“Like most of us, I have some very distinct memories of the days and weeks leading up to the end of life as we once knew it. For myself and thousands of other teachers in Alberta, Valentine’s Day in 2020 started off downtown at Teacher’s Convention. I remember walking with two of my friends to our next session, passing large TV screens with the news reporting cases of Coronavirus beginning to rise rapidly in China.
Although the sound was off, the news looked grim — headlines crossed the screen and warned the virus was beginning to spread overseas. One of my friends nervously asked, ‘Does anyone else feel like this is going to get really bad?’ Trying to combat my rising inner anxiety, I shrugged my shoulders and tried to assure her (and convince myself) everything would be fine.
As we all know, she was right. Less than a month later, on March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. In the lunchroom at school, people were worried. I wondered aloud, ‘Can you imagine if they just stopped everything for 2 weeks to get things under control? I mean, that would never actually happen, but wouldn’t that kind of solve everything?’
I had no idea a country-wide lockdown was something I’d ever see in my lifetime, and I definitely never thought it would stretch into months instead of weeks. In just 2 days, our whole country would come to a standstill. My friends and I texted each other as we heard reports of malls and restaurants closing. We shook our heads in disbelief as we drove past parking lots we had never before seen empty during the day. Toilet paper was sold out everywhere. When we dismissed our students for spring break on March 13, I never thought it would be the last time I would see them face to face for the rest of the year.
When the news came out that school was canceled ‘indefinitely,’ I felt myself beginning to panic. What did this mean for my job? How would we pay our mortgage? What about my husband’s job? My thoughts began to spiral with every possible ‘what if’ scenario. Luckily, I didn’t get the chance to spend much time in that train of thought, as my husband looked me in the eye and assured me, ‘We’ll get through this together.’
A few days later, we decided to pack up our 2 and 4-year-old, our cat, and our suitcases and head to my in-laws’ place in the country, about 4 hours from home. We were looking for an escape from the city as well as calm in this very uncertain storm and felt it was a good place to start. We thought we would go for a week or two until things started to settle down. I think everyone (including us) was surprised when we were still there 2 months later. We were greeted with open arms when we arrived on a snowy, ‘Is the world ending?’ day in March, and were again reminded we would take things one day at a time, together. For 2 months, we worked together to cook meals, tackle projects, and check on each other’s mental health all while also figuring out how to work remotely. There were many loaves of bread baked, and episodes of Tiger King binged. The wood-burning fire was constantly going, and hours were spent building Lego or reading in front of it. We made a schedule for the kids to take turns keeping them busy, which was huge in helping prevent us from burning out. Any parent with young kids knows they have an endless store of energy, which can be hard to keep up with for days (or in this case, months) on end. I feel so incredibly grateful our kids’ grandparents were willing to help carry the load.
As Canadian winter (which lasts for about 294 months, in case you aren’t familiar) stretched into spring, we started to come to the realization my in-laws were never going to ask us to leave, but we needed to try facing the pandemic thing on our own. Having them as a support network while we navigated those first 60 days of uncharted territory was instrumental in giving us the courage and strength to do it on our own. Sometimes it can be hard to come to terms with the fact I am a ‘grownup’ now and leading our family together with my fellow grownup is part of the gig. I felt devastated to say goodbye to the safe place we had been welcomed into since March, but I knew it was time. Slowly, restrictions were lifted in June, and life began to go back to (here it comes) a new normal. I was so relieved to be able to see my parents and friends again. While I am eternally grateful that technology allowed us to see them all during the first months of lockdown, my heart was aching for the real thing. We enjoyed the summer in its masked-up and sanitized glory and spent as much time as possible with the people in our cohort bubble.
As the summer began to wind down, my heart started to sink again. Teaching in person meant I was now increasing my risk of exposure to Covid, which meant that seeing much of my extended family, including my grandparents, was more or less out of the question. As September began to loom, I tried to muster up my strength to face yet another unknown. I had no idea that unknown would end up being a totally different one than I expected. After returning from my last visit with my family for the summer, my husband suddenly found he couldn’t walk. Every step he would try to take was shaky and exaggerated, and he couldn’t take more than a couple of steps before falling down. He felt nauseous and weak. He had been in bed for a few days prior, battling a toothache and a bit of a sinus cold. We made a phone call to the doctor, and then to our families. His parents were at our front door in a matter of hours. Mine were on call. They were ready to drop everything to come and be at our side in our time of need once again.
After a week of trips to the emergency room, three ambulance rides, countless tests, a lot of head-scratching from doctors, and one fortuitous MRI, it was determined my husband had acute cerebellitis – an inflammation of the brain which is extremely uncommon in adults. Back in March, he had broken his tooth on a piece of popcorn but hadn’t thought much of it. The doctors suspect it became infected, which caused the inflammation in his brain. He was in the hospital for 2 weeks making the first steps in his recovery. All this time, his mom stayed with me, taking turns visiting him at the hospital, since only one visitor at a time was permitted due to Covid. Her husband (my husband’s step-dad), took our son back to their home and my parents drove to Calgary to get my daughter and take her to their place to ease the stress of watching over the kids between hospital runs. My brother-in-law brought his wife and son from Edmonton, their dad rushed down, and my sister-in-law jumped on the next plane from Vancouver. Once again, we were surrounded by family.
Fast forward to December, which is usually the month of the year I look forward to the most. Christmas for me has always meant time spent with family. It means loading up our kids in the car, heading back to my childhood home, and spending lazy days together eating Christmas cookies and going sledding. It means watching my mom read the cloth ‘T’was The Night Before Christmas’ book she read to us every Christmas Eve to her grandkids. It means putting out my dad’s famous chocolate chip cookies for Santa. It means watching my kids run to my parents’ front door with the same excitement I ran up to my grandparents’ door with when I was young. It means hugging my grandparents and seeing them light up when they squeeze their great-grandkids. It means seeing my kids laugh and play with their cousins. It means watching each other open the Christmas gifts we carefully picked out and wrapped for one another. In a word, Christmas means being together. But not this year.
The other day, I heard the news refer to this winter as ‘the winter of despair.’ The recent announcement we won’t be able to gather with family and friends this year for Christmas truly felt like the nail in the coffin for me. Although I’ve been listening to Christmas music on my morning drives to work like I do every December, they’ve resulted in tears instead of the festive cheer of the holiday season. Knowing all of my old Christmas traditions won’t be happening has been hard for me to come to terms with, as I know it has for so many people. But a Christmas card from my mom and reassurances from my husband have reminded me of something.
This is our opportunity to make new memories and traditions with our little family of four. Just like leaving the comfort and safety of my in-laws’ home last May, it’s my turn to be the grown-up. It’s my turn to create magic for my kids at Christmas, and it doesn’t have to be extravagant or overwhelming. It can be baking cookies together, or it can be snuggling on the couch watching ‘Home Alone’ for the 14th time. It can be a Christmas Eve filled with carefully selected appetizers and matching pajamas, or it can be bowls of cereal and whatever PJs are clean. Christmas morning gift opening can be a free-for-all, or we can stretch it out and make it last all day. We can FaceTime our family as we open gifts.
This year, I’ll make the magic for my family. And next year, because of the sacrifices we’ve all made to keep each other safe this Christmas, we can be together and the magic will make itself. In true Hallmark movie style, I want to sum up the lesson I’ve learned in all of this. Stuff doesn’t matter. The people in our lives do. Our family will have gifts to open on Christmas morning, but I would trade every single one to have the people who sent them instead. Family is what has gotten us through all of the ups and downs of the last 10 months, and they are what will get us through the next 10.
Our family has been lucky to have been relatively untouched by the hardships Covid can bring, and I recognize other families have experienced challenges we can’t begin to fathom. Although I can’t speak for them, as life in the midst of a pandemic continues on, I am giving myself days to feel sad about what we have lost, grateful for what we do have, and hope for what the future will bring.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Kayla Young from Calgary, AB. You can follow their journey on Instagram and their blog. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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