2020: A year of immense pain and growth

I think it’s safe to say that 2020 has been a year unlike any other for all of us. After all, it’s only been 102 years since a global pandemic last swept the planet. Most certainly none of us could have imagined on January 1 what this new year would bring, but it’s safe to say that civil unrest, widespread death and illness were not in our plans for the new year. And yet, here we are.

I typically do my year-end reflections privately, but given the gravity of this year, I am sharing some of my reflections publicly, as we are all struggling to make sense of life in this current moment.

My first clue that 2020 was not going as planned occurred two weeks into the new year, when my ex-husband called to say he was taking our daughter to the emergency room, and I found myself rushing to meet them in the middle of a snowstorm.

The almost two weeks that my daughter spent hospitalized was one of the darkest and scariest periods in my life, knowing that there were no easy answers and that her release would not be a return to usual. However she was released on my birthday, which culminated with my eldest son flying home to see his sister and to support me. I had no idea that would be the last time we would all be together before even greater calamity would befall both our family and the larger world.

February arrived and it was the lull between the storm, as I spent my time following up on my daughter’s care, including looking at out-of-state options, I also received a call from my brother that he was growing concerned about our father’s health. It was in late February that I started paying attention to this new virus that had arrived in Seattle.

Early March came, and as someone who traveled often for work, including biweekly treks to Boston, I started to become worried about this new virus especially as I used public transportation. I was worried enough that I reached out to my board of directors and told them I wanted to shut the office down for a month or so and have the staff work remotely. How little I knew; how naive I was. I went down to Boston the week of March 9 to shut things down and gather what I would need to work from home for a month.

A few days before heading down, my father called to tell me that he had not been feeling well. At this point, all of the country was buzzing about the new coronavirus, including my father. He had been told his appointment to see his doctor was being delayed due to this new virus.

The few days that I spent in Boston the week of March 9 were eerie. Downtown Boston looked like a ghost town. I learned that several other groups my organization shared office space with were also making plans to go remote for a little while. One of my last nights in Boston, I met up with our program director for dinner in East Boston and at dinner she said, “Boss, do you think this is the last time we will break bread?” I said maybe for a while, but still, I had no idea what was coming our way.

I left Boston the morning of Friday, March 13, only to arrive back in Maine and see that things were shutting down in Maine as well. I stopped at one of my usual cafes to grab lunch before taking my daughter to a medical appointment, only to learn that they were closing up early, as business had suddenly dropped off. What the hell was going on? Over that weekend I realized things were getting serious and a few days later, I made a trek to the mainland to stock up on groceries. I had no idea that I wouldn’t leave my island again until late May, after my Dad’s stroke.

The remainder of March until my Dad’s stroke in mid-May were a blur: Daily calls to Dad, trying to coordinate services for him, check-ins with my brother and son, overseeing my daughter’s care and schooling, running my organization and overseeing this site. In the early days of the pandemic, I spent a lot of time in prayer and on my yoga mat, imagining that things couldn’t be that bad, but also knowing that it was entirely possible that this was just the beginning.

Mid-May, Dad’s health deteriorated and he was clearly not feeling well and the telemedicine appointments were not enough. He had started complaining of significant problems with his eyesight.

In late April, Dad did receive an MRI and was told he had pulled some muscles or some garbage. We would later learn, after it was too late, that Dad’s major arteries were seriously blocked, blockages that would lead to the massive stroke which according to his death certificate was the cause of his demise. The day before my Dad suffered a massive stroke, my brother took him to the emergency room, but due to COVID, he wasn’t allowed to stay with him. Dad’s eyesight was failing and he was using a cane at this point, but again he was turned away and given another telemedicine appointment. Less than 24 hours later, Dad would suffer a massive stroke alone in his apartment. My brother found him later in the day after none of us could reach him on the phone.

Dad was hospitalized in the ICU for almost two weeks and due to COVID no visitors were allowed. Instead, we received daily calls on his prognosis. The stroke took away Dad’s ability to talk, so we had to rely on strangers to keep us abreast and to ask our permission for procedures. Finally, the weekend of Memorial Day, the call that I had started to suspect was coming actually happened: Nothing else could be done; we needed to consider hospice. The hospital staff arranged a video call with me, my brother and my son—looking at my father, who was unable to speak and lingering between unconscious and conscious. The hospital agreed to keep dad until I could arrive and arrangements could be made.

I bought a one-way ticket to Chicago, knowing that I would be there as long as necessary. Dad was the last parent and he had spent years after my mom’s death telling my brother and I that one day, he too would leave this dusty rock. Dad prepared us as much as possible, but in a year that had brought a child with health issues and a pandemic, I can’t say that I was ready to say goodbye to my last parent. Then again, life didn’t ask me what I wanted.

I arrived in Chicago a couple days later, and my son met me at the airport as he had driven up from Tennessee. I won’t take you through those weeks but Dad lived longer than we expected him to—he held on for another three weeks after being moved from ICU to hospice. He never regained the ability to speak, but I am certain that he heard us and knew we were there. Unlike the hospitals at that time, hospice did allow visitors but only one at a time.

During that time, the George Floyd protests erupted across the nation, including Chicago. In fact, several days after moving Dad to hospice, I found myself in a city in lockdown. To watch a city and a nation erupt as I prepared to say goodbye to my beloved father—well, it was a lot. Enough that one evening, my heart started racing and wouldn’t stop, and my son had to call 911. The EMT’s arrived and deduced that I was having a significant panic attack. Turns out that being in the middle of an uprising in a pandemic when your last parent is dying is a tad stressful.

Dad did eventually pass, and after taking care of his arrangements and making sure there were no loose ends to Dad’s earthy life, I returned home to Maine, to start the next chapter in my life. A chapter where all the grownups have become ancestors and I now stand as the eldest in my immediate family. Upon returning home to Maine, I spent 14 days alone and in quarantine before my daughter could return to me. I took some additional time off work and increased my therapy sessions. It was the worst of times and it was a trial by fire.

As my world crumbled, the world crumbled.

In the weeks after my return to Maine, multiple friendships that I thought had substance simply ended, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t initially hurt. People I expected to be supportive vanished, as if the friendships had never existed. Facebook memories remind me that some of these people did indeed used to be a part of my life. Otherwise I would have thought I had imagined these friendships. It’s been a hard year for everyone, and we all have limited bandwidth, but a call, a card, or something to acknowledge my loss seemed like a reasonable expectation. That said, there were people who showed up for me that I never would have expected, and for those connections, I am eternally grateful.

Since my Dad’s passing, there has been a shedding, a shedding of illusions and all that doesn’t serve me. There has been a deepening in the connections that matter, most importantly my connection to myself.

The pandemic, while central to this year’s misery, has also been the backdrop to a year that would have been pretty rough even without it. I have often wondered, would my Dad still be alive if he hadn’t gotten sick at a time when things were shut down? Of course, there is forever wondering if his clear symptoms of a possible pending stroke would have been taken more seriously if he had been a white man. I will never know for sure, and I suspect I do know the answer given what I do for a living, but my heart can only take so much pain. I cannot bear to think that the racism that shaped so much of my Dad’s life also took his life.

As horrific as 2020 has been, this year has left a plethora of human insights and life lessons for me. The pandemic has created a pause in my life. Last year, I spent almost 130 days on the road traveling for work, and now that I am not traveling, I find that I am more present for myself and my loved ones. I’m learning to let go of my attachments. Some days, living through this feels like a master yoga class off the mat. It’s all eight limbs of yoga.

This year has forced me to tap into my own strength and humanity in a way that I have never done before, as there are no distractions. When I am feeling what I don’t want to feel, I can’t escape. I can’t distract myself with the superficial. Instead I am sitting in stillness with it and touching it. I look back on the years leading up to this year, and see how I avoided touching the uncomfortable. Now? It’s a friend, it’s a teacher. I don’t always like it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t add value or depth to my being.

I grew up and became an adult this year, and not just because my last parent died. No, I have had to accept life as it is, not as I wish it to be in the moment. That’s not easy and American culture most certainly doesn’t create space to do this. But fighting the uncomfortable moments of reality is a losing proposition. Our country’s approach to managing this pandemic is a masterclass in what happens when we don’t accept reality. If we had had competent leadership at the helm and an acceptance that we have to change to survive this pandemic, I doubt we would be in the trouble we are in now. Imagine if our nation took care of people, so that they don’t have to risk their lives to survive? Instead we are a fractured nation that may be beyond repair.

Awful things can and do happen, and even in the midst of the awful, there can still be something cathartic at work beneath the surface. This year, we have all suffered losses, not one of us will leave this year untouched by life. And,  ultimately, we will each have to decide what to do with the pain of 2020. I can’t tell you what to do with your pain and trauma, but I know that I don’t want to be held prisoner by it for the rest of my days.

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Image by Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash