At funerals and graveside interments, I often speak to families about the importance of telling stories of their loved ones so that generations will know the stories, the wisdom, and all that enters into that which shapes our lives and the lives of those who follow. I wonder what stories we will tell of our time during the “great pandemic”. What were the struggles, the successes, the stories of heroic response, and so much more. Allyson Chui, a writer for the Washington Post, wonderfully captured a perspective on the experience of the pandemic among different generations. What follows are her musings.
Every generation struggled in its own way during the pandemic. Children missed classrooms and birthday parties, college students lost out on campus life, young families labored without child care. But older Americans endured the pandemic with a keen awareness that they were losing more than their retirement plans: They were losing time.
Retirees and the elderly might be feeling as if “I know I don’t have that many years left,” said Jerrold Lee Shapiro, a professor of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University who has researched retirement. “The hourglass has been turned over. I know more years have passed than I will have in the future. I’m in my 60s or my 70s or whatever, and covid is taking those years away. I’m not going to use them.”
Experts say older people often fared better than their younger counterparts, displaying resilience born out of decades of life experience and wisdom. Many people pivoted, finding joy and meaning in simple activities: creating art, planting thousands of flowers or reading to a grandchild over Zoom. But a feeling still persists: the lingering sense that things weren’t supposed to be this way.
What I loved about her article was the stories. Below is one of those stories. Warning: it is poignant with intense moments when the normal events of life encounter the constraints of the pandemic. Regardless of what generation you find yourself in, what would you write? What experience of the pandemic lingers?
Michael Whitney, 70, Tallahassee. Michael, an accountant, and his wife of 45 years, Ann, who worked in education, retired on Dec. 31, 2019. Ann died of cancer on Oct. 31, 2021, about two months after being diagnosed. This is his story:
Ann and I planned our retirement carefully and well in advance. We worked very hard our whole lives, and retirement was going to be our time to finally do some of the things we never got a chance to do. We said that this was going to be our time.
We spent a couple of months planning an extensive trip around the country. We had a giant map of the United States glued to a board and stuck pins in all the places we were going to go. We probably had at least 30 or 40 pins. That trip was supposed to start in May 2020 and go for three months, and later in the year, we were going to go to Scotland. But then the coronavirus pandemic shut everything down.
We were perfectly willing to make some adjustments and stay home and be very cautious. But we thought: “Well, how long can this go on for? A couple of months, maybe even into the summer. But certainly by the summer, this will be over, and we’ll be able to make up for lost time.” And that was something Ann said all the time: “We’re going to make up for lost time.”
As soon as vaccines were available, we got vaccinated. We thought we were back on track. We replanned our cross-country trip and booked a new trip to Scotland. We thought we were going to be able to do that, but then two things happened: The delta variant came along, and Ann started getting sick.
It was early May 2021, and we were setting out on our road trip across the country. Ann was not feeling well. She saw her doctor before we left, got checked out and had bloodwork done, and the doctor didn’t see anything. So she thought: “Maybe I’ve just got a bug or something and we’ll just start and hopefully I’ll get better as we go.”
We got as far as New York, where we visited family, then she got sicker and sicker, developing a cough and hip pain. By August, we were back in Tallahassee. Ann fractured her hip during the return trip and was recovering from surgery when she got the call: She had undetected lung cancer, even though she never smoked in her entire life. When she told me, we both cried – for a while.
She’d had it long enough that it spread to other places. By the time they diagnosed it, she already had cancer in her bones and her lymph nodes. What really did her in was it had spread to her brain. That’s what caused her rapid deterioration, and it’s why I lost her. We got the diagnosis at the beginning of September. Ann died Oct. 31.
One of the last things Ann said to me when she could still talk was, “When we get through this, we’re going to make up for lost time.” Well, we didn’t. That time was lost forever.
I just turned 70 in October, and up until the past two years, I always felt about 10 years younger than I was. The past two years, and the past six months especially, have wiped all that out. It’s a struggle to hold on to hope.
Ahead of our retirement, we replaced our dining room table and chairs with a much bigger set and looked forward to entertaining friends and hosting dinner parties. We hosted one Thanksgiving in 2019, and since that day, no one has sat at that table except me and Ann because of the pandemic. Now, only I sit there.
I got rid of our road trip map. I couldn’t bear to look at it anymore, so I had to take it apart. I’m not sure whether I’ll go to Scotland. There’s a lot of sadness attached to it. It would be really hard for me to go by myself, because she wanted to go there very badly.
Ann wanted me to find a way to be happy and to carry on, and I’m working on that. I still want to meet my new grandson. He was born Aug. 1. Ann never got to meet him. That really tore her up. She sat on the couch and cried bitterly and said, “I’ll never get to hold my grandson.” I see his picture all the time, but I’d like to pick him up. I’m hoping very much that I’ll be able to do that soon. I’m going to do my best to make sure he knows Ann.
Allyson Chui, Washington Post, April 13 2022