officials, judges, and citizens, attempting to invalidate election results once he proved soundly defeated. An attempt at a Presidential coup d’état — however seditious, however poorly executed — and a possibility duly addressed by our country’s Founders when crafting the Constitution, is not a mainstream occurrence in the annals of the United States.
In the midst of partisan warring, so extreme the likes of which has not been seen for 150 years, there was social unrest. People protested racial injustice on the heels of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor murders — and so many, many more black lives lost at the hands of unscrupulous police.
Close to home, we watched our world burn. Orange smoke suffocated Colorado’s bluebird ceiling, with thick black ash of incinerated forests drifting onto porches and lawn furniture all summer long and into the fall. Because of the fires, staying at home and abiding by mandated state orders became all that much less palatable. Before the fires started in mid-August — the Cameron Peak Fire being the first of a set — we could at least escape for a few hours to cycle county roads and wish we were cycling anyplace else but here.
There were so many things we experienced at every twist and turn in 2020 that with each next permutation of unlikely combinations, we wondered what more of everything could be left.
And the glitter never stopped flowing from our emotional faucets
There was so much of everything that we wished we could have more of nothing. The mundane, the quotidian, the normality — oh, how much we missed it.
In that, 2020 was a year of blinders off. A near-constant firehose of information exacerbated the stress and uncertainty of what was the right way to proceed — that if we took the wrong action, we might usher in disease, death, and economic frailty. There were periods of frenzy, which when tempered by repetition, became dulled into familiarity, until once again, the drumbeat of the media harvested yet another topic for us to latch onto, promoting a steadily roiling landscape of panicky moments.
In this year of nothing that was everything, I learned that fish in a tank glitter in water, but only while they are alive, and only when their LED aquarium lighting is on. My collie puppies’ fur glitters effortlessly in sunlight, while my aged dogs’ coats have become dull and lackluster, no matter how much brushing I bestow. Tears glitter, too, whether induced by anger or fear, joy and love, longing, loneliness, or loss. Tears are shed from hopelessness, too. Those tears glitter no differently from other tears, yet as they are mostly experienced when we are alone, are they tears we can see?
There are glittering falsehoods and fables spun by our elected leaders, and then there is the glitter of madness
Our daughter Isabelle, diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 19, struggled to accept her illness for years. We struggled alongside her, mourning the loss, missing the shining star she had been. A high school Valedictorian, mental illness robbed Isabelle of her self-assurance and drive. Medications clouded her mind and stole her creativity. Sluggish and unenthusiastic about what seemed a death sentence for a promising future, as do many who struggle with a mind out of control, she resorted to alcohol to ease her pain. At age 25, she gave up, determined to live without medication — and.just.be.
Her mind tormented and psychotic, she left us, spending time in a psychiatric hospital, and on release, becoming homeless for five months. When she reached out to us on March 19, Colorado was ten days into phase one of what would be an ever-changing landscape of business and school shutdowns. Isabelle wanted to come home.
I first saw a Covid-19 meme on a video, one depicting huge spiked inflatables rolling down empty city streets and scaling building exteriors. Next came the blurred, spiky fuzz ball, looking much like one of my dryer lint balls studded with red velour sock shrapnel.
In the early lockdown days, I divided my time between panic scrolling about the mess the world had gotten itself into — reading every science article I could to understand something, anything, about this new virus that had popped up in Wuhan, China —, and devouring articles on how to manage and treat psychosis.
My husband, Dr. K., an oncologist for 29 years, found himself transitioning backwards to his residency days, wearing surgical scrubs to treat his clinic patients, returning home to strip down to underwear in the garage lest his clothing infect Isabelle and me as he headed to the shower. He labeled our situation succinctly. It was an intersection of two tornadoes.
Experiencing life in lockdown differed for everyone
Friends spent the first month or so of the shutdowns frantically sourcing hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes because the Centers for Disease Control wasn’t sure how long the virus lived on surfaces. I cleaned haphazardly, wiping down door knobs, my cellphone, and scrupulously sterilizing kitchen counter tops, knowing it to be a fruitless task. Isabelle was certain she had discovered the cure to Covid, and talking to herself in an endless monotone, she carried on conversations with people who didn’t exist. When the voices she heard didn’t agree with her, she yelled at them.
Friends posted on Facebook how their days were quiet. Boredom threatened to overtake their lives. The schools closed, restaurants were shuttered by the Colorado State Department of Health and Environment, and businesses offered curbside pickup.
When people were first ordered to stay in their houses, there were toilet paper and grocery shortages. As state health departments cautiously began reopening society, masks became the next must-have item. With PPE’s — personal protection equipment — scarce and reserved for those on the health care front lines — home-sewn masks proliferated, with people trying to outdo one another in numbers sewn.
We cancelled one vacation after another — a visit to our son Harrison and his wife, Alex in Atlanta; a bike trip to Santa Fe; the June trip to Atlanta, rescheduled on the off-chance that this pandemic thing was simply hype and would fade away. The bicycling trip to Prague? That got cancelled, too.
Through it all during those days, Isabelle ranted. She screamed. She disappeared on long walks late into the night during which we were frantic — would she come home, or worse — in a skewed conception of priorities, would she contract the virus and infect us?
In early April, in tandem with millions, we Zoomed with friends, never letting on that Isabelle had returned. She needed protection, if not from us, then from herself.
On Zoom, millions of pixels on the computer screen glittered, capturing our images into tiny squares. There was no talking at once, no cacophony of excitement, no heated conversations. We longed for tactile touches, but knew those could infect us.
Quiet times brought opportunities for healing
As spring turned to summer, Isabelle’s willingness to talk with her psychiatrist and therapist on virtual visits began to bear fruit. The doctor, using the tried-and-true method of trial-and-error, slowly encouraged her, with us alongside, into taking a pharmaceutical cocktail that might bring the return of the Isabelle we knew.
In that, Isabelle’s madness stopped glittering. The daughter I remembered from years past re-emerged, damaged, but determined to heal. There was a glimmer of hope.
Summer of 2020 saw socially distanced cocktail patio parties with our Zoom Covid bubble, the one highly anticipated activity on Saturday night replacing what had been an often hectic pre-pandemic social schedule. Five couples and Isabelle, each sitting in BYO lawn chairs, wearing masks, never touching, no hugs allowed. We cheered on Isabelle’s return to sanity. And we cheered on the health care heroes guided by Dr. Anthony Fauci’s steadfast assurances that we could get through this.
Rule makers, rule breakers, and doing what’s best for the herd
If only we followed the guidelines, wore the masks, shut the businesses, closed the schools, and prevented restaurants from serving too many people indoors. The do’s and don’ts of the list were overwhelming, and not all chose to comply. Masks became a visible banner of a culture war, one that had been brewing for decades. In bubbling to the surface, treading on bleak, unfamiliar ground, we came to see people for who they truly were.
This virus has done more than damage our lungs and kill nearly 300,000 Americans as I write. The pandemic ripped off the facade of our civilization. The masks we wear hide more than our breath, breath that kills others. They mask hatred for the other, the different, the opposition. Those who refuse to mask, believing it weak, show their scorn for those who do all that more willingly. The virus has stripped us of caring, kindness, and reason when it doesn’t fit the confines of our belief systems.
But tellingly, the year has also been filled with pockets of peaceful silence. Is this nature’s way of telling us that we needed to slow down? That life in the year 2020 is too complicated, too fast, too much? That we needed to step back for introspection, to solve problems at home in our families, our communities, our country?
Many will dispute me on this. The damage to the economy, they’ll cry. The lives lost. No, those permanent scars did not have to happen, if common sense and public health policy, learned from pandemics and communal disease suffered by societies past, had some effect on our actions. If people had listened to those who came before us.
I pull a greeting card from its box to enclose with a Hanukkah gift I’ll mail to Harrison and Alex. If we are lucky, if the vaccine rollout stays on schedule, we might see them next summer. It will be nearly two years since we’ve last hugged.
A cloud of glitter comes out of the card box, falling on my lap, my desk, the floor. The glitter is green. It is an ever-present reminder of the things that didn’t happen this year, and the too many things that did. But as a reminder that love is evergreen, it offers an opportunity for reflections on the possibilities of peace.
I was honored to contribute this piece to the Greeley Creative District’s Time Capsule Project, A 20:20 Retrospective and View to the Future by Greeley Creatives. The Time Capsule will be opened in 2070.