COVID Essay

COVID-19: A Year of Reflection and Finding Small Joys

As I waited for the first dose of my COVID-19 vaccine, it was as if the entire year of viral terror had finally caught up with me. The last year has been filled with shock, panic, uncertainty, a looming grief and cycles of lockdown. Within that, trying to grasp the sense of hope that an effective vaccine could offer seemed impossible. Endless headlines shouted at us and articles presented facts around efficacy, trial data and real-time updates on emergency clearance from the FDA. But, in this moment, as I sat in a chair at an Ohio Valley Walgreens pharmacy, the year in its entirety and the historical implications of what had been accomplished by each of us suddenly washed over me.

A Year of Uncertainty

In March 2020, I went into lockdown with a two-year-old, two dogs and a full-time job as a team leader in a fast-paced and intense environment. The first weeks were dream-like – I felt barely there and completely incapable of grasping what was happening. My mind was exhausted by the practical needs and problem solving required by each day, so I had little time to fully digest and process the onset of a pandemic. The brief periods when I did dwell in that space, I was overwhelmed by the anxiety that came with developing a strategy to keep us safe, keep others safe and still maintain some version of purpose and order in daily life.

As time dragged on, and I slowly came to the realization that my new reality would be a far more exhausting and difficult one, there was a shift. Some part of me (a subconscious survivalist part) recognized I needed to reduce my focus from the next few days, few weeks or few months to intricate planning around wakeup, midmorning, lunchtime, etc., each day. I figured out a precarious way to balance my work and the primary caregiver roles I had to manage simultaneously – this often meant waking up before 5 am to clear my inbox, catch up on writing work or hold what calls I could, drowsily returning to work during my daughter’s afternoon nap and then again after her bedtime at night. While this all felt impossible at first, I gradually started to see small ways to sustain the household – which depended greatly on some of Wheeling’s best and most treasured offerings.

Seeking Small Joys

When time is all you have, taking two walks at the park – in order to manage a toddler in a stroller and a single dog each time – goes from being a ridiculous thought to a totally reasonable one. In fact, most days, we made an additional trip – just us two humans – to explore freely and notice things we may not while on our walks. Wheeling Park, which we can see from our home, and Oglebay Park became my family’s havens. We escaped most often to Wheeling Park for fresh air, mental stimulation, physical movement and glimpses of other humans. Brief interactions with other park walkers became the lifeblood of our days. Watching the lifeless lake bloom into spring and summer, then cycle into fall and freeze over in winter, was the precise marking of time passing that we needed. And each new day, we walked forward and found the beauty. Small joys.

  • Wheeling Park
    A picnic table with a view – and contemplative toddler – at Wheeling Park

Trips to the Public Market didn’t have to end because they didn’t skip a beat offering curbside pickup. This seems only logical for businesses to keep up, but for a single mother who otherwise faced taking a vulnerable two-year-old out into the unsafe and uncertain pandemic world, this was life-giving. Perhaps because of the exhaustion, intense stress and lack of social contact of the time, I would often tear up as we moved through the motions of our Public Market pickups. The friendly staff, hidden behind masks but with kind eyes and voices providing far more than what any order of groceries could, became an extension of our pandemic family. And after some time, I rediscovered the simple pleasures and meditative qualities of food prep for my family – a primary way to nurture both them and my own creativity. Small joys.

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Making homemade red pepper hummus together
Making homemade red pepper hummus together – a household favorite

Routines and rituals helped us reach outside of our home and feel rooted in the wider world. We were able to return to a recycling routine that I had largely had to abandon in the franticness of my days that existed pre-pandemic – that constant darting from one place to the next. A weekly visit to the JB Green Team community recycling location helped offset the swell of shipping boxes that occurred at our home and allowed my daughter to learn about loving and caring for her beautiful planet. We squeezed in some fantastic playlists as we drove, and we both loved catching glimpses of the sprawling Ohio River. The Ohio County Public Library helped me avoid way overspending on new books through their curbside service. The staff always made it feel as though they were as excited as we were when our books were available, and we both enjoyed hours of entertainment, reading everything from The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers and The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton to Becoming by Michelle Obama and Know My Name by Chanel Miller. Small joys.

Reading with lockdown friends
Reading with lockdown friends

By summer, some recognizable aspects of life began to return. Sikora Montessori, where my daughter attends school, was reopening. Things would be different, but the family of teachers and students who had added invaluable texture and experience to her life would refill the void the pandemic created. Paula Sikora patiently walked me through precautions being taken over a Zoom, and our first morning return to the school brought another round of misty eyes and a full heart. I wouldn’t have to continue to haphazardly try to explain to her why she could only see her friends over a computer screen. She would get to laugh and live with the freedom of spirit that every toddler deserves. I would be able to work during normal hours without the immense weight of guilt that came from the combination of being less productive for my firm and less present for my daughter. But, I would miss getting a glimpse into the talents of the teachers, as they would virtually read the children books and talk about all of the most normal (and now more treasured) things in life. Like one teacher’s virtual reading of Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do You See? (with a special appearance by Kermit the Frog) that included a quick primer on identifying the front cover, back cover and spine of a book – to this day, my daughter picks up books and shows me all three. I am grateful that this is one of her prevalent memories from this time. Small joys.

  • Completing a virtual Sikora assignment
    Completing a virtual Sikora assignment – creating a character from things in nature

Brighter Days Ahead

So, as I sat in my chair at Walgreens waiting, the experience of the year crashed over me like tidal wave. Seemingly overnight, life had been stripped down to necessities and survival with little room for misjudgments or time to prepare. And as we had all moved through exhausting cycles of surges, lockdowns and reopenings, there was an incredible group of scientists working tirelessly in laboratories to help us as best they could. Those who developed our vaccines took a process that typically requires 5-10 years and offered us hope in a vial in mere months – a reminder that we were all having to meet this moment in different and difficult ways.  With their help, I will lose less sleep obsessing over where to send my daughter should I become critically ill with COVID-19. With their help, I can focus on preparedness plans for how to help her should she contract the virus (without competing fear for my own health). With their help, my social butterfly of a daughter can safely expand her world, and I will be able to ease my worry over how potentially lethal we could be to others. And for all of this, I offer them infinite gratitude and wish them – and all of our frontline workers – lifetimes of small joys.

Courtney Chase has spent 15 years working in Marketing & Communications at Orrick, both in the firm’s Wheeling and New York City offices. She shares a home with her very busy and very loving three-year-old daughter and two spoiled goldendoodles. In addition to her family, the arts and outdoors sit closest to her heart.