On my sixteenth birthday, my mother gave me a leather-bound journal with my name embossed in gold on the front cover. I stared blankly at the blank pages with pale pinstripe lines traveling end to end, crowned with a fleur-de-lis watermark.
I sat in my oversized wicker butterfly chair, my legs crisscrossed tightly and forming a natural table, trying to think of something to write, only to end up tossing the journal on the top shelf of my closet, waiting for dust to cover it.
When the pandemic first made headlines, I thought, “now what?” I had already been through so much.
Fewer than four years before, my husband had died from pancreatic cancer. Initially, his prognosis was grim. He was given one year to live, an overwhelming reality for a man in the prime of his life. Five weeks later, he collapsed and passed away in our living room in the middle of the night.
There is a type of silence that permeates the air in the aftermath of a tragedy. It’s palpable. In those first few minutes, that silence engulfed me. I felt a pain as if something had been physically drawn out of me. All alone, I kissed him for the last time before dropping my head and crying, “What do I do, now?”
I needed to find a strength that was not in my nature. We had three children. My priority was never to let this define their character, never to use their father’s death as a crutch or have it hang like an anchor around their necks.
Losing my spouse left me confused. How does the coffee maker work? Is today trash day? I had not realized how much I depended upon him. It’s not that I was subservient to him—quite the opposite. We were equals. But I had gotten lazy. It was easier to let him handle it all. Honestly, the right hand didn’t know what the left was doing. I didn’t know the individual passwords to our accounts, making it impossible to pay the bills. Without a paper trail, I didn’t know what bills we owed. I’m embarrassed to say I was unaware of the amount of money we had in our savings account. I found out it wasn’t very much.
From that day forward, I busied myself, often to the point of exhaustion. I functioned at high speed; I had a job to do. As a single mother, time rapidly became my enemy. I was trying to cram too many things into a day, coming up short, always late to games and social events. Notorious for being on the phone during my kids’ games, multi-tasking was my mantra. Everything got my full 25% attention. I took pride in walking the dog while talking on the phone and still listening to a podcast. My mind was always somewhere else, daydreaming of a different situation.
Even if you have never lost someone, you can imagine how it feels. We have all seen enough Hallmark movies. What I was not prepared for was getting smacked when I least expected it. There I was standing in the local market’s produce section when our wedding song played over the loudspeaker. Suddenly, I burst into gut-wrenching sobs, so severe I had to rush out of the store, pushing my way through the sea of pitying stares. I still had to go back inside because I needed milk and eggs.
Eventually, without his income to support us, my children and I had to move back into my childhood home. My mother had passed away years ago, but I still looked for her to protect us. It was a rough time in our lives. We yearned for life to be the way it had been.
It took all three years, but we healed. I went back to working full time. Our aching hearts lessened; this house took on our personalities. In February, my daughter celebrated her sixteenth birthday in grand style with a party. My son had graduated college and launched his new life. I felt joy for the first time, realizing we had come through that dark time, and we were back on track.
Then the pandemic hit. Like some at first, I believed it was just the flu—that it couldn’t hurt me.
Major work events were canceled, cities went into lockdown, the numbers staggering. Friends were testing positive. Some were getting sick. I was laid off from my job. My oldest son moved back home, putting his life on hold, and at-home virtual learning became a real thing. I felt like we were spiraling backward, our arms and legs flailing. Once again, I was overcome with a fear I hadn’t felt for years. The ground beneath us that we had worked so hard to strengthen was giving way.
I was living from my paycheck to paycheck, with very little savings as a cushion.
On the evening news, a woman about my age, with long blonde hair and blue eyes, was interviewed in her car while waiting in a food line, her kids in the back seat. “I have never needed to do anything like this before,” she told the interviewer.
The resemblance to me was uncanny. Our closeness to that situation made me quiver. I knew the look on my face registered my horror just by my kids’ frightened expressions.
“We’re okay,” I reassured them.
The pandemic wasn’t the only crisis looming over me. Without carpools, activities, and events, I was faced with an abundance of time. I didn’t know what to do with myself.
I embraced being able to spend time with my children, and they had to spend time with me, trapped on this island together. We streamed shows and played games—board and VR, which frankly made me want to throw up. We laughed. More than that, we talked, we talked about their Dad and the old house and this house. I was relieved to hear they liked this house just as much. We remembered the fun times in this house with their grandmother. I had never taken the time to sit quietly and listen to them before.
I was not the type to put together a puzzle, nor could I create international meals or strive to bake the perfect sourdough bread. I did like to garden.
Although everyone thought I was crazy, I was inspired to build a vegetable garden on our hill. The hillside was transformed from a downward slope to terraced, level areas. We built raised planting beds, filled them with soil, planted seeds in neat rows, and marked each row with hand-painted signs nailed onto old pieces of wood.
Every night my body ached; my arms were sore. The sun had tanned my skin in odd patterns depending on what clothes I wore. My manicured nails were becoming those of a gardener with the paint chipped, broken, and cracked. When I was putting gas into the tiller, some dripped on my hand, removing what little polish was left. I soaked a rag and finished the job.
And yet, I always felt fearful of what could happen to us. Would we end up in long food lines? I found myself up nights, bombarded by a litany of what-ifs: What if we get sick? What if we become homeless? What if? What if? Always circling back to the same belief: if only my husband were here, he would know what to do.
My mother used to say, “if the same thing keeps happening, it’s because you didn’t learn your lesson.”
One hot afternoon while I was sitting outside, my sixteen-year-old daughter handed me that old journal of mine. “Here, I found this in my room,” she said.
Having forgotten all about its existence, I opened it to the first page. In my mother’s handwriting was this:
You are stronger than you think you are.
When you experience and survive your biggest fear, you will become stronger. If what you thought would break you didn’t break you, then you will be prepared for another storm.
The pandemic was the perfect storm.
The words my mother had written may have meant nothing to me when I first read them, but on that afternoon, they meant everything to me. What were the chances of this journal showing up?
I sat in my backyard, without a to-do list at hand, without the responsibility of watching kids in the pool. I. Simply. Sat. In. My. Yard. Quiet.
There were hummingbirds, large ones that sounded like helicopters as they hovered in my backyard. Was I that hummingbird, continually moving, only stopping for a second to eat?
When you can’t go out to dinner, you can’t go to people’s houses, and friends can’t come to your home, the only place you can go is inside. And that’s precisely where I went, inside my mind. The scariest place I’ve ever been. Stopping frightened me. On the outside, I appeared strong, but why not on the inside?
I had already experienced and survived my biggest fear with my husband’s death and losing our house. I asked myself over and over, “Am I prepared for this storm? Am I strong enough?”
That’s when it hit me. Trust in yourself. Your strength has been inside you all along. You have it in you to thrive.
If I hadn’t been forced to be quiet, I never would have heard what I needed to hear or learn what I needed to know or take stock of myself. I’m not naïve to think bad things won’t happen again, but now I have the tools to handle them.
Like my garden, it was time to plant seeds and sow a new life for when all this passes and things return to normal.
This pandemic has given me a gift, a second chance. I opened the journal to a clean page and wrote one sentence:
I am present.