COVID-19, a year later

Just breathe…

A few weeks after COVID-19 landed on Earth and started screwing with everything, I started doing something every morning.

Wake up, open your eyes, and take a few deep breaths. Just do it. Don’t check the phone, or even move the cat completely off your face. If you move the leg, three animals launch from their positions simultaneously. So stay in one spot and just breathe. I made myself do this not for the alternative pet hunger remedy, but as a reminder that I am healthy.

Over 500,000 people aren’t breathing today. I bet all those people figured there was still time to get things done in life. Don’t we always think there’s more time. It didn’t hit the hardest until I read that a man in his 30s, in good shape with no previous medical conditions, had died. And then another. This wasn’t an age thing. The pandemic wasn’t going to be a cake walk. So I started doing the breathing thing every morning before coffee. Before I could check Twitter, I needed to make sure I was okay. It’s how I adapted to a new environment.

Adapting on the fly became common ground over the past 365 days. Schools closed, parents became teachers and part-time alcoholics, and the outside world became ghostly. Movie theaters locked their doors, and bars had a curfew that belonged to a middle schooler. It was nuts and chaotic. We all looked at each other differently in stores, dodging each other’s air and space like a running back would dodge tacklers in route to the end zone. That was home, the end of the line. How did you feel the first time being in a grocery store with a mask on and a list compiled out of tiny diary entries from the munchies factory? I was a mess. A 30-minute trip to Schnucks felt like Daytona 500. “Sparking water? Bottled water?! Chips!?” I wanted it all and didn’t have the stomach or ass real estate to spare.

Going to the gym involved cardio, with or without the actual movement. You grabbed a few weights and some kind of stretch tool, and found a secluded spot in the corner. Tasting your own breath like an endless “about the last thing you eat” session that could turn an innocent mirror into a high-caliber assassin. But then I would leave the front door and count myself lucky for being able to actually pull that shit off. I’m lifting 50 pounders like cracked sticks in the woods, and moving around. I am breathing and thinking.

Someone else was probably lying in a hospital bed, separated from their loved ones and trying to live. Both my parents worked in hospitals. I knew them like second homes, but it was a relative feeling. I could look at my dad’s face and see a man running out of daylight while trying to feed a family. I saw my mom’s sorrow after she just worked a shift at Children’s Hospitals trying to keep babies alive. After all, the good folks at Children’s saved my son’s life. Oh, “the good folks” covers a lot of ground. It’s not just the doctors and nurses, surgeons and assistants. It’s the people at the desk answering the phones, saying hello to trauma 150 times a day. It’s all the other people in the room, hanging needles and medicine to the person in front of them, like a chain of command that doesn’t see enough money or light of day. The same people who saved my son probably didn’t save someone else’s son.

Hospitals as a whole took a big hit this past year. COVID-19 ran them over, refusing to take their foot off the throats of tireless workers. Nurses running on a lot of caffeine and little sleep. Doctors watching a horrifying movie that they didn’t understand. No one understood COVID-19. It kicked our ass because we couldn’t see it coming. February expired, and then everything started to crumble. Businesses closed. Ways of life had the rug pulled out from under them. People started dying, with the number rising every week.

It was a sad summer. Sports climbed over constant walls and scrutiny, revealing World Championships that were legit, but didn’t feel at the same time. As my good friend Carly said, it’s like the clock of life just stopped. It really did. Our jobs and roles on Earth moved around quick, relief coming in slowly but bills piling up. I worried every second if I was doing enough. Should I stop this writing thing and just go get a night job? Is my wife going to think I let her and Vin down? Doubt settled into our lives like butter sinking into the holes of warm bread. I kept wondering if I was winning or losing at my role in life? The film critic label was growing in stature, but since it didn’t produce much money at the time, I could never see the forest through the trees.

But it’s always darkest just before dawn, right? 2020 couldn’t find its footing until very late, as the world voted in a new President in November-but seemingly won the election two months later. 2021 seemed brighter, and then that raid happened. It was a grueling boxing match that wouldn’t end. You’d win a round or two, and then get knocked down three times. As businesses started opening their doors or pushing their hours back, the pandemic still felt like a big threat.

Wearing a mask has become the new normal. When this thing dies down later this spring and vaccines go into more arms, there will still be the inclination to stash a pile of blue masks in the glove box. “Where’s the blue?” will no longer be a “Breaking Bad” reference; it’s attached to the cheap yet effective blue masks we bring two of to the gym just in case.

But I’m still here. These days, I make semi-modest writing money. STL Jewish Light has joined my roster of word-dispensers, and I only drive these days to collect a handful of mad money. It’s my own crawl around the city, a place I got to know intimately over the past year. I got outside in my own ways, finding new places to run or just pull over to appreciate. A late night stroll down Kingshighway or Gravois (crank out that Maps-originated French ending) carried extra weight.

It’s not like we all made it. How many families have been shoved during this thing? Right when COVID-19 started breaking shit, my father-in-law passed. March 13, 2020. When hell broke loose and the sky stole someone. Sam Imperiale was a unique individual, someone who could have cut the awkwardness of a deadly pandemic with just a few martinis and your attention. While I hadn’t seen him in a few weeks, we were reconnecting. Some people can’t be forgotten, and he belonged to that Academy of wise ones.

Sam and I were never best friends, but we respected each other. That’s all that counted. Sometimes, people label the souls who don’t adore them as enemies. That’s foolish. There are certain souls here just to keep me in check. Sam did that for me. He wasn’t perfect, but no one will ever be really. We’re all just here trying to do the best with what we were given. I wanted more time with Sam. I think we did.

So, when you’re complaining about a remedial thing this month or wondering about the next month’s rent, just remember that you’re still here. And that’s a fucking privilege after 2020.

We have to make it count.

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