Note: the photo above was taken from my office not long before I left it on March 13, 2020.
We knew that week that something big was on the horizon. Faculty had been told earlier in the week to prepare for the possibility of class cancellations and the need to teach from home. We knew that things were going to be different, but no one could appreciate just how much our lives would change.
The week before my wife and I had met her mother and step father for dinner out in Rosemont. She’d be leaving for a month in Spain the next day. I had misgivings. I told my wife “Are they really sure they want to travel. This coronavirus seems kind of deadly. A lot worse than people are saying.” I’d talked to my students from China. They were scared for their families. Not always getting accurate information on what was going on. Almost all of them had been wearing masks already back in January. I looked at my father in law, already frail from Parkinson’s disease, and wondered if I’d ever see him again.
But we pressed on. We pressed on because no one ever wants to believe that a calamity of this scale can happen. Especially to them. This is historic shit. It belongs in sepia tone. Not in my community. Not on my Facebook wall. But it happened anyway. It happened the week of March 13, 2020.
That week began with premonitions. I told my students to expect guidance soon from the university on what to expect in the weeks to come. I told them to wash their hands and clean their phones and computers regularly to help them stay well.
On Wednesday, I got home. My wife had a hair appointment so I drove the car. While eating dinner, I saw the President give a speech. The US borders closed to foreign travelers. I thought of my mother in law still in Spain. I texted my wife. “Can she get back in the county? What will happen? They better leave now.” Her mother decided to stay a few more days. It would soon blow over. No one seemed all that worried in Bilbao.
Then on Thursday sports leagues started to shut down. First the NBA and then the NHL. Suddenly it seemed real. Without sports to distract us, people began to freak out.
I decided on Wednesday to make Friday my first distance learning class for my First Year Writing Students. But I still had an exam to proctor for my American Literature class. I came to an eerily quiet campus, quieter than I had seen it since 9/11 and taught my comp classes on line from my office while waiting to proctor the exam.
Going into the classroom building, I discovered my classroom had been locked. An ominous sign. We took the room next-door because it was unlocked. Most classrooms already seemed empty. The custodians nervous. Wearing face masks and gloves as they swept and sanitized the building.
I gave my students the exam and they completed it in silence. Were they nervous about the exam or the possibility of catching what was now being called COVID-19? I have no idea. The last student finished around 3 pm. Those still remaining packed up to leave.
As I walked outside the classroom and prepared to head back to my office, a student stopped for a moment to talk to me. “What do you think will happen?” “I don’t know.” I said. “We’ll try to make things work on line, but I don’t see us coming back to campus this semester.” “I don’t know,” he said, “some classes don’t work well online. Like this one.” “Yeah,” I said, “but we don’t have much of a choice. We’ll all do our best. Just be patient with me and I’ll be patient with you.” I wished him the best and told him I’d pray for his grandparents with whom he lived. He worried about their health just like I worried about that of my family. My dad has COPD and my mom MS. Even a regular cold is a cause for concern. And this shit, ain’t no cold or flu.
Going back to my office, I started to pack things up in my bag. I wondered when or if I would ever see this space again. I’ve never liked the Brutalist architecture on campus, but I felt a sense of sadness at losing the routine of going to work and coming home again. I put away things I knew I would need and headed outside to wait for my wife to pick me up in the car.
Deserted. Quieter than 9/11. That was my impression as I waited. Today was the end of something. I didn’t know what. I just knew that what came out on the other side would never be like this again. When I got in the car, I told my wife “Let’s go out to eat. This will probably be our last normal meal for a long time.” We went to Portillos. To date, it is the last night we have been out to eat.
We then decided to go to the store. We thought that maybe Friday night would be quieter than Saturday afternoon. We were wrong. The Jewel was more crowded than I had ever seen it before. Store shelves decimated of the most random things. Someone had bought all the cheap frozen pizza, all the onions, all the flour. But they had left behind the TV dinners, the eggs, and the yeast. There was also a lot of alcohol to be had. But no toilet paper. Thank God I had bought some on Wednesday before the panic buying had hit high gear.
That night we brought our purchases inside in stages along with the items from work. My wife would still have to go to the office for a few more days. Then the governor would shut the state down, sending us all home for an indefinite period of time.
So here I sit. Writing this blog post today on April 3, 2020. Like many of you, I feel like I have lived more than a year in a few weeks. And yet, the bad news continues. Death upon death. Disaster upon disaster.
Who knows what the future holds. But my mother in law and her husband eventually got home before Spain and all of Europe shut down. They are both healthy. Thank God. As are my family so far.
I work from home now. Teach distantly. Grade papers as before. Looking over my shoulder as history happens. Reminded again of the tenuous hold humans have on their environment. We have always been mastered by our setting. It’s just that living in a city, one not prone to many natural disasters, has given me the privilege of ignoring this for a long time.
No more. Only God and our immune system can tell us what the future holds. May they both be kind to you and yours.