This is part of a series of personal essays we're calling Stories from Seattle, contributed by our community and designed to show how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting the lives of Seattleites. Want to share your story, coping mechanisms, wildest ideas? We’d love to hear. Please email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I work in global health, collaborating with policy-makers in developing countries on how to deliver lifesaving vaccines to children. It’s a career which requires experience in field epidemiology, knowledge of vaccinology and immunology, and innovative thinking on how to deliver vaccines in fragile settings where health systems are often teetering on the brink of collapse. It’s a career that is constantly challenging, full of surprises, and never boring. I will never reach a point of professional cruise control. I will never feel as if I know enough.
Over the past several weeks, friends, family and acquaintances have reached out to ask questions about what’s to come. They want to know if we are really 12 to 18 months away from having a COVID-19 vaccine and, if so, why it should take so long. I describe the complicated process potential vaccine candidates must go through to ensure safety and immunogenicity, the complexities of producing enough vaccine to meet global demand. The general response is disappointment. From our current vantage point, the availability of a COVID-19 vaccine is a shiny beacon of hope whose reach seems like it’s in a far-too-distant future.
Though it’s my professional obligation to do so, I find myself unable to focus on what’s next. Every time I try to think critically about how to prepare for the months ahead after the acute crisis of this first pandemic wave subsides, I am either stuck in the present or projecting myself into a future five or ten years from now. But the intermediate future is elusive—my line of sight appears only capable of focusing on either the short- or the long-term: my personal disequilibrium, the tiny fissures of grief in everyday life; or what we will see in our rearview when this pandemic is over.
Time, it seems, has been split open, separating what is happening now from everything that came before. I find myself scrolling through old emails and photos, noting the time stamp, feeling a deep estrangement from my former self, a woman who was more cavalier with risks, a global health professional who knew this pandemic was inevitable yet didn’t see this coming. I am in mourning for my own naivety. We are living in a time where virtual happy hours feel like bereavement support groups, where we celebrate a kid’s birthday by circling the block in a car parade and throwing popcorn out the window to mimic confetti.
I keep remembering lasts—the last things I did before the COVID-19 pandemic brought Seattle to a screeching halt. The last place I ate before the bars and restaurants were shuttered; the last person I saw when it was still permissible to hang out with another human who was not a cohabitating family member under the age of 60 with a healthy immune system. I even keep re-living the last errand I ran—to the neighborhood cobbler to get a favorite pair of boots resoled. The boots are still there, I can see them through the window of the closed shop, preserved behind glass as if on display in a darkened museum.
When I first read the recent Harvard Business Review article, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief,” I was skeptical. Grief? It seemed too big a word, too dramatic. Then I realized my denial of grief merely evidenced I was in the grip of one of its stages. Other signs started to emerge, too. I struggled to recall common words. I even introduced myself to a neighbor using the wrong name, instead repeating her own name back to her as I waved from across the street like an idiot. Another symptom of grief: the loss of vocabulary. But having confusion about one’s own name? Well, let’s just say that the neighbor keeps more than the requisite six feet away from me now.
There is colloquial familiarity with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and her five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—a model which provides a framework for navigating loss. A common misinterpretation of the stages is that grief ends with acceptance. As anyone who has experienced loss knows: it doesn’t. To address the continuousness of grief, David Kessler, Kübler-Ross’s protégé, expanded upon the model to include a sixth stage: finding meaning.
We are mourning the loss of touch, of communal gathering. But we are also grieving the formerly mundane and routine: taking the bus to work, grabbing a book from the library. I miss tasting everyone’s drinks at happy hour. (What a germ-tainted saliva nightmare this now seems!) I miss my petty grousing about getting a middle seat on an airplane. I miss the triviality of a great shade of lipstick and a nice pair of earrings, now-dormant accessories of mine. I regard with elusive curiosity, as if I were a child looking at a grown woman’s dressing table. I miss playing it cool with romantic interests. Now I see what a dull game it was, just a transparent defense mechanism to protect myself from the pain of possible rejection. I miss the possibility of rejection.
Possibility in general, it seems, has been cancelled.
Sometimes when I’m abroad in the field for work, I am seized with an irrational fear that my life won’t be there for me when I return home. I’ll step off the plane in Seattle and arrive at my apartment only to find my key won’t turn in the lock. My life, as I knew it, had simply vanished in my absence. I have this fear now—that my life won’t be there to meet me when this is all over. That none of our lives will be. There is a pervasive sentiment that in the wake of this pandemic nothing will be the same. But what does that mean and why does it sound so threatening? It’s not as if unfettered capitalism and our rapacious attitude toward our suffering planet were working out so well for humanity. So why this longing for “normalcy”, a status quo which existed in homage to the privileged few at the expense of the disenfranchised many?
Right now, we are being asked to live differently so that the vulnerable can survive, to think of immunocompromised strangers we will never meet and live in service to their wellbeing. Though we are more globally connected than ever, we in this country are not used to being asked to live in a collective spirit which honors this connection. We are living in a time of paradox: we are choosing to distance because we are all in this together; we are teaching our children that not seeing their grandparents, not hugging their friends, are gestures of love.
It's not all loss: during this time, we have rediscovered sourdough starters, old jigsaw puzzles, vanity measured through the pallid horror of videoconferencing. Our current adaptive socialization has even caused an emerging pathology in parallel to COVID-19: Zoom fatigue.
Moving forward, what will we remember? We are preservationists, living histories of a time which endured mass human casualties due to widespread illness. As a global community, we are all becoming fluent in the language of grief. When all of this is over, how will we find meaning?
When Cleve Jones, a gay activist from San Francisco, conceived of honoring the casualties of the AIDS crisis by stitching together 40 quilt squares, each one in commemoration of an individual who died, he could not have envisioned it would grow to 50,000 panels and weigh 54 tons. The sheer expansiveness of the quilt is a symbol of the enormity of the epidemic, but the heaviness of it, the weight, is perhaps the most prescient legacy of those we lost.
When I traveled to Liberia in 2018, I visited Redemption Hospital, ground zero of the Ebola epidemic a few years earlier. As I wandered the grounds of the facility, I was overcome with emotion. I am not a religious person, but it was a feeling I can only describe as holy. Whenever I met the gaze of a health care worker, I felt an exchange of knowing, and found myself nodding in solemn reverence for all the suffering witnessed there, how the care and treatment of the sick was continuing on all around me, though the epidemic ravaged the country’s health system and it has still not recovered. This ongoingness is itself a memorial, an homage to survival, a reminder of the perseverance of the human spirit.
It is difficult to conceive of the future when we are currently living in a constant, amorphous present. What will we say about how we eventually made our way back to one another, how we navigated our awkwardness, how we wrestled with anxiety over close contact and touch. How will we memorialize this time, articulate what we’ve endured, when the words come back to us again?
What will we tell our future children, our children’s children, about what it was like to live through this pandemic? We wore face masks to the grocery store. Cities transformed into ghost towns. The world seemed to stop.
What will we say, not only as a cautionary tale, but as a gift to honor this moment in history, a message to the future which says:
This is who we were. This is how it changed us. This is what we want you to remember.
—Jessica Mooney is a Seattle-based writer whose short stories, essays and literary criticism have appeared in Entropy, Moss, The Seattle Review of Books, The Rumpus, Salon, and elsewhere. She is the author of the chapbook, Parting Gifts for Losing Contestants, a mini collection of essays on grief published by COAST|noCOAST. She has received artist grants from Artist Trust, the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture, 4 Culture, and was previously a Hugo House fellow. In addition to being a writer, she is also works in global health for an international nonprofit. She is currently working on projects in Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Myanmar and the Philippines.