What. A. Year.
You know how people (used to) say: “That seems like only yesterday.” Well, my last birthday, April 2020, seems like a century ago. Or maybe something that occurred in the Pleistocene.
As regular readers of this blog may recall, April is the month I do a little tally of the lessons life has imparted—or dumped on me—in the preceding year. Often, they are variations on one of my basic life philosophies: One disaster at a time. Never ask what else could go wrong.
Well, our year of COVID dynamited such neat aphorisms. Blew them sky high. One disaster at a time? Troubles came so thick and fast, I felt like some manic plate spinner, unable to pause for breath, threats of a total crash looming left, right, and center at every moment. Never ask what else could go wrong? I didn’t have time to ask. An avalanche of problems/woes/insanity erupted in the opening months of 2020 and just kept coming.
A wee sampling of the “highlights”: My social security history—you know, the file that tracks your lifetime earnings—mysteriously “disappeared” from the SSA system. A full-on Vertigo attack literally hit me upside the head and sent me to the ER. A 50-foottree limb fell on my car. Ed had emergency hernia surgery. A medical billing snafu (six months and counting!) has produced mountains of documentation—but no solution to date. And the state website for COVID-vaccine appointments? It crashed on the first day I was eligible to sign up, and remained inoperable for some weeks.
Plus, my hair, which has not been cut since December 11, 2019, was well past my shoulders, heading for mid-back. Untangling its curly mass in the shower each day was seriously eating into valuable problem-solving time. (And clogging the drain.)
Troubles are always with us, as some sage has surely noted. The thing about COVID, though—as you’ve no doubt noticed—is that solving those troubles has been agonizingly s-l-o-w because nothing has worked as it “should have”—a phrase I have now scrubbed from my vocabulary.
The car the 50-foot tree limb smashed? It remained in the auto repair shop for more than a month. In response to my polite queries (okay, my teeth may have been slightly “gritted”) about the delay, I was told: “You didn’t have an appointment.”
Didn’t have an appointment? Didn’t have an appointment?! No $#%! Sherlock. I didn’t have an appointment because I didn’t know a tree would fall on my car until it did.
I didn’t actually utter those words because I understood: 1) nobody cared, and 2) nobody cared.
Necessity is the Mother of
The great lesson of 2020 turned out to be patience. As in, I had to develop some, okay, a ton of it, because everything that went wrong took ten times the usual time to get right, and some stuff never did, so I’m out a few hundred $$$ and change; but more—much more—critically, days and days of life that might have been devoted to something joy-inducing: writing fiction, beating Ed at Scrabble, watching “The Crown”, were consumed in listening to looonnnggg yawn-provoking/hair-rending, taped updates on “How the coronavirus is affecting our services now” at every number I dialed.
And I dialed a lot of numbers a lot of times, searching for someone, anyone, who could correct incorrect medical billing—an ongoing mission that has introduced me to a lengthy list of customer service reps—never the same folks twice—all contradicting one another. Or someone who could assist me in getting the required new license plate so that I could:
1) get the required annual state inspection sticker for my car, which
(2) had passed inspection, except for the required new license plate, which
(3) I couldn’t obtain for months and months because COVID prevented the state’s prisoners from producing them(!!!).
The day this was finally resolved—that was the day the tree fell on my car. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Truly, never ask what else could do wrong.
Sometimes, there wasn’t even the hope of expediting the untangling of a snafu by phoning someone 687 trillion times because there was no one to call. The holiday gifts I ordered in October for far-flung family members? I was curtly informed in emails from Amazon, Etsy, and other online vendors that “due to anticipated postal delivery problems” (understatement of the century!), these items would not arrive before Christmas.
Undaunted, I printed and wrapped photos of these gifts so that our kids, scattered across the country, would still have something to open on “the day” (Good Mommy!). These beribboned “sneak peaks” at presents-yet-to-come, I mailed off in early December. And then the checking of postal tracking numbers, via computer, began. And continued. And continued…
One of the four packages arrived on Christmas Eve. Yes! The others, according to the USPS website, were enjoying a tour of the country that we in COVID lockdown would envy. A package mailed from Mass and bound for New York, traveled first to Virginia, then North Carolina (Come back, come back, I wailed into my computer, helpless) before returning to the Northeast. Another went to New Jersey by way of Missouri. A third appears to have sat at a transfer station 18 miles away for six weeks.
Christmas came and went. Ditto New Year’s. In mid-January, the actual gift items started arriving—I packed them up, mailed them off, and began playing the tracking game again…
You are Number 36,784 in Line
As mind-numbingly maddening as Post Office Roulette was, it turned out to be excellent prep for nailing an appointment for the COVID vaccine. Winter melted slowly into Spring as I surfed back and forth, hourly, across six locations, seeking an appointment. Moderna. Pfizer. J&J. I didn’t care. Molasses would have sufficed had it been on offer and I could have snared a slot. My favorite—not!—were the sites that promised “book your appointment now”, then took all my info, only to report You are number 36,784 in line or There are no appointments at this time. Mind you, these were state- and local-sponsored, official websites, not some QAnon, drink-the-kool-aid, give us your credit card details (wink, wink) link on Facebook.
Meanwhile, nothing was getting written—my various works-in-progress languished as a tsunami of dust gathered around my ankles and mounds of other stuff that really needed doing piled deliriously high.
Hour after hour, day upon day, I clicked and clicked, checking and re-checking. Much of the time, I felt like my cat Tibby who, in the worst cold of winter, sits at the foot of the stairwell, wailing loudly will this never end!
But as we all know, what cannot be changed must be endured. One Friday in March, I was running my usual checks when I saw it: New appointments released at 6:00 tonight. Previous experience had taught me that the person who waits until the listed time, clicks on only to discover a small-country’s population is already in queue. So, I checked every 30 minutes through the morning, then every 10 minutes in the afternoon. The last hour, I refreshed the page every minute. At precisely 6 p.m., a message came up: Choose your pair of dates from the list.
Thrilled, dubious, afraid to hope—I had seen this message a few times before, and it always turned out that the link didn’t work, or the moment I clicked was the moment We have no more appointments available at this time.
But it did work. I got my chosen dates. I got a confirmation a minute later in my Inbox. I had real appointment codes, a time, a place. And when I went, I got my first vaccine. YES! Patience triumphs!
The. Only. Thing. That. Matters.
I’d like to say I’ve mastered the lesson of patience or that patience has paid off in every circumstance, but that would be … apocryphal. The medical billing snafu is still… a snafu, which I’m seriously considering writing off as the cost of living in a country without universal healthcare. I mean, life is short, so how do you want to spend it?
I have learned however to carry my phone everywhere I go(and I do mean everywhere), along with a pen and all the relevant papers, receipts, etc. of whatever crisis I’m dealing with at the moment—I won’t let a trip to the loo cause me to miss the one chance I have to actually talk to someone who knows what they’re doing. (Does this person exist?)
Up top I mentioned two of my basic life philosophies: One disaster at a time. Never ask what else could go wrong. There’s a third one, courtesy of Winston Churchill: If you’re going through hell, keep going.
Patience, as it turns out, was just a prelude to the real lesson of 2020, the deeper, do-or-die lesson: Resilience.
I’ve always thought of myself as resilient—most of us probably have. Able to manage. Be flexible. Bounce back. Move on. But most of us—the lucky ones in lucky countries anyway—have never had to deal with anything remotely like COVID.
This year of COVID has made me see that as helpful and healthful as patience is—and damn near impossible to muster 24/7—what’s really needed is resilience. That finding oneself in hell, one keeps going. In the final analysis, it may be: The. Only. Thing. That. Matters.
As weeks turned to months, then a year of the COVID nightmare, and 5,000 deaths grew to 543,000—and counting—my thoughts often turned to Anne Frank, the young German-Dutch Jewish girl, who had the miserable luck to be born in a time of unparalleled fascism and mass brutality. Anne Frank has always been my gold standard of courage and resilience.
Anne spent 761days hiding from the Nazis in an attic, never once knowing how it would turn out (and it did not turn out well—Anne was deported to Auschwitz then Bergen-Belsen where she died just two months before British and Canadian troops liberated the camp).
What would she have given for a walk in the sunshine, even if just to the grocery store? Even with the required mask? Or for a day of hiking in the woods or mountains? For a chance to turn up the music and dance? For another decade of life?
Seven-hundred, sixty-one days. When I feel myself starting to cave to the petty annoyances of the last year, the lost hours and opportunities, the irritating-but-not-fatal troubles, Anne Frank pops up: You’ve got this, she assures me. You can make it. And I realize rare is the full life span in history that does not encompass some disaster, natural or human-made.
In previous birthday posts, I framed the year’s lessons as benchmarks in my eternal quest for grace, defined as the ability to remain calm and carry on no matter what—the possession of which would enable me to transcend all things petty, leaving me unshakably calm.
Perhaps resilience is that grace.
Yesterday, I made an appointment for a haircut April 20, two weeks to the day after my second vaccine.
And the ear-splitting, mind-shattering bang, bang, bang of multiple hammers that has jarred me out of much-needed sleep at 7:00 a.m. every morning since November (construction on the lot across the backyard)? That hammering stopped this week.
We stagger on.