EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY: Too soon to make meaning

Last week, the World Health Organization declared that the COVID public health emergency was over. Similarly, Massachusetts lifted its last restrictions, which mainly affected mask-wearing in health care settings.

The moments were noted by the media, but most of us, for some time, have been living as if the pandemic had passed. Those we knew still contracting COVID seemed to be outliers, a sense backed up by the dwindling disease statistics.

Nor did we, unlike the end of World War II, the capture of Bin Laden and other major historic moments, have a collective celebration at the official pronouncements. No doctors were dipping nurses in Times Square, which is an outdated image anyway, so it’s just as well. (Though I personally would smile at a female doctor dipping a male nurse.)

I also think it’s just as well this moment passes quietly. The partisan division over how COVID was handled will only get deeper as it becomes fodder in the 2024 presidential race. Nothing constructive will be accomplished by trying to bridge the divide now.

But politics aside, I think it’s too soon, the emotions too close, for us to make meaning out of living through these past three years. 

I’m not talking about the grief of families who lost loved ones to COVID. That’s its own painful journey.

Rather, there’s a catalog of other losses, too long to name here — and of course, some positive change — which need the passage of time to clearly articulate, never mind understand.

I love when Facebook serves up memories in my feed. A recent one appeared which emphasized I was not yet distant enough from my pandemic experience to imbue it with any meaning. 

The memory was a selfie I snapped and posted of me and my daughter taking a walk on the Neck in May 2020. It was a blustery day, and our hair was whipping around our faces, and we both were wearing masks. Hers was cloth with a pretty pattern, made by a mom of a friend. This was before we knew cloth masks weren’t effective, before we understood walking outside with a mask was probably not necessary.

The caption was a cheery “just two masked girls out for a walk,” to which a friend jokingly responded, “What bank are you robbing?”

The jocular post and response belied the reality that my daughter had lost the end of her high school senior year, the prom, the time with friends, graduation. All of it.

I just can’t capture yet in words what that time period and the years since will mean as part of the broader contours of our family’s — and our community’s — story.

I’ve just begun to be able to admit and articulate that ours was not usually a happy little pod. There was a lot of stress, sadness, sprinkles of laughter and intermittent relief that other pictures captured by my iPhone over the past three years don’t convey. Dining room turned into a ping-pong emporium. Homemade individual pizza night. Christmas delayed until mid-January. Passover held on Zoom. Seeing my mother-in-law in person for the first time in a year.

There are some who hold the view that it’s best to slam the door on painful past memories and just keep marching ahead. To me, that misses an opportunity to try to understand and make meaning of our lives. As the existentialist philosopher Kierkegaard wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards but must be lived forwards.”

I want to understand. I just can’t yet.

Virginia Buckingham
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A member of the Marblehead Current’s Board of Directors, Virginia Buckingham is the former chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Port Authority, chief of staff to two Massachusetts governors, deputy editorial page editor for the Boston Herald and author of “On My Watch: A Memoir.” 

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