The anniversary effect hit me hard the other day and as I begrudgingly looked back at the past year to write this, I’m filled with both lament and gratitude.
One year ago, a small group of friends and I gathered to celebrate St. Patrick’s day. I remember the decision to come together at our friend’s house instead of the tantalizing prospect of going to our favorite Irish pub for what we knew deep down would probably be for the last time, came after much discussion and debate.
But it was a decision I would never regret, because it was the last time I saw that group together in one place. There was a mix of both pessimism and optimism as we lifted plastic cups of Jameson with an Irish toast: “May your hearts be full, may your glasses be even fuller, and may you get to heaven 10 minutes before the devil knows you’re dead.”
Most of us were in school and were dreading the inevitable online classes that would define the rest of the year. I was excited to finally go to a university, having been accepted to CSUN the previous fall after spending nearly five years in and out of community college. I was certain that the lockdown wouldn’t last until I arrived at my dorm room across the street from campus that I had already put a deposit down for. I was hopeful that I would be working inside a beautiful and spacious Manzanita Hall, a far-cry from the newsroom in an off-campus trailer at my community college.
So much wasn’t known that night. Opinions ranged from thinking the virus wasn’t as bad as it was being portrayed in the media to thinking that it would be years until things went back to normal, or that things never would. The ignorance was both blissful and terrifying.
One close friend talked about a summer vacation to Australia he had planned, not knowing that for the next year he would be working long strenuous hours at the grocery store he worked at, which led to him meeting his future girlfriend, and eventually becoming a father.
Another close friend talked about how long he was going to stay at his job and what he was going to do if he couldn’t afford rent on his apartment. Little did he know that he would eventually lose his job, lose his apartment, and move into his grandma’s ranch with his parents and two brothers only to save tens of thousands of dollars from not having to pay rent, collecting unemployment, saving his stimulus checks, and for the first time in his life, escaping poverty.
“I looked at what my bank account balance was a year ago today,” he said as we celebrated St. Patrick’s Day this year over Zoom. “A dollar and two cents.”
I actually remember that in exchange for having the small party at his house, everyone else would provide the drinks and food. I don’t think he ever mentioned how broke he was.
Then there’s me, who changed the subject to how shitty the last Star Wars movie was. Not knowing it would be the last movie I saw in a theater, that I would become an assistant news editor of a newsroom I would never see the inside of, or that I would eventually catch COVID-19, almost giving it to my over 60-year-old parents and my immune-deficient little brother. I received a text from my roommate that he tested positive for the virus on Christmas morning while I was at my parent’s home. Thankfully I was upstairs, but had spent most of the previous night and earlier morning right next to them. My parents quickly arranged for me to have a rapid test done, which came back positive. I still remember the looks on my parents’ face when they found out. They had no idea if they were going to live or die in the next few weeks.
By some stroke of luck, act of fate, or the hand of god, they never caught it. As I write this, both of my parents are now vaccinated and my brother’s appointment is coming soon, and so is mine.
Although I’ve never seen the inside of the newsroom I work for, I look back on the work I’ve done in the past year and see it as the most important I’ve ever done in my entire life.
Working virtually as a journalist is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Not being able to interview or gather information in person is an extremely challenging thing and was never my preferred method before the pandemic. But it made me work harder to get my information, especially since the stakes of the stories we covered in 2020 were so high. I think in some ways it made me cut my teeth faster than I ever would.
I think of how grateful and lucky I am to be doing what I’m doing, with all of my friends and family still healthy. I’m very fortunate for my circumstances at the moment, and I hope to continue to acknowledge, report and lament for those who aren’t.
A year ago on my mother’s birthday, I was at grad fest with my older brother. We took a selfie and surprised her with the news: She would have two college graduates that spring of 2020. She started calling our family in El Salvador and shouted “Mis hijos se van a graduar!” “My kids are going to graduate!” My father looked at us and told us he’s proud that we finally did it. But I knew that the moment was more special for my brother, who spent 10 plus years trying to finish his degree while supporting his family. His mouth curled into smiles more often as he saw he was closer to being done. He was there, but I wasn’t yet. I had jumped into grad school right away and told myself to save the excitement for later.
Yet we both doubted if we could even celebrate our milestone. By then, we received emails that the school would transition to virtual learning and graduation plans were up in the air. As I walked around the campus bookstore, I thought,“What’s the point of buying all of this when I might not even wear it?” I told my brother we should wait and see. It was the smartest move because so many of my friends waited months before they received their refunds or even their cap and gowns. Before I left, a few tassels that said “orgulloso mama” and “orgulloso papa” — “proud mom” and “proud dad” — caught my eyes. This would be the relic of the season.
At first, the thought of staying at home for the rest of the semester seemed fine. Going to campus on rainy days was my least favorite. Then one semester became two and now here we are, behind a screen on a rainy day listening to seminars.
My parents kept asking me “So when’s the graduation?” and I just shrugged. I could tell they felt sorry for me, but I felt sorry for them. My brother and I were the first in the family to graduate from college and all I could think about was my father. He left El Salvador when he was 18 during the height of the civil war and on the night he left on a bus to travel north, he noticed a newspaper with a special announcement. It was a list of students who got accepted to one of the best universities in the country and his thumb found his name. He crumpled the paper and threw it away.
He wiped a few angry tears and told himself that there’s no turning back. That heading north would save his life, even if it meant leaving behind pieces of the life he had dreamed of. This graduation wasn’t just for me, it was for him — just as how many other first-generation students dedicate graduation to their parents who left their country behind to give their family a chance at a better life.
So how do you honor your parents without a graduation ceremony? How do you show them their sacrifice was worth it, without a big carne asada and a DJ because we’re under stay-at-home orders?
My brother suggested that we could honor our parents by taking graduation pictures. He said it’s the least we could do for them. Normally, the photoshoot centers around just the graduate but we both knew this wasn’t just for us. While we couldn’t take them together because of our schedule conflicts, we each had our own photoshoot with our parents and grandparents.
My favorite photo captures my dad putting on a graduation cap on my head as we look at each other and our eyes say the same thing:We did it.
We may not have had our ceremony, but we did have our carne asada. We had this moment together. My mom got to walk down the library steps like she was graduating. My grandparents got to see CSUN for the first time and I showed them all my favorite spots – the Student Recreation Center, the library, Orange Grove, Burger King and Manzanita Hall.
In this photo, you could see that for once, it wasn’t about the pandemic anymore. It was about us, my family and the unconditional love and support we have for one another.
I took a camping trip for spring break last year. It was a gross, rainy, cold trip to Zion National Park. It was kind of a disaster. I didn’t bring the right gear, I didn’t predict how much snow there would be. I gave up, rented a cabin, and watched movies for a day before heading home, determined to try again.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the trip ended up being a miserable metaphor for the year ahead.
We had all known about the pandemic since January, but nobody was really afraid of it. Just a week before everything shut down, I had gone to a bar and hung out with a friend who later realized she had COVID-19 at the time. It was a weird kind of American exceptionalism, I guess. We didn’t think we’d ever live through a pandemic, even though it was already on our doorstep. That was the kind of thing that happened to other people.
My dad called me on the way home from my trip. Los Angeles was on the verge of shutting down, but I didn’t really believe it would. Los Angeles never shuts down, not for anything. My dad sounded scared. I argued with my dad as he pleaded with me to come home.
Then his voice cracked. I could hear the sadness in his voice. He begged me to leave — he didn’t want me to be alone in a hospital, fighting for my life while hooked up to a ventilator, like many others in Wuhan, Seattle and other places that weren’t here. It made me dizzy just thinking about it.
Two weeks later, I flew home to North Carolina. I specifically remember putting on a mask for the first time and sending my friends a picture. When I looked back at the picture recently, I was wearing the mask all wrong. Figures.
When I returned to Los Angeles nearly three months later, we were still months away from the height of the pandemic, when hospitals were out of beds and nurses were dying and our own public health director wept during a briefing.
Even writing about these memories and accessing them in my brain is difficult. I think a lot of the time, I’m able to brush this experience off like a bad movie. Man, I think. That was terrible. Definitely wouldn’t see that one again. At least it didn’t happen to me.
Except it did happen to me, and to my friends, and to the other 7 billion people who have each lived their own terrible pandemic movies.
The worst part is that many others had it much worse than I did. I never got COVID-19, that I know of. I don’t have any friends who died or got very sick. I’ve been able to keep a job for most of the pandemic. It’s when I look outside of myself and into the world around me when a kind of grief so overwhelming that I forget to breathe sets in. The family members my friends have lost. The unemployment checks that dried up. The businesses that shut down.
I think it’s a kind of survivor’s guilt that I feel. Like someone who was in a building that got bombed and walked out unharmed. I’m glad I’m alive, but why me? Why was I the one who got to survive, when so many other nurses, doctors, mothers, sisters, brothers and caregivers died?
In every disaster, there may not seem like there’s clear indicators of who will live and who will die, but there are. People who live in buildings with better retrofitting — a process easier to access in wealthier neighborhoods — survive earthquakes. People who have houses built out of fire-resistant material — usually expensive — survive wildfires. In a pandemic, those who are able to stay home, stay away from others, and get vaccinated stay alive. I can’t pretend that my survival of this tragedy was not predictable.
I know I shouldn’t have that survivor’s guilt. Even when there were predictable factors of who would live and who would die, those predictors didn’t always work. Many wealthy people with no underlying health conditions didn’t survive the blast. Some of the most vulnerable people walked out of the rubble.
One year after the world slowed to a halt on March 11, two days of rain in the city cleared and the sunset was the kind you only get after days of cloudy skies and mud and gunk and wetness. Colors you can’t find on a paint swatch streaked across the sky as I got more texts and phone calls that my friends and family got their vaccines. I want to feel relieved. I want to feel like we all made it out, but I know that’s not true.
So for now, it’s not a relief that I feel. That’s the wrong word. I feel grateful to be alive. I feel grateful at the end of each day when I see one more precious sunset. I am so grateful. I am so sad for the ones who didn’t make it out. I am so angry that it didn’t have to be this way.
But mostly, I’m bracing for the next inevitable blast.
Interestingly enough, a week before the shutdown in California, I was in New York City for a journalism conference. I’ve been to NYC before, but this time was different. The streets didn’t have that same commotion and excitement. I wasn’t fighting through crowds and accidentally elbowing strangers — because this time, the streets were bare and silent. The first case of COVID-19 was already confirmed in New York, and the city started to come to a halt. I remember our group had plans to see a show. We approached the counter only to be told by the ticket attendant that Broadway was dark.
After the panic set in of figuring out whether we should stay or go, our group returned to California day later, only to face a new reality at home.
So as many others did, I stayed home and adjusted. After binging through the Netflix queue, my distractions were limited. I had more time to think, more time to observe and ponder.
Spending all time at home felt … boring.
I started looking at the world around me and studied it like it was midterms. But this time the stakes were higher.
In California, the original plan that leaders came up with was that we all needed to shelter-in-place and social distance to stop the spread so that our “healthcare system is capable of serving all.” We were told that in order to combat the virus, it was our duty to stop the spread. The responsibility was on us to figure it out.
We were expected to decipher through the mounds of contradictory information being thrown our way from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control. And who could forget about the different messages that came from the White House in response to the pandemic?
The red flags began to raise.
The response from our federal and local officials focused on a theoretical approach toward public health. Just one big experiment.
It created a lot more fear and mistrust with our government, our scientific community and among ourselves. Neighbors turned against neighbors in a political divide that could have sparked a modern-day civil war.
The cases began to surge and so did the death toll. It was one of those 9/11 moments as we watched the death count rise on the local news ticker in a scoreboard-style of display.
I saw the fear in people. I saw and felt what it’s like to be helpless. I had a sense of feeling lost and not knowing what to do and how to react — as if paralysis has taken over my mind and body. All I could do is watch the world’s events as if it was a car crash that I slowly drove by to witness with awe. I felt powerless. I wanted to do something, I wanted to help somehow, but I didn’t know where to start.
Then came the economic impact, in which some people were laid off and expected to figure out their livelihoods and where to find their next meal. Millions filed for unemployment and our system couldn’t even handle the onslaught in jobless claims.
We were told to be patient and duly reminded that the rise in COVID-19 cases was because people weren’t taking the pandemic and health guidelines seriously. So we needed to double down even harder. Once again, the onus was on us.
And just when I thought that I had enough, then came a summer of protests.
This was just as hard to witness and live through because I had never seen anything like it in my life. I remember the visuals of protesters in Minneapolis setting the Third Precinct police station ablaze after officers fled from their post.
I remember witnessing the government militarize against its own people on its own soil.
I closed my eyes and saw images of flash bombs, heard sounds of the screams from protesters who were being beaten, tased and gassed. I remember the rallying cry of the demonstrators chanting “No justice, no peace,” and “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
Again, never in my life have I witnessed such outrage, passion and destruction.This outside stimuli and emotional heaviness sent me into system overload. I could feel my heart race, my palms began to sweat, and the vein in my forehead began to bulge as the blood pumped coarsely through my body.
As the virus and the sociopolitical climate within this country collided; I was sad, mad and more than anything else, confused. I realized that I had more questions than answers, like:
What did the March 19 executive order accomplish when months later California had hit its peak, as ICUs maxed out?
Why is it harder to get a barber license than it is to get hired as a cop?
When did Black Lives Matter put in their list of demands to cancel “Gone With the Wind” or rebrand Aunt Jemima?
Am I a bad person for not wanting to wear a mask outside because science suggests that people are much more likely to catch coronavirus indoors compared to an open-air environment?
Does my desire for wanting to roam free outdoors without a mask mean I’m a Trumper? Or is it all just optics?
The list goes on and on. Maybe along the way, I asked the right questions, or maybe I socially ostracized myself for questioning the world around me. I haven’t found the answers to most of my questions but I can say that this led me to something better.
Stressed and overwhelmed, I did the only thing I could; I shut it all off. I took a hiatus from the 24-hour newsfeed and social media cycles. The first step was to turn off all notifications on my phone. No longer would I be susceptible and drawn into this form of clickbait that would continually lead me into the rabbit hole of confusion.
I didn’t go on social media for several weeks. I fought the urge to login and scroll through the opinions of others. I stopped engaging in conversations related to the virus, George Floyd, Trump, or whatever other hot topics were on people’s lips.
To be honest, it felt good to disconnect and be utterly oblivious to what was happening, even if it was only for a short period.
It’s not that I didn’t care, in fact, I experienced the opposite: I cared too much. I needed to reconcile with my own feelings. Up until this point, there was a hollow pit in my stomach. One that constantly tricked me into thinking something bad was going to happen and that I could never fully relax, be comfortable and enjoy life. Or that my nihilistic thinking was actually going to serve me.
I changed the focus from observing what was happening on the outside and turned inward. I made an effort to protect my mental health. I practiced mindfulness by meditating and focusing on the here and now. I tuned everything out and listened quietly. I gauged my emotions often to see if I was happy, irritated, tired or even hungry. I didn’t try to fix myself when I had unwanted feelings, because I read somewhere that “whatever you resist persists.” So I sat with the negative feelings until they passed like a cloud moving across a blue sky. This allowed me to understand myself more and be compassionate with myself during the low times.
To strengthen my inner work, I listened to podcasts from sources that uplifted the human spirit and didn’t focus on the world’s day-to-day problems. I watched countless Youtube videos on managing depression, isolation and anxiety. I know it sounds cliche, but it was my saving grace. It allowed me to re-energize, stay focused and stay sane.
I became picky about where I gathered my information from. I stopped clicking on exploitative headlines and stopped listening to people who only look at the world from their subjective view. I took the time to curate the content that I wanted to see, but I didn’t block myself off from the so-called “opposing side.” I read and learned about both sides of an issue. I chose to be slow to react and thought carefully before I passed judgment. This moved my emotions past superficial anger at the so-called “bad guys” and allowed me to open up to compassion and understanding.
Still now, when it all feels like too much and slightly apocalyptic, I take a deep breath.
I remind myself that all we can do is control our actions and be kind to one another, even when it feels impossible. When I let go of the reins of trying to control what others think or what happens next, it’s as if a burden has been lifted off my chest. It’s liberating.
Now a year later, after witnessing and experiencing the good, the bad and the resilient, I feel that I’m in a better place. While we’re still not out of danger yet, I am already planning what I will do when we’re all set free. I want to experience life once again outside of the constraints of a virtual environment.
Maybe I’ll return to NYC to feel that amazing energy I once came to adore. To hear the crowded streets buzz with the noise of traffic, sirens, and the melting pot of languages spoken from passers-by. I’m excited at the thought of going to a concert, one where we all sing in unison to our favorite song. I look forward to connecting with people once again by exchanging our experiences, learning from one another, and finding a common bond of humanity. One that reminds us, that while we may look and think differently, we are all connected and in this together.