Five Months, One Suitcase – What I Brought and What I’ll Leave Behind

God-willing, this will be the last letter I write to you in NYC-exile. Barring major disaster (which, these days could be anything), I will fly back to New York on Saturday and I am thrilled. I left the city the first week of March before anyone knew anything about this pandemic. I’m returning nearly five months and what feels like an entire lifetime later

(Quick sidebar: I’m not going to explain or defend any of my COVID travel decisions in this post. My comings and goings throughout these five months were as measured and as safe as they could be with the information I knew at the time. I’ll be fully adhering to the 14-day quarantine when I land in New York on Saturday and I’m unapologetically #promask. This post is not about COVID ethics. Please don’t @ me.)

I left New York the day after my company went remote and well before Trader Joes lines wrapped around the block. I tossed a few things in a suitcase thinking I’d be gone a week or two at most, and hitched a ride with a friend to a house on the beach. I packed a few sweatshirts (it was winter) and a few books, my fraying travel toothbrush and one pair of sneakers.

In isolation, this is funny. It’s now five months later and the heat index where I am today is 109.

Those sweatshirts seem so silly now. I miss my good toothbrush, and the days when it was just a weird virus, just a quick trip while things calmed down.

March-Bailey didn’t know any better. March-Bailey only brought two books!

But for all her naivety, she did a few things well:

  • She packed extra contact lenses (and will every time forevermore)
  • She packed slippers (comfort knows no season)
  • She emptied her fridge before she left (CAN YOU IMAGINE)
  • She left via car, not a plane full of people
  • She escaped to a secluded place and isolated with a friend

I thank her for that.

Then five months of chaos happened. Confusion, tears, loneliness, desperation to be with my family, weeks of waiting to figure out how. The seasons changed, the weather went warm and then hot. I stopped wearing makeup, bought a bunch of new books online, ordered shorts in a size up and bought $4 sandals from Wal Mart.

And also, the world burned. The world changed. I changed.

What if my apartment doesn’t feel like home when I get there? What if the things in that space feel like someone else’s things – someone younger, someone different, someone afraid of all the wrong things?

I’m scared my clothes won’t fit my body and my life won’t fit my soul. That every coffee shop I love will be closed down. That all the streets I’ve longed to return to will be emptier, unearthed.

Will I step back into my world or step into one long past? Did March-Bailey care about the things I care about now? Did she know how fragile it all was?

I ache for her; I just can’t tell if it’s jealousy or pity.

But I also owe so much to her. For packing the contacts, for throwing out the trash before hopping in the car. And for learning early the language of loss – a dialect of grief that carried me through exile.

March-Bailey was grieving a marriage. She’d learned to conserve energy for only the things that mattered and to find joy in the simple promise that the sun would rise again tomorrow. She was skilled at taking things day by day because it took everything she had to just do that.

She prayed incessantly, annoyingly so, because what else was there to do? She took deep breaths and long walks, took her time at meals and focused on flavors because they were good when everything else was bad. She listened to the same few songs of hope when she needed extra help to get off the floor.

March-Bailey was learning how to live after everything in her life was stripped away. She just didn’t know that there was more that could be taken.

None of us did. Until it happened, until we knew.

Sports were cancelled and then flights were and then schools. We lost jobs and the ability to pay rent and economic security. We lost the illusion of control and the freedom to make plans. Many people lost everything. A lot of us came close.

As those dominos fell and the months ticked by, I took all the moves I’d learned from March-Bailey and added a mask. I prayed incessantly because what else was there to do? I took deep breaths and long walks, I focused on flavors and good music, I spent a lot of time pinned to the floor but held on to the promise that the sun would rise again tomorrow.

And it did. Every day of these five months and again this morning and again on Tuesday.

We’ve lost so much. There’s no control and such limited freedoms. Nothing feels safe and we’re so damn insecure. But the sun. still. rises. Hope abounds in the ashes of what was.

March-Bailey learned how to have joy in the midst of tragedy. She just didn’t know how much tragedy was in store.

I ache for her, but it is jealousy or pity?

When I walk back into that apartment, I will unpack my sweatshirts and crappy toothbrush. I’ll unload my COVID cannon of books and the shorts a size too big and I’ll be both home and in the home of a stranger.

The home of someone who thought all was lost and took baby steps to get by. And now, the home of someone else who has seen the world crumble and the sun rise faithfully over it again.

Do I envy her naivety? Do I wish for a time before all of this? Or do I pity her isolated grief in light of the collective loss of an aching nation?

If she could only see the fullness of joy found in the rubble of broken idols. If she only knew how healing each sunrise would be in the midst of so much darkness – a promise kept, a heart refreshed, the beauty of new morning mercies.

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