What was 2020? It was a roller coaster—a nausea-inducing wild ride of events and emotions. Sometimes it made me want to throw my arms up in the air and scream, and other times beg the operator to stop the ride and let me get off. It was a ride that provided brief moments of exhilaration between panic-infused periods of terror. Ups and downs, ups and downs, living through 2020 was like riding on the graph of new COVID-19 cases.
What was 2020? It was fear. I was afraid of getting the coronavirus. I was afraid of my friends and family members getting the virus. I was afraid of leaving my house. I was afraid of touching the mail. I was afraid of groceries—what if a bored teen had been coughing on my produce like the news articles reported? I was afraid of what would happen to my children if my husband and I both ended up in the hospital, or worse.
I was afraid of the presidential election. I was afraid of extremists attempting to disrupt the election, afraid that my absentee ballot would get lost or not arrive in time to be counted, afraid of what the election results might be. After the votes had been counted, I was afraid of what Trump and his supporters might do. I was afraid there would be assassination attempts. I was afraid for the future of our democracy.
I was afraid of the aftermath of the death of George Floyd. I was afraid of the destruction and violence unfolding on the streets. I was afraid that we’ll never be able to solve these deep, deep problems in our society. I was afraid for people of color and afraid for well-intentioned law enforcement just trying to do their jobs. I was afraid of all the carjackings and attacks taking place in quiet neighborhoods in broad daylight.
But 2020 was also hope. I had hope that a vaccine would be developed, that we’d one day be able to hug our loved ones again. I had hope that there would finally be the momentum to make real change, to fix the inequities and injustices in society. I had hope that people would rise above their differences to fight for the common good.
What was 2020? It was worry. I worried about my 98-year-old grandfather on lockdown in an independent living facility. I worried about him contracting the virus. I worried about him getting lonely and depressed. I worried that I wouldn’t get the chance to hug him again.
I worried about my daughters, who were thriving academically in distance learning, but were missing out on so much socially. I worried about running out of toilet paper. I worried for the people who lost their jobs to the pandemic and the families who didn’t have enough food. I worried for the people working in hospitals and grocery stores, the police, and the firefighters. I worried for the children at football practice as bullets flew nearby. I worried for everyone, everywhere. I worried for the whole world.
And so 2020 was also prayer. I prayed for an end to the pandemic. I prayed for a vaccine. I prayed for the health and safety of my family and friends. I prayed for the health and safety of people everywhere. I prayed that people would stop seeing everything and everyone as black or white, red or blue, and realize that everything is colored in shades of grey and purple. I prayed that we could all just see each other as people, human beings with hopes and dreams and talents and fears and loves.
What was 2020? It was disbelief—disbelief at the nonchalant look on Derek Chauvin’s face as he knelt on George Floyd’s neck; disbelief at the Twin Cities set on fire, as looters casually walked out of a decimated Target in the dead of night with shopping bags of stolen merchandise as if it were just an ordinary Saturday afternoon trip to the store; disbelief as a business across the street from where my children take swimming lessons burned to the ground. I watched in disbelief as people fought against wearing masks in grocery stores as passionately as if they were trying to prevent babies from being slaughtered. I was dumbfounded with disbelief at elected officials blatantly disregarding science because of politics, and even more so that people were listening to them.
As a result, 2020 was also self-reflection and empathy. I spent a lot of time thinking in 2020. I thought about race and racism, prejudice and privilege, action and reaction. I thought about cancel culture. I thought about the deep problems in our society and how they could possibly ever be fixed, how I might help be part of the solution. For the first time, I really took myself out of my own skin and considered what life would be like in someone else’s. I tried to understand how the people who don’t have my same convictions think, why we’ve come to different opinions on how things should be. I tried to widen my worldview so that I would not be part of the us versus them mentality that defined 2020.
And 2020 was hard discussions. How do you explain to a six-year-old and an extremely sensitive nine-year-old what happened to George Floyd? How do you ease your child’s fears that your home would become a target for having a Black Lives Matter sign in your yard? How do you convince your children not to spend their days worrying that someone they love will die from a virus that is the main topic of every conversation, newspaper, and television show? How do you disagree respectfully about politics with a loved one, when you don’t feel all that respectful about it? How do you talk to friends or family members who you feel are making irresponsible decisions during a pandemic? I had to figure out how to have all of these discussions, and I’m still not sure whether or not I did a good job.
What was 2020? It was loss. I lost the golden day for which I had been waiting for nine long years—the day when both of my children would be at the same school all day. I lost control of the small bits of my life that I took for granted—the freedom to run to the store at any time, the constant availability of flour and toilet paper, the blissful hours spent browsing the stacks at the library, the ability to find a quiet space in my home and spend time alone in my own head. I lost holidays with my extended family and visits with friends. I lost a whole year in the lives of my toddler nieces and nephews, the opportunity to cuddle them when they crawled into my lap with a picture book, to play silly games with them, and to watch their language develop as the “baby” grew out of their faces.
But 2020 was also gain. Although we could have done without the weight gain from all the baking at home, the other gains were positive. We gained so much time! With everyone home all day, every day, one might say there was a little too much family togetherness in our small house. But the time we gained from the elimination of my husband’s commute allowed us to take family walks or bike rides every evening after dinner. The time we gained from the cancellation of swimming lessons and art classes and driving here and there and everywhere, along with the condensed distance learning school day and lack of time spent on the school bus, provided time for creative projects at home. We tried many new homemade pizza recipes, which we enjoyed on our newly instituted Family Movie Night Fridays. We made homemade birthday gifts for family and friends. My children and I spent hours playing around with papier-mâché. We set a regular time for “Art with Grandma” in which my mom would teach my children an art project via video chat. We gained time to do things we’d always wanted to do at home but couldn’t because we were so busy being not at home.
We gained new skills, too. I learned how to replace a light switch and a ceiling socket and to do small plumbing repairs myself. I made masks—so many masks—trying different patterns and altering and combining them until I found one that was effective and comfortable. My children started learning new languages from an online program through the public library. They learned how to make scrambled eggs and muffins by themselves. My husband learned how to make his own hot sauce. We learned new games. We learned new ways to use technology. And we learned so much about how to get along with each other.
What was 2020? It was grief. I grieved for my best friend’s father, who passed away from complications due to Parkinson’s disease early in the pandemic. I grieved for my best friend, who, under the stay-at-home order, was unable to travel from Texas to Illinois to say good-bye to her father. I grieved for them both as I streamed the video of his very brief, socially distanced funeral service.
I grieved for the families I saw on my local news—a teenager who lost both of his parents to COVID and people whose aged parents in nursing homes withered away from energetic, happy people to unrecognizable versions of themselves, weak and shriveled due to isolation and possibly neglect. I grieved for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the countless others whose lives were cut short at the hands of police, for the lives they didn’t get to live and the people they left behind. I grieved for the millions of people who lost loved ones. I had to stop watching the news because it always made me cry.
But 2020 was also joy. The slower pace of life allowed me to notice the little things— how going outside, even for just five minutes, lightened my children, transforming frowns into smiles and complaints into giggles. Watching the immense joy with which my six-year-old stopped to pick up fallen leaves, kicked at chunks of snow, or jumped in a puddle filled me with joy, too. I found joy in the smiles on my children’s faces while they played, in the compassion they showed to others, and in the happiness with which they experience life, even with all its uncertainty and scariness.
And 2020 was creativity. Saddened that we would not be able to dip our toes in the Giant Sand Box while nibbling on Sweet Martha’s Cookies, we had State Fair Week at home, attempting homemade versions of our State Fair favorites in our own kitchen. Some were immensely successful (baked mini doughnuts, salted nutroll bars, and enormous monster cookies served in an old Sweet Martha’s bucket with a “Sweet Lindquist’s” label taped on), and some were not (hand-pulled cotton candy was not as easy as it looked on YouTube), but all were great fun.
My children colored Easter eggs with their cousins over Zoom, and even had a virtual Easter egg hunt, with each household hiding eggs in the background that the children had to try to find on the computer screen. We had a virtual Christmas concert/sing-a-long in which family members young and old performed carols on various instruments ranging from kazoo to cello. My daughter even had a virtual birthday party that was more fun and less stressful than her last in-person party.
And 2020 was connection. As life quieted down and everyone was stuck at home, I spent more time virtually with my out-of-state family than I ever spend in person. We found ways to stay connected. Every Thursday night since the declaration of the pandemic, I have played Scattergories with my parents and sisters over video chat. We haven’t missed a week, not even when my mom was in the hospital recovering from open heart surgery (although that week we only chatted). This new tradition has been so much fun that we have vowed to continue even when the pandemic is a distant memory.
While they were all at home for distance learning, my children and their cousins living in Illinois had regular virtual “Cousins Club” meetings, where they did Mad Libs and Lego challenges and made inside jokes about cheeseburgers. We played board games online with family and friends and logged many hours of laughter playing Quiplash and TeeKO on Jackbox with extended family.
I started calling my grandfather at least once a week, something I had been meaning to do for years but never managed successfully because we both led such busy lives. But during the pandemic, I wrote it on my calendar so that I wouldn’t get caught up in the craziness of daily life and forget. The pandemic gave me the gift of examining my priorities and taking steps to ensure that the way I spend my time is in line with those priorities. I reconnected with a cousin that I hadn’t talked to much since we were kids. I loved getting to know her as a grown up, and her texts never failed to brighten my day.
What was 2020 most of all? For me, it was gratitude. Despite all the fear and anxiety, worry, grief, and loss, what I felt most in 2020 was gratitude. I am so grateful for what I do have—a loving family, happy children, and the means to meet all of our physical needs. I am grateful that my family has been so lucky throughout the pandemic. We’ve been able to keep a steady income and insurance, to work and attend school from home without too much trouble, and we have not lost any loved ones to COVID-19. Sure, giving up vacations and trips to the movies, in-person visits with family and friends, and hugs (especially hugs!) was disappointing and difficult, but it wasn’t the end of the world. We are doing just fine, and I am so grateful for that.
I am grateful that my now 99-year-old grandfather weathered the heart of this pandemic just like he did the Great Depression and World War II. I am grateful for the many hours I spent talking to him in 2020. I am grateful for the technology that has kept me connected to family and friends and allowed my children to keep up with school while safe at home. I am grateful for the scientists and doctors working so hard to understand this pandemic and keep us safe from it. I am grateful for all the strangers I see wearing masks, the people who cross the street when they see my children coming towards them on their bikes—all the little things people in my community and the world are doing to keep one another healthy. I am grateful for all the kindness and compassion I have seen.
The roller coaster of 2020 is over, but it was one of those rides that feels like you’re still on it even after you get off. The ground will undoubtedly remain wobbly under my feet until the graph of new COVID-19 cases flatlines at the bottom. But as I move on to the next, hopefully tamer, ride, I can’t help looking back and giving 2020 a quick nod. Because although 2020 brought destruction and death, division and hostility, it also brought out the best in many people, caring for each other and protecting one another and working together for the good of us all. And if that isn’t something to be grateful for, I don’t know what is.