Yes, a truly rotten year. America ragged, wrung-out, coding blue in hospitals, bleeding red in the streets. A frightening spring, a feverish summer, a school year in shambles, a third wave of virus, a hard-candy Christmas. Restaurants, theater, church and sports turned into herky-jerky approximations of what used to be routine joy. Jobs gone. Togetherness gone. One in every 1,000 Americans, gone from covid-19. Millions more who don’t care, who are living in their own worlds instead of the one that desperately needs their cooperation. It was hard to breathe. It was hard to see smiles, even if they were there. It was hard to think good thoughts when bombarded by so much bad.
Here’s something, though: Eloise learned to ride a bike.
“It sounds so silly because tens of thousands of kids learn to ride their bike every day.”
In quarantine, Courtney Patterson suddenly had free time every afternoon to teach her 8-year-old daughter, who was born with a rare genetic condition that arrests her motor skills.
“I’m not going to say I didn’t think she was capable of it,” Patterson says, “but it felt like a minor miracle to me.”
Eloise has been in physical therapy since she was 6 months old, speech therapy since she was 1, occupational therapy since 5. “You can do hard things,” her parents tell her frequently, but her mother thought riding a bike would be forever out of Eloise’s reach. And then on a spring day, after weeks of practice in a high school parking lot in Kensington, Md., as the country writhed through the first wave of the pandemic.
“You’ll just have to keep trying, and you’ll see it’s not that scary,” Patterson told Eloise, taking video of her daughter’s latest attempt to ride her metallic purple bike. “There you go. Pedal. Pedal. Can you pedal? There you go! Hey! You got it. You got it. Pedal pedal. There you go! You’re riding a bike, Eloise! You’re riding a bike!”
Patterson has watched that video often. It’s been that kind of year.
“I see firsthand the ways my kids have struggled,” says Patterson, 44, who works for a trade association. “People who’ve lost jobs and lives. My dad had a cousin who died of covid. And I wish in so many ways it never happened. But I also look at it as this gift of time. And I don’t know that we ever would’ve had the time to teach her how to do that before she got self-conscious about being too old to try anymore. I think there was kind of a narrow window for it to happen. It was a weird gift, in a way.”
It was a year of weird gifts, of unexpected graces, small victories, gradual epiphanies.
In Denver, when classrooms went virtual, a former teacher opened her backyard to a small group of children and, three times a week, ran “Wildside Academy” for other grateful parents.
“I started feeling like a teacher on the bench, like I’ve got capacity to be more creative with what this could look like,” says Alli Horst, 34, who now works in human resources. “It felt ridiculous to say: ‘We have a backyard, and I have a master’s in education. Could we do something with this?’ And now I wonder how many times I haven’t offered something, because I thought it was crazy, and would anyone want it? The pandemic made us all get a little scrappy.”
In Decatur, Ga., Andisheh Nouraee traded in a sixth-floor office view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for a work-from-home view of the Japanese maple he planted with his daughter years ago. Keeping a written list of the visiting birds — goldfinches, yellow warblers, brown thrashers — made him feel connected to the memory of his birdwatching father, who died 11 years ago.
“This is the first opportunity I’ve had as an adult to stare at a tree for 40 hours a week,” says Nouraee, 47, who works in communications. “I am aware of the fact that in this horrific time, this is a small gift. But, in the strange and sad and stressful moments, it’s an unalloyed positive thing.”
In Potomac, Md., Shashi Bellamkonda uses video chat to bring his parents from Hyderabad, India, into his home. Sometimes he just sits with them in silence, over his morning tea and their dinner, in place of his vanished hour-long commute.
“My dad has started showing signs of memory loss, so I think this has helped us be very supportive of my mom,” says Bellamkonda, 57, a marketing vice president. “I feel very lucky. I count it as a good fortune simply because, as my parents grow old, this has been incredibly good quality time to spend with them.”
Distances were obliterated as time grew more plentiful. People beat cancer this year. People succumbed to addiction. The year spread pain unevenly, but most people felt it somehow: A majority of Americans had a personal connection to someone who had died or been hospitalized because of covid-19, according to the Pew Research Center, and 42 percent had someone in their household who had endured a job loss or pay cut.
Brittani James, a physician on the South Side of Chicago, describes 2020 in sharp terms: “cataclysm,” “the specter of death,” “this hell we’ve been living in.” In her city, Black people were dying at nearly six times the rate of White people at the beginning of the pandemic. Sometimes the only thing a healer could offer was her witness to suffering, her affirming words of “I hear you, I see you.”
But something shifted over the course of this year. James, 33, started 2020 “watching the destruction of Black lives from inside the ivory tower of medicine,” she wrote in an April essay, and feeling “a unique brand of trauma.” By June, after the killing of George Floyd sent people into the streets, a clear majority of Americans (57 percent) agreed that the police are more likely to use excessive force with a Black person than a White person in similar situations, according to polling by Monmouth University. By the autumn, James had co-founded the Institute for Antiracism in Medicine.
And last week, after receiving her first shot of the Pfizer vaccine, she allowed herself to feel grateful and hopeful.
“I came to work with poor people, Black and Brown people, because I am one of them,” James says. “I’ve never seen this mainstream attention to the issues that plague our community. Seeing that legitimate caring and centering of that community has been so mind-blowing and so healing.”
When the pandemic hit, Desiree Leal was working three jobs in Montgomery, Tex.: taking care of her elderly father, driving a school bus and delivering pizzas. Unemployment barely covered the bills. Sometimes dinner is a can of SpaghettiOs. After she moved her father to a nursing home over the summer, he got covid twice. She got it over the summer and still feels lingering effects.
But he survived. And so has she.
“I remember a phrase my mom told me as a child,” Leal says. “She said, ‘Never let the bastards get to you.’ . . . One thing covid did to me: It turned me suicidal. And I just heard my mom’s voice in my head: ‘As bad as things get, you never go down without a fight. Get your butt up. Go do something.’ ”
This month Leal organized a Christmas-card drive so that senior citizens like her father — whom she hasn’t seen in person since July — received some holiday cheer from local schoolchildren.
“Sometimes people think the idea of Christianity is everything turns out well if you do the right thing,” says Dan Hyun, a pastor in Baltimore. “But, man, sometimes life sucks.”
His 9-year-old daughter, Tabby, was diagnosed with leukemia in April and began seven months of intensive chemotherapy. It’s been a year of needles, of counting white blood cells, of anxious visits to the emergency room — all while being physically separated from their church.
“Look how hard it’s been,” Hyun tells Tabby, “but look how well you’re doing.”
Without a physical congregation, the Hyuns found a steady river of prayers on social media. At a time of weakness, he finds strength in his daughter’s strength. “That first month, every day felt like such a fight,” Hyun says. “We didn’t know if we were going to make it. But our daughter has grown up so much. So much maturity. She’s my hero.”
Six years ago, in Philadelphia, social worker Edie Weinstein began giving out free hugs to strangers at the 30th Street Station. She’s hugged at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. She’s hugged her way across Ireland. When the pandemic hit, she panicked. The hunger for touch is as serious as food hunger, she says, and many people were already starving for tactile connection.
This year, we had to figure out different ways to express love. This year, masks made us better at eye contact. This year, while on Zoom sessions with clients, Weinstein focused on preexisting resilience.
“I have clients in addiction, clients who lost loved ones, clients who’ve survived abuse, clients who are front-line workers,” says Weinstein, who lives in Dublin, Pa. “And I say to them: ‘I am amazed and in awe of all you’ve accomplished. You’ve survived everything that’s ever happened in life.’”
To temper the uncertainty of this year, she sometimes asks them: “Who were you when the year began, and who are you now that the year is ending?”
Most Americans — 86 percent of us, according to Pew — think there is some kind of lesson to be learned from the pandemic. In late April, as Eloise was first mastering her bike in suburban Maryland, Amanda Golbek went into labor in Evanston, Ill. The plan was to have a natural birth at the hospital, but nothing has been natural about this year. Thirty hours into labor, Golbek’s blood pressure dropped and the baby’s heart rate slowed. Alarms went off. Faceless health-care workers in full PPE swarmed her bed. In the blur, there was alarming talk of the umbilical cord. There was an unplanned epidural. There was too much bleeding. Then a sudden C-section.
In her pain and exhaustion, Golbek felt as if she’d somehow failed. Her husband, Henry Coates, began to pray the 23rd Psalm, with its dreams of still waters. Golbek and Coates are both ministers at First Presbyterian Evanston, which was founded by Civil War veterans in 1868. This year its pews had been empty for the first time since the 1918 flu pandemic. Its stained-glass windows are dedicated to people killed during World War II. There are reminders everywhere of previous hardship, of endurance and survival.
This too shall pass, Coates has told himself this year. This too shall pass.
And then, suddenly, they had a son. Brought from around the baby-blue surgical sheet. A new life amid so much death. They named him Jacob, after their great grandfathers, and a biblical struggle that is happening in many forms today.
“Not only did we have the pandemic, but then we had the turmoil of race issues,” Golbek says of this year. “And I would just stare at my blond-haired, blue-eyed son and think about the weight of bringing a boy, bringing a Caucasian, White child, into this world — and what was my responsibility?”
In late July, during a virtual sermon about the connections between our personal and national crises, Coates quoted the recently deceased John Lewis: “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year. It is the struggle of a lifetime.”
At this point, as 2020 becomes 2021, perhaps an adage is enough.
Who were you when the year began? Edie Weinstein would say. Who are you now that the year is ending?
I can’t fix everything in your life, Brittani James would say. But I can listen. I can see you.
Don’t let the bastards get you down, Desiree Leal’s mother would say. Get up. Do something.
Look how hard it’s been, Dan Hyun would say to his daughter Tabby, but look how well you’re doing.
You can do hard things, Eloise’s parents would tell her.
I can do hard things, Eloise would reply, feet on the pedals. I can do hard things.