The Last Week
Remembering when we thought Covid might be a temporary inconvenience, and what it became instead
I have a photograph from March 10, 2020 on my camera roll. In it, my kids are pointing at the contents of our pantry that we’d emptied onto the floor. They’d built a tower of cans and peanut butter next to a collection of boxed soups. I’d used the occasion to teach them about counting with tally marks: we listed the contents of the cabinet, adding lines to categories as we pulled food from the shelves. Canned beans. Dried Beans. Pasta. Breakfast bars.
While in retrospect it might be fair to call this my first lesson of pandemic homeschooling, at the time I considered it taking inventory. The boys and I determined what we had and what we needed, I made a giant list of non-perishables that could get us through a two-week quarantine and headed to Target, where I filled a cart with cans of soup and boxes of cereal. I want to say I bought some activities for the kids, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t think to. At that point, they were still in school, in daycare; they still had plenty to do.
The shelves were surprisingly well-stocked until I got to the cleaning section at the end, which was stripped bare. There were two packs of off-brand toilet paper still for sale, nine roles apiece. A sign informed me of a two package limit. I contemplated my next move; it wasn’t something I needed per se, but it would help me to stay out of stores. I moved them slowly into my cart. And while I’m sorry for whoever was behind me in the paper products area, I’m not sorry I grabbed those rolls. Three months would pass before I found toilet paper in a store again.
When I arrived home that night, pulling bags from the trunk of the car and arranging their contents with precision wherever we could fit them in the house, my husband inspected my purchases with bemusement, certain I was overreacting. And while my close friends living in NYC didn’t say so directly when I sent them the photo of my kids and the cupboard contents, I’m pretty sure they thought so too. They were still going to the office, still riding the subway, using a Kleenex to hold the poll. There was an air of nervousness, they said, but no one was panicking. New York handles whatever comes its way.
I remember doubting myself that night, holding on to the possibility that I was wrong. In that world, this week, we’d be laughing at the one year anniversary of that time I spent way too much money at Target, eating a can of soup that had sat on our shelf for 12 months. We would have had perhaps a more cautious spring, followed by a normal summer. We might have hugged our parents a little tighter thinking of the people lost in China, in Italy, grateful to our hospitals and public health officials that the darkest predictions never transpired. But we would have been hugging our loved ones all year long.
The possibility of that alternate reality — which was known, up to that point, simply as reality — collapsed over the course of the next few days. The day after my buying spree, March 11, my colleagues and I gathered in the conference room to watch Governor Mike DeWine and then-director of the Ohio Department of Public Health Dr. Amy Acton announce the fourth confirmed case of Covid in Ohio and accompanying limitations on visiting nursing homes. They foreshadowed more restrictions on gatherings to come, but the governor also stated that he was not recommending school districts shut down. That evening, my family ate what would be our last dinner in a restaurant.
The next day, in an abrupt about-face, DeWine declared schools and daycares across the state would be required to close for three weeks beginning Tuesday, March 17. This was the moment it became personal, the first time I had to ask how I would manage my kids, my job, and a public health crisis all at the same time. Working in media, I didn’t have time to process my feelings, to consider what this meant. I typed the news into boxes on various social media feeds. I clicked “share.”
Though the moment felt terrifying, it also felt temporary. I figured my boys would get an early and extended spring break while we hunkered down and the worst passed. On Friday, March 13, we did our best to have a normal morning. My husband walked my oldest to his bus stop. I dropped my youngest at daycare on my way into the office. I still didn’t have a plan for what I would do with my kids the following week. Turns out, I didn’t need one. Sunday, March 15, DeWine announced the closure of bars and restaurants. A few minutes later I got the call: the food and drink publication I wrote for, dependent on ads from the service industry, was laying me off. “Temporary,” they said.
I never got that job back. A year later, my oldest has still not been back in the classroom.
Stuck in a situation with lots of time to fill, trying to be positive for my kids while my phone flashed terrifying alerts all day long, I created a colorful schedule that kept us on track. Yes, we would still do math at home. With the kids, we stuck to the first grade curriculum. When I wanted a quick refresher on exponential growth, I looked at the graphs in the news. The case numbers in New York climbed higher and higher, and my anxiety climbed right along with them.
Fourteen days after my fateful shopping trip, New York — a city I’d lived in for 11 years that was packed with people I loved — had reported over 23,000 cases. This may have been around the time the term “doomscrolling” entered our lexicon. For my friends and I, it was also “doomtexting.” We’d share bits of news as we heard them, each fact compounding the impact of prior information. Another form of exponential growth, this time in the form of a terrifying news spiral.
It would be temporary, the president said, declaring he wanted the country “opened up and raring to go” by Easter. This was while cases exploded in his hometown but before the refrigerated trucks had parked in front of funeral homes, before the makeshift morgue was assembled in Central Park.
Over the year, we learned to live with the temporary. We learned what temporary means. That what was a temporary illness for some was permanent for others. That the sense of smell could vanish and never return.
The death toll increased every day. It became a list of names that filled the front page of the New York Times in May. (It would fill more than five times that space today). All year long, it grew — every name, a reminder: we were temporary, too.