Ordinary Time

It turned out to be at its coming in and not at its leaving when March was actually the lamb; it left us yesterday with the lion, and lions, it turns out, can kill you. Even the warning of the soothsayer to “Beware the ides of March” seems more foreboding when you think about what went down and how it started around the middle of the month. It’s April first but the usual pranks seem irrelevant and cruel, no fooling. We startle easily these days. We are long on scary surprises.

It’s kind of heartbreaking to look back before a big loss, in the last moments or days that become, in retrospect, the ones Before It Happened. The happy photo snapped just before the unexpected loss, the son excitedly tearing into the rejection letter. The patient laughing in the exam room just before the devastating news. I always want to protect the person in question, as if by waving my arms, I can change the way the story ends. It seems so heartless not to warn her, to not give her a chance to brace herself for what is ahead.

This is how I feel about all of us when I remember us, just a month ago, heading into March. We didn’t see it coming; none of us could have known all we were about to lose.

There are important and obvious losses that wear on us in broad swaths of grief, clear to everybody: loved ones and jobs are the main ones. Lesser but also present are the graduations and weddings and school friendships and budding romances and meaningful relationships with teachers that were just about to come into being and now are lost forever. Even our sense of national pride is further fractured as we wonder how it can possibly be true that nurses are wearing bandannas and trash bags, that field hospitals are set up in parks, that elderly people are dying alone.

The losses are impossible to account for in their entirety because they are so many and so different for everyone, but in part because they are still coming. We know this, and though we know we are just getting started, we are already exhausted by a vague anticipatory grief; our bodies ache from bracing for impact. It is hard to know which losses matter enough, which are ok to acknowledge and to grieve in the face of so much suffering.

But because we have so much more to go, and because we are already so worn out, I want to point out that there is one thing that all of us lost in March, one that it might help to name and grieve together on the path forward.

We lost the ordinary.

Fourteen Aprils ago when I started chemotherapy for breast cancer, I got treatment on Mondays. My treatment team warned that the third and fourth days after treatment would be the worst, because that was when the steroids and other drugs that managed the side effects wore off. But in the days after the first treatment, I was pleased to find that this didn’t happen for me: Wednesday and Thursday and Friday came and went and I still felt pretty good, considering. Sometimes on those days I wondered if they were giving me the right chemo, or if was maybe just going to overachieve my way through the whole thing. I thought I was home free.

And then, Saturday would hit. It would be weeks before we would figure out that the steroids wore off of my body on day five, later than what was expected, that I would come to count on Saturdays as consistently “not good” days after treatment. But in the beginning, I couldn’t explain why on Saturdays, the day when I was supposed to feel good, and had hoped desperately to enjoy family time, I felt tired and achy in a way that was difficult to explain, weak and vulnerable in a way that felt like an omen. Any sense that I might survive this would disappear abruptly, leaving in its wake a sense of defeat and depression and impending doom. On those Saturdays it felt, in ways both metaphorical and literal, that life was surely leaving me behind.

It was one of those early Saturdays, before we had it figured out, when my husband came into the laundry room to find his wife, partially bald and completely hysterical, crying while heaving laundry somewhat violently into the machine. “What is it?” he asked gently and I turned toward him, letting the tears and snot run down my face. Because it was hard to say exactly what it was, for a while I just looked at him. “All I want in the whole world,” I said finally, “is a normal Saturday.”

I gestured defeatedly with my one arm before wiping my nose on my pajama sleeve. “Like the other families,” I went on, “who are doing normal family things, like soccer, and errands, and running around…” I squeaked sadly, “like we used to have.”

I couldn’t finish. He took me in his arms as it all tumbled out, the grief for what I’d lost and the fear that I would never get it back. The guilt for not appreciating what I had not noticed and now might never regain. In midst of larger, more visible, more important losses, there is always the easily-overlooked loss of the ordinary.

So much of that time is hazy for us now, the many years between then and marked like the liturgical calendar: joyful holidays and celebrations separated by endless weeks of Ordinary Time. But that day is one we both remember; to this day, we still often point out, with a newfound and lasting gratitude (and often over empty-nest cocktails) that “it is a normal Saturday”.

I don’t know all you’ve lost to coronavirus; I’m not sure I know yet what Ive lost, or what each of us might yet lose. But the ordinary? We will get it back. It will be different, as things always are in the days After It Happens, but we will have it again, and we will embrace the gift of the ordinary, again, with a newfound and lasting gratitude.

But for now, I just want to acknowledge what March took from you, from all of us. And to say:

I am so sorry for your loss.