My mom friend and I mask our kids. Since we’re both fully vaxxed and meet outside, there’s no need for us to mask ourselves, per CDC guidelines. We haven’t talked about it, but based on her reactions, I know she’s more comfortable with me in a mask than out of it. So even though it can be hot as hell, I keep my mask on. It’s not hard. It’s kind of annoying. But her happiness, comfort, and security outweighs my desire to ditch my mask. She’s not ready for my normal yet — and neither of us are ready for other people’s normal, which involves maskless children running around (against CDC guidelines).
Neither she nor I are right or wrong (though if you’re actively violating CDC guidelines, you’re wrong). What is wrong? Shaming people because they aren’t ready to return to another person’s perception of normal.
We’ve just lived through a year of social isolation, a death count rivaling World World II, an uncertainty over COVID-19’s long-term effects, and perhaps personal losses of our own. But certainly we’ve lived through a tragedy of epic proportions. A year ago, I sat in my hammock and wept because I couldn’t read any more COVID-related statistics. Two weeks ago, I cried because I read that India didn’t have enough crematoriums to accommodate their COVID-19 dead. This morning, I cried furious tears because my governor signed an executive order allowing students to refuse to mask at school. My husband is a teacher.
Let me say it again: I am not ready for your normal. I am still grieving.
Not Normal: We Lost Family And Friends
Many of us watched family and friends die. Then after they died, we couldn’t properly grieve. Every single COVID-19 death left behind grieving people. You simply cannot tell those people that it’s now time for normal, so buckle up, buttercup, ditch your mask, and get to some indoor dining. They aren’t ready. They’re living in mourning; they’re living in fear; they’re living in fight-or-flight mode. Let them heal.
Not only did people lose family and friends to COVID-19; they couldn’t mourn their dead. Both my husband and I lost our last living grandparents during the pandemic to non-COVID-related causes. He attended a masked, socially distanced funeral with only immediate family. I skipped my own grandfather’s funeral because I knew COVID-19 protocols wouldn’t be followed. We were lucky. Our grandfathers had funerals. Normal is not on my horizon.
We lost family in other ways. COVID-19 estrangements are not uncommon. People refused to follow safety guidelines and quarantine; in some cases, their family members had to cut ties to stay safe. It happened to me. It happened to friends.
We realized our friends were not the people we thought: they lied about safety. They refused to mask. They put their own comfort above others’ safety. They showed that they cared more about themselves than about the lives of other people. We may have decided, like my husband and I did, that we did not want those people to come back into our lives. There is a terrible pain in seeing the raw, real selves of people you love come up shorter than you could ever imagine. Even watching acquaintances show callous disregard for science and human life is difficult. You cannot expect normal from traumatized people.
And many of us remain traumatized.
We Stayed Isolated And Lost Our Social Skills
Isolation was easier on some of us than others. Can we forget a year in which parents broke themselves against a tide of their children’s boredom, total lack of socialization, and virtual school? My kids weathered the storm better than most. But they’re still shaky. Isolation, for many of us, wasn’t snackage and “Tiger King” and Zoom meetings. It was a vast monotony of strung-together days punctuated by percent positive data. We literally did not leave home for weeks and lived in terror of the Amazon delivery person. This is so far from normal it made us a little off, and we can’t quite shake it. Please don’t expect us to. My youngest refused to leave our property for five fucking months.
Do not expect normal from him, please.
In many cases, isolation also took our social skills. I look at people too long now: trying to remember if I know them, admiring a bag, wondering where they bought a dress. Now I’m scared to glance at a human for fear I’ll end up staring.
My friends and I are meeting soon for brunch for the first time since the pandemic. We’ve all joked that we’ve lost what social skills we had to begin with. I’m scared to meet them because I really, truly have lost my social skills: I’m even weird and abrupt over email.
I am begging you not to expect “normal” from me. I can’t manage it.
We Need More Time To Reach Normal
Maybe you think certain things are safe: you’re sending your kids to school, and you’re comfortable with their masking protocols. When we have brunch with my friends, my children will be masked around theirs. Sorry. Their kids are in school and mine are not, and while complications from COVID-19 are rare in children, they happen. Kids don’t die from COVID-19, except sometimes they do, even though that number is vanishingly small. Most of all, we don’t know the long-term effects of COVID-19 infection. I refuse to allow my children to be infected. Even if their chances of infection are small, my normal for them probably does not look like someone else’s normal for their own children.
You owe all of us the space to grieve. If we’re scared, put on your mask when you talk to us. It doesn’t hurt you. If we won’t meet you in a restaurant, don’t lecture us. If you think it’s safe, but we’re still masked, don’t glare. That mask is a safety blanket for some of us.
Like me. I sat outside in a sparsely-populated public plaza, at least a dozen feet from other people in a stiff breeze, and still wore my mask. My husband took his off. I didn’t. “You can take it off,” he said. I shook my head. I wasn’t ready for everyone’s normal.
It’s not about you. It’s about a tangled mess of grief and fear and worry and mistrust. When people ask me how I’m doing now that COVID-19 has died down, a David Bowie lyric always comes to mind: I’ve got scars that can’t be seen. I truly don’t begrudge your happiness, your masklessness, or your desire to push forward. I understand you want to get back to normal.
But please understand that I can’t.
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