A year. It suddenly hit me over the weekend that it has been a full year since our world began to shift and take on a form none of us would have ever imagined outside of a zombie apocalyptic movie. I made myself a mug of turmeric tea and sat down to recall what was happening one year ago when our lives were still in normal mode – when we still went to work, stood in checkout lines, shared our patio tables with strangers at bars, and spilled out the contents of our pockets into tiny buckets as we passed through security for basketball games, concerts or plane rides. One full year.
One year ago, the PEAK Grantmaking Conference in Seattle was cancelled due to a new virus outbreak in the state of Washington. My itinerary included landing in Seattle three days prior to the conference so I could spend time with my sister-cousins (as we call one another). But when Washington shut down their airport and closed itself off to out-of-state visitors, I knew my brand new American Tourister Spinner’s longest trip would be from my bedroom to the downstairs closet. Attending my first national grantmaking conference would have to wait, but not only that, there also be no long conversations into the night over wine with two of my favorite women as we caught up after more than a decade. I was heartbroken.
I was completely unaware it was only the beginning of heartbreak – a heartbreak which would manifest in many forms – from a dull, lingering ache to a sharp, intake and holding of breath.
I spent that weekend in March 2020 keeping one eye on the news and the other on a thread of texts from my girls. They were both preparing for furlough from their jobs and were stocking up on coffee, books, groceries, beer and wine (probably in that order). They were looking forward to a few weeks of an unexpected vacation, but the concern was palpable in their messages. Yet, in Wichita the weather was beautiful – blue skies, songbirds, budding of trees – all of life around me erupting in early refrains of spring. On Friday, my husband and his best friend took a joy ride in our 1965 VW Microbus and I met them at Beautiful Day Café, a wonderfully healthy and delicious local establishment where we lunched over soups and sandwiches. I don’t remember exactly what we ate, but it was flavorfully created with the vegetables and herbs from their garden oasis located on their lot.
On Saturday, while the sun shone high and warm, we loaded the bus with our bicycles to fight the crazy Kansas winds for a bit of patio time. We started at The Monarch where we found a table tucked against the building that helped block us from the gusts and enjoyed a beer in the sun. From there we rode to The Pourhouse ICT but were so wind-battle weary by the time we arrived, we decided to sit inside at the bar. Axes and Oars was on tap, a black oat IPA in collaboration with a Topeka brewery. We split an appetizer and purchased War Beard St. Patrick’s Day t-shirts to wear during the upcoming parade.
Sunday evening was the last home Shocker basketball game of the season and Senior Night. The game ended in victory and we gave Jaime Echenique our best Shocker Nation farewell of gratitude. As always, I cried. While it’s the end of the regular season and there are games ahead with the conference tournament and hopefully, an invite to the NCAA tournament a few weeks later, I still get emotional realizing it is the final time I will see a player on our home court. Jaime made it even more special when he walked out to the middle of the court, took a knee and bent to kiss the hardwood. I drove home in anticipation of March Madness.
But the Monday following that game, the cancellations began in earnest and with those cancellations came the first quiet waves of fear. In Kansas there was one reported case of the virus, but daily the news reported its travels around the world and across the nation. Two more conferences were cancelled that week and rumors began to fly of businesses sending staff to work from home. I was sitting in my quad-cubicle at work when the cancellations of college hoops began. No AAC tournament, no NCAA tournament (I wrote about my personal struggle with no college hoops here). Soon, no St. Patrick’s Day Parade, as the bars and restaurants began to close. One week later, I filled a cardboard box with office belongings and enough supplies to last me the few months I thought I’d be working from home. By early April, there were no concerts: no String Break in May, no Wichita River Festival, no North American Tours (I occasionally open and wistfully stare inside the envelope of unused tickets to five 2020 concerts) and later, no Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival in Winfield. Vacations planned in March, May, September, November…well, they soon were removed from our calendars and not rescheduled.
How I wish I had known what awaited us, what would be taken from us – the little things which now seem so big, like hugs and our grandchildren spending the night. Had I known a year would go by and I would still not be meeting colleagues for coffee at Reverie or having dinner with my husband at one of our favorite local restaurants, I would have been more present. It’s something I have vowed for 2021.
Because, had I known that March 6, 2020 would be the last time we’d meet a friend for lunch, I would have stayed longer to view the artwork on display, stretched out the conversation, gotten that second black jasmine iced tea, and taken a few more photos of the garden. If I’d known March 7, 2020 would be the last time my husband and I would belly up to the bar and enjoy local brews, we would have ordered another round, sipped slowly, ordered the soft pretzels, struck up a conversation with the stranger next to us, and maybe got a sixer to go. Had I known the last time I’d be in Charles Koch Arena would be March 8, 2020 with a win over Tulsa on Senior Night, I would have sat in my seat of 15 years a few minutes longer, said hello more intentionally to my seatmates around me, breathed deep the smell of popcorn, French fries, and spilt beer, taken a second walk around the concourse and hugged my favorite ushers, Bill & Bruce a bit longer. I would have made my way closer to the floor during the Senior presentation, taken more photos of the players and leaned over the railing for a high five. I would’ve cheered even louder, cried even longer.
And had I known it would be more than a year without a true, long hug with my parents, my son and daughter-in-law, my grandchildren, my sister and brother, my nieces and nephews, my cousins, my friends…I would have held on tighter, longer, and paid closer attention to how they felt in my arms, memorized how they smelled, and told them I loved them over and over. That has been the hardest part – time without my family. The dinners. The sleepovers. Road trips to KC. Meeting my sister’s train at 3:00 a.m. in Newton. Holidays. Birthdays. Anniversaries.
If anything, I hope this year has taught us to not take anything for granted, no matter how “small” it may seem at the time. These moments are a gift, and we must open them slowly, hold them in our hands, turn them in the light and enjoy them fully. We must learn to take pause, step slowly and meaningfully, linger, recognize, memorize, hold tight to time and to those around us. My parents, my mother-in-law, and my sister have had their second dose of the vaccine and my brother and his wife had their first shots today. We’re almost there. But, as we walk this path to almost normal, I will truly begin to breathe in, breathe out, and be fully present each day, so that if this time ever comes again, I can cocoon myself fully in the memories of the feel of the wind on my face, the weight of those tiny hands in mine, conversations with strangers, the sounds of the crowd or the clink of glasses, and the warmth of those hugs. The “had I known” is a weight I never want to carry again.