Photo: abandoned pillbox, cc-by-sa/2.0.(c) Walter Baxter-geograph.org.uk/p/449209
Last summer, on a sweltering afternoon in early August, I found myself shuffling along at the back of one of the longest lines I’ve ever been in. The winding train of humanity, encompassing all ages, toiled past outbuildings and dumpsters, zig-zagged up and down hilly fields mantled with parched grass. The scene was bathed in the failing day's golden light, and the air was heavy with the scent of sun-warmed vegetation. We were at McMenamin’s Edgefield, a legendary outdoor concert venue in Troutdale, Oregon, to enjoy the sold-out concert by the Decemberists on their "Arise From The Bunkers" tour. The turnout was heavy enough that it was mentioned on the local news the following day. All of us were happy, enjoying a mutual a sense of joyful anticipation, of relief.
Why was this event noteworthy, and why were we sharing this sense of relief? Because we were all of us finally ready, downright eager, to put the covid lockdown nightmare behind us, to get back to normal as soon as possible.
Is it even possible to go back to normal after living through the events of the last three years?
This past month, April 2023, marked the third year since the traumatic announcement that the world would lockdown for ‘two weeks to slow the spread’. On a more personal level, this past February also marked the third anniversary of my mother’s lung cancer diagnosis. As I shuttled her and my Dad to various pulmonology and oncology appointments, breathless talk of a devastating virus continually percolated in the background, but we didn’t pay much attention at first, we were too focused on our own dire woes, on the reality of a different sort of mortal illness that loomed far more immediately in our lives.
By the time the official lockdown was in effect, she was on home hospice care in my Dad’s house, next door to my own. Given that she was dealing with the effects of her first (and only) chemo treatment, we were okay with going out as infrequently as possible, to limit the risk of bringing any infection home. As doctors called to discuss palliative care, as news bulletins updated us about the pandemic, about shortages and hoarding, it seemed our options and freedoms were whittled away on a daily, almost hourly basis.
I really did have the sense we were being locked down in a bunker, while bombs of uncertainty and misinformation continually pounded our small sanctuary. The vigorous assertions that we were ‘all in this together’, the sense that so many people all over the world were hoping and praying for a good outcome, helped make it bearable. The prayers and thoughtfulness of so many friends and family kept us uplifted; the flower arrangements that were delivered regularly formed a heavenly bower about her deathbed. Thus, nebulous fear existed alongside blind trust that perhaps whatever dark cloud we were all entering wouldn’t be too big or scary in the long term.
Against the backdrop of reports of massive hospitalizations and mounting global death counts, we watched for any little victories and improvements in Mom’s situation, even as her overall trajectory was downward. Due to covid regs, hospice nurses didn't visit as frequently as we’d have liked, although overall the program was wonderful.
Fortunate to be able to work from home, my husband was also the one to regularly venture forth into the dystopian landscape to do some grocery shopping, and we worked to maintain a fairly normal routine, or as normal as possible under the circumstances. In some respects, because we are a homeschooling family, we weren't impacted as much as many others were.
Then my youngest sister took ill and it fell to me to break through her denial and get her to the ER. Again, due to covid restrictions, we didn’t see her for nearly a month. I was kept updated via phone by her team of wonderful doctors and nurses, but I still felt helpless. The responsibility of caring for her mopey, neurotic little dog at least provided my kids with a distraction from the daily sorrow and grim uncertainty of the family situation. When I could, I threw myself more deeply into my long-term writing project, which I had begun in 2019. And while crafting a series of dystopian novels might not seem like the best way to tune out world events, the creative outlet really did help soothe my nerves.
Although the medical scans hadn’t shown anything wrong with my Mom’s brain, she exhibited dementia-type signs even prior to her diagnosis. These worsened sharply, while the outside world also continued to crumble. Her personality and awareness eroded like the perimeters of an ice floe heading for tropical waters. At least, wrapped in her own inner world, she was spared a lot of anxiety about global events, although I’m pretty sure she, in her unshakable confidence in God’s providence, would have shrugged much it off with a few witty quips.
As she continued to fail, and the round-the-clock supervision and medication schedule became more bewildering, I was grateful that my brother and another sister were able to join us. My sister’s journey, from Europe, was especially challenging due to various travel restrictions, but she did make it in time to help share the burden of care-giving in those last few days. Since neither she nor my brother had been witness to Mom's deterioration from the beginning of her illness, they were shocked when they saw the end results for themselves. My brother was especially shaken, and wanted to know how much longer she could hold on. Something prompted me to mention that the feast of Catherine of Siena was approaching; since that was Mom’s patron in the Dominican Laity, and we had a first-class relic of the saint nearby, was it presumptuous of us to hope she'd pass on that date?
I’m sure I don’t have to remind everyone that the churches were closed during this time. For me, that was one of the most distressing aspects of the entire tribulation. To be cut off from that source of community and grace when I needed it most seemed a grave injustice, a slap in the face as I struggled to do my best. Watching livestreams on Sunday morning was, in some ways, almost insulting, and scarcely better than doing nothing. However, while in-person Mass attendance was out of the question, our pastor visited us when he could and brought the Sacrament, heard confessions of other family members, and most importantly, gave Mom Last Rites.
She did, in fact, arise from the bunker of her wasted body on the evening of April 29, the Feast of St. Catherine of Siena. Needless to say, this was a hugely comforting sign to those of us left behind. As awful as this situation was, we’ll always be grateful she was with us until the end, rather than dying alone as so many others did, isolated in a hospital with overworked staff unable to check on her regularly. So, in many ways, despite the horrific situation, there were many blessings and bright spots.
My sister from Europe was effectively marooned with us while the whole international travel situation slowly sorted itself out, and it was a wonderful experience for us all, especially my kids, to spend time with her. When my other sister was at last released from the skilled nursing center, we were all reunited, and began the process of coming to terms with what we’d witnessed during Mom’s final ordeal.
Slowly, we passed from that trial into the ongoing storm of pandemic-related news, rumors, controversies and civil unrest. Whether we wanted to hear about them or not, these issues were constantly thrust in our faces. The sense that we were 'all in this together' rapidly dissolved as resentment and mistrust developed between various parties. It was clear that as battle lines were drawn and misinformation from all quarters permeated every aspect of life, we were witnessing a vast upheaval in the previous order. No matter how much we wanted it, there was no going back to what life had been like before.
This feeling was strengthened during the months-long riots that terrorized the city, and by the threat of the wildfires that came within miles of our neighborhood. To say nothing of the veritable armies of zombie-like homeless addicts living on the streets of Portland, their numbers seemingly mushrooming overnight. The ground beneath our feet felt like it had dissolved to quicksand, and trust in our most revered institutions was shaken to the core.
Even three years later, it's hard to put this all behind, when it was only a few weeks ago that the Oregon Health Authority lifted its mask mandate for medical settings. Nearly three years of ‘two weeks to slow the spread’.
I have shared here only a handful of snapshots and impressions of that era; the real scars---and growth--are much deeper and harder to express. Yet I also feel it's time for me, before I can move on, to look back for a moment and acknowledge the stress, the helplessness, the sense of betrayal on so many levels. So many questions echo through my mind and heart:
Why hadn’t Mom told us earlier that she suspected she was seriously ill?
Why did her mind leave so much earlier than her spirit?
Why were those in power over us such heavy-handed fear-mongerers?
Why were those individuals and institutions I trusted to know better, so easily swayed by rumors and blatant propaganda?
I could go on, but there's really no point; I suppose I already know the answers.
However, I don't know that I will ever truly be free of a nagging sense of unease, of a low-level shell-shock. I’m not presenting this retrospective to make the case that I suffered more than others; in fact, I do believe we were fortunate in many ways, and the prayers of friends and well-wishers offered during that dark time were truly felt and appreciated. As a family, we have confronted and moved past some painful private issues, and seem to have become stronger. Family and life-long friends that re-located across the country and across the globe are still in touch---one of the wonders of technology. I'm frequently aware of Mom's presence, and while that conviction isn't a substitute for speaking with her face to face, it's better than nothing, and I never feel that she has left us entirely. My kids are maturing and blossoming in many wonderful ways. I'm amazed that my writing career has gone much farther, in such a short time, than I had thought possible.
Life, as they say, goes on.
As we are now in the third Easter season following this epoch of great personal and global upheaval, the idea of emerging from darkness to light, from bunkers to the surface, from graves to Heaven, is greatly on my mind.
Mom left the known for the unknown, and the rest of us are still creeping forward, coming to terms with the the idea that nothing will be as it was before, not at home, not in our nation, not anywhere on Earth. This has always been the way of things, but it often takes experiencing some drastic and painful event—or series of events—to have one’s eyes opened and to truly internalize that reality. Perhaps hardest to admit is how little control any of us has over the big picture, we can only make small choices in the moment and hope for the best.
Looking back at both the bad and the good can help remind us to watch for blessings ahead, to trust that, no matter how dark the clouds, how tightly the bunker is shut, God is welcoming us into something different and perhaps better.
The concert on that warm August evening ended with the popular song "Sons and Daughters". Swaying happily beneath the stars, lit by the glow from the soft beer garden lights strung in the trees, five thousand people sang together:
Take up your arms
Sons and daughters
We will arise from the bunkers
By land, by sea, by dirigible
We'll leave our tracks untraceable now
When we arrive, sons and daughters (when we arrive, sons and daughters)
We'll make our lives on the water (we'll make our lives on the water)
We'll build our walls aluminum
We'll fill our mouths with cinnamon
Hear all the bombs fade away
Hear all the bombs fade away
Hear all the bombs fade away…
It was clear that each person there felt a sense of peace and hope; it was a truly blessed, magical, experience. And it hadn't come a moment too soon.
For the full song, please click here.