COVID-19 and the End of Plans
We didn’t have a family Christmas this year, I got COVID. I had gone down to New York City for a work dinner on a Wednesday night in December, pretty sure that’s what got me. More than two hours unmasked in a packed restaurant while Omicron raged. By Friday my throat felt a little strange. By Saturday afternoon the throat issue had been joined by a persistent headache and I decided to take a rapid test, which immediately displayed as positive.
Standing in our bedroom on the afternoon of December 18 I texted my wife, who was downstairs with our two college-aged daughters, suitcases more or less packed for the five-hour drive to grandma and grandpa’s house and the customary expectation of days with extended family and friends. “Think about what we would do if I had COVID.”
Took her a minute to understand what I was saying, then things became very clear. No long drive, no holiday with the family, not anymore, and hopefully that would be the least of it. I escorted our dog who never leaves my side out of the room (Google said to stay away from pets when you have COVID), closed the door and — except to briefly leave the house for a confirming PCR test a couple of days later and to retrieve the steady supply of food and drinks left outside and punctuated each time by two sharp knocks — didn’t open it for 10 days.
Everyone has experienced plans that fell through or changed at the last minute, that’s part of life. But, like everything else associated with COVID, this felt different. Sudden, sweeping, inexorable. There was a famous book and several movies about a big green guy who carried out an elaborate plan to steal Christmas from a small town, ultimately even he decided he couldn’t do it. Our grinch was a little piece of cardboard displaying two pink lines, and once they showed up there would be no reevaluation, no pulling of heartstrings, no appeal. A decades-long, multi-generational streak of gathering together on the morning of December 25 and making the base of an indoor tree our collective focal point was broken.
We got lucky. My case was relatively mild. After a few uncomfortable nights the symptoms wound down to a persistent cough and, most significantly, no one else in the house got it. I left our room on day 10, still showing a positive rapid test, so I wore a mask and kept my distance as we joined to open presents and have something of a Christmas morning around lunchtime on December 28. Life returned to however you would define our new normal shortly after that.
We have all lost something to COVID. More than a million people in the U.S. have lost everything, and the people closest to them have lost something in between. The impact of this pandemic is hard to track and hard to overstate. But one of its lingering effects is the loss of certainty over what comes next, the ability to arrange for things to happen and feel any degree of confidence they will materialize until that moment has actually arrived. It’s a way that few of us have lived before. Along with everything else the virus took from us, it took away this thing we used to consider plans.
As we move into this new mode of living, new way of being, it requires making peace with a baseline level of flux and flexibility that is, for so many, entirely new terrain. Maybe we’ll see you next month. Maybe we’ll get that dinner. Maybe the kids will be able to go to (and stay at) summer camp. Maybe we’ll celebrate your birthday in person. Maybe I’ll make that meeting in the office. Maybe we’ll get on the plane for that long-booked trip, if it all works out and no one tests positive or is a close contact. Maybe we’ll get back home on our original timetable. It’s boom times for pencils, because no one is writing anything down in pen.
This new mindset is getting caught up in the swirl of moving forward, but it’s worth acknowledging. It requires a new perspective and a more fluid approach to our day-to-day as we move from one moment to the next. The certainty of plans (within reason) is an edifying and grounding thing. Sure, someone could always get hit by a bus on the way to lunch. But most times, they don’t. The headline of this piece is intentionally dramatic, obviously the idea of making plans hasn’t ended. But I’d argue the way we perceive them, in the moment and as forward-looking pegs and focal points, has fundamentally shifted.
The flip side of our new normal, the more positive and maybe even affirming side, is an enhanced appreciation for the moments that do happen. How many meals, family events, nondescript events and gatherings passed by in the pre-COVID times with the expectation there would always be another, maybe just a few days later? No need to make such a big deal about sitting around a table or arriving at some new or favorite destination. We just decided to do this stuff, made some arrangements and it happened. What else did you expect?
The only way to adapt to a world that includes the end of plans is to elevate the awareness, engagement and significance of the moments that come to pass. This thing we talked about doing actually occurred, we made it, we all got to this place at this appointed time, so let’s fully lock in and appreciate what is happening — for us and with us and because of us.
John Lennon famously said that life is what happens to us when we’re busy making other plans. Maybe one of the unintended consequences of COVID is to give us the motivation and awareness to focus more on the life and less on the plans. As our ability to predict the future with any degree of certainty has diminished, the significance of the present is necessarily elevated, I’d argue to its more rightful place. The conversation we’re having right now, the meal, the activity, the glass of wine, the view, whatever. Breathe it in, don’t take any of it for granted. It’s not a terrible shift, even if it came from a terrible thing.