Monday, November 23, 2020

COVID, the Holidays, and My Identity Crisis

That headline is mostly my attempt at clickbait.😉

"Identity crisis" is an exaggeration. Overall, I'm okay. In the deepest and most fundamental sense, I do know "who I am," whatever storms may come. I just feel like doing my peculiar version of "ranting" or, rather, cathartic writing, if I can manage it. 

We're nearing the end of NINE MONTHS of this whole coronavirus bizarreness in the U.S.A. (and it has been even longer for other parts of the world). For some it has been a time of tragedy, for others a time of hardship, and for most everyone a time of bewilderment, annoyance, frustration, and vacillation between irrational denial and irrational anxiety. I'd like to think that in the mix, too, there have been stretches of common sense, quiet reflection, and reorienting of priorities.

Everyone is having a new experience of restrictions. Many are lonely. Many are bored. Everyone wishes the whole thing would just go away.

Being a semi-invalid and living in the country, a lot of this has been "vicarious" for me personally. In the Spring it was chaotic for everyone, while in the Summer much of it mellowed out, only to return in the Fall in what has thus far been a bit different in its mode of disorientation. Perhaps this is because we are more used to the rituals of dealing with it and we think we know the limits of how bad it can get.

But here comes "the Holiday Season...." Thanksgiving is this week and Christmas comes a month later. How will we experience these holidays in the time of COVID? Differently, no doubt, at least in terms of many of the external modes of interacting that most of us are used to.

My life is changing in many ways, but most of them are not related to the pandemic.

In less than two months, I will turn 58 years old.

Sometimes I feel like I'm not even ready to be a "grown-up," much less an older person. I suppose we spend our whole lives "growing up." For many people, the crazy circumstances of recent months have been opportunities to learn and grow. But for me personally, all the changes of the past three years are much more radical than anything else happening in the world around me.

Three years ago, on Thanksgiving, I had a long conversation with my father. It was perhaps the most personal conversation I ever had with him. It also turned out to be the last lucid conversation I ever had with him. His health unexpectedly, rapidly deteriorated soon after that.

A lot has changed since 2017. For most of my life, my parents lived in two places (Pittsburgh and Arlington, Virginia) and they had pretty much the same furniture. It was a world — the home of my parents — the world I grew up in, and then the world that was special for me and Eileen and the kids with their "Papa" and "Grandma." 

That world has vanished.

My father died last year, and my mother's health declined to the point where we were planning changes in our own home to accommodate her living with us. But first she went to an Assisted Living place in Arlington, and then plans for trying to move her out here got derailed, not only by the pandemic but also because of changes in her own personal needs over the past year. I'm so grateful the Assisted Living was available for her, and that she has been safe and much helped there.

Of course, COVID has made it nearly impossible for us to visit her (this has been one of the very difficult features of these times for many people). We get to talk to her on the telephone, and I'm glad that she gets to see and interact with people who care for her every day. She will turn 82 before the end of the year. She is physically weak, but stable, and her mind is still as sharp as a razor. She stays in her little Assisted Living "efficiency apartment" which is rather nice ("long term care insurance" has worked out well for Dad and Mom both). She is not mobile (though some hope remains with physical therapy) but there is food service delivery, and personal care services, and she befriends, shares stories and empathy, counsels, and even gently evangelizes her caregivers and assistants (and their wearing masks these days has not slowed her down). She is much less isolated than when she was alone at home, still trying to hold onto the condo, seeing only us and an occasional neighbor.

Mom still has lots of solitary time. She prays, reads, and - of course - watches TV. Sometimes she poses theological questions to me on the phone, which I have to research before the next call!😊 All things considered, she's doing well within her limitations, but "doing-well-within-limitations" is the story of her whole life. I and the rest of the family wish we could spend time with her. This is certainly one way that COVID is going to impact our holidays. 

I do hope that we will have more access to Mom soon, but I understand that these restrictions are in place for a reason. But still, I miss her a lot.

I miss my Dad, too. I miss him so much. I trust that he "looks after us," in the mysterious ways that God makes possible. The new events in our family must matter to him, but his response is "different" now, and our access to him is hidden in the obscurity of the mysteries of faith (but also held in the strength of the hope for eternal life). My relationship with Dad is encompassed within prayer, within the heart of Jesus. I pray for him, of course (for his passage through that final purgation, the glorious heat of the refiner's fire that ultimately, truly, makes us gold - that mystery we call "purgatory"). I also talk to him, asking for help, remembering his gentle strength. It seems he is "not far" from me, or the rest of us. He is "involved with" strengthening the bonds of our family. But sometimes I feel his absence more than I ever imagined I would.

Why does it take nearly 60 years for someone to figure out how much he loves his parents?

Meanwhile, our kids have grown up a ton. There we have mostly "happy" kinds of changes (but changes, nonetheless). John Paul is married. Vistas open up for the future that I can't fathom. None of these things were concretely on the horizon three years ago (at least, not to our knowledge).

Life is changing all the time. Some of what we consider to be "normal" may have more to do with comfortable ruts we fall into, patterns of expectation that we feel like we can control. Of course, we pursue stability, we plan for the future with the idea that tomorrow will be much like today, we long for permanence. Still, we must travel the path of this life toward the promise of fulfillment and rest.

Our Holidays give us a "taste" of that fulfillment, that joy, that sense of a life "bigger" than the limits of time. The changes of life can seem bittersweet during this season, but let us try to remember and focus on the "sweet" in our bittersweet memory and longing for what (and who) has passed on. The "sweet" (even in "bittersweet," in long-cherished memories, in grief) is the sign of what is destined to endure.