On the same December morning that the recorded number of Americans killed by the coronavirus passed 300,000, the first batch of vaccines that could bring an end to the pandemic of 2020 arrived at the University of Washington Medical Center.
Hospital staff, wearing insulated gloves to handle the vaccines stored at 94 degrees below zero, unpacked the precious vials and slotted them into specially designed freezers.
TV stations broadcast the event live on the air — a couple of masked guys in shirts and ties unpacking a cardboard box.
“It’s open,” said KING-5 anchor Jake Whittenberg, as they used a box cutter on the package. “It’s OK to feel happy. It’s OK to feel joyful at a time like this.”
It has, for much of 2020, not felt OK to feel happy. The pandemic has killed thousands, sickened millions and upended everyone’s lives. Jobs lost, classes canceled. Parties, weddings, trips, graduations, dinners out, happy hours, play-dates — 2020 defeated them all.
The year also brought police killings caught on camera; sustained protests that roiled American life unlike any in memory; an election viewed as existential; and the deepest recession in decades.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Lewis, Kobe Bryant, Lynn Shelton, John Prine.
The grief, at times, has felt thick enough to touch.
But Washington is a big state and this is a big country. Even in a year when sorrow hung heavy like wildfire smoke, people found joy. They had children and grandchildren and watched them grow. They got married. They adopted dogs. Most of all, people found joy in family, in human connection, even if those connections had to be mediated by distance.
Back in the spring, when quarantines and staying home were new, Theresa Gutierrez Jacobs and her husband had to figure out something to do with their son Evan.
They were both working from home. His day care was canceled. He was practically bouncing off the walls of their small West Seattle apartment.
They turned to a couple of items in a closet that seemed premature: A little green and black bike (no training wheels) and a set of learn-to-read books.
Evan was only 4, still a year or two away from when kids typically learn to read and to ride a bike. But, well, desperate times …
They put Evan on the bike, in the alley behind their apartment. But in the back of her mind, Gutierrez Jacobs was thinking about how she didn’t learn to ride a bike until she was 7. As a mother with a 4-year-old, it was mainly a way to get outside.
“We thought we’d have to catch him the entire time, but he just went full force,” she said. “We didn’t expect he’d be able to do it but he just took off.”
Back in the apartment, they took out a set of Bob Books — reading tutorials for young kids — a hand-me-down present from her sister that she didn’t think Evan was quite ready for yet.
“I was cleaning out the closet and we thought we might as well try it,” Gutierrez Jacobs said. They sat down with the books, and soon enough, Evan was sounding out sentences: “Matt sat on cat.”
“He’s not proficient at it but he has been able and willing to keep plowing through the set,” Gutierrez Jacobs said. “If we didn’t have all this time at home to spend with him we probably wouldn’t have tried any of this. Our son absolutely blew our minds.”
While Zoom has earned much mocking from professionals who spend many working hours on the video-conferencing service, it’s been a lifeline for others, allowing them to break through the isolation.
Marilyn Graves’ great-grandson Aiden was born in August. He’s in Issaquah and she’s in Des Moines, only a half-hour away, but she can’t go see him. She’s 93 and her pandemic travels are largely limited to the mailbox, Safeway and Bartell.
She met Aiden on Zoom. She talks to him. She sees him react. “He makes little noises,” she said. “He tries to connect. The words are coming, they’re not there yet.”
She talks on Zoom with another great-grandchild, 3-year-old Claire, who lives in Castro Valley, California. “Every single day she changes and she’s just chattering like a magpie,” Graves said.
“It’s been wonderful,” she said. “I feel so very lucky.”
Matt McLaughlin, development director at a Snohomish County child advocacy center, has used a low-tech solution to stay in touch with family. His parents live in Spokane, he lives in Shoreline. They haven’t risked visiting, and he hasn’t seen them in a year.
He talks with his mom regularly on the phone. But she has Alzheimer’s and often forgets what they talked about the day before. In September, he started writing her letters. Hand-written, on creamy, heavy stationery. One letter every week.
Unlike the phone calls, they’re something she can hold, physically.
“My mom loves them, she looks forward to them, she has them all stored away in a drawer,”McLaughlin said.
She can get them out and look back at them when she forgets.
He types a rough draft of each letter on the computer before sitting down to write by hand. He’ll talk about something that happened recently and then connect it to a memory.
He took his two sons on a hike in a Shoreline park, and when they got back he made them cocoa. He remembered sledding with his brother as kids in Yakima. Their mom made them cocoa.
“One memory triggers a bunch of other memories, so I’m starting to write down a bunch of memories that I haven’t thought of in ages,” he said. “Now when we talk, we laugh and cry and reminisce about the stories that shaped our lives.”
Doreen Bradley and Steve Winslow were both alone when the pandemic struck. Both 74, they’re each widowed after long marriages, Bradley in 2006, after 34 years of marriage, and Winslow in 2019, after 46 years.
Both retired — Bradley as a teacher in Bellevue public schools and Winslow as a financial executive — they were isolated in their separate homes after the virus nixed visits with their children and grandchildren.
In March, a marketing email lured Winslow onto an internet dating site. After a few uneventful weeks, he stumbled upon Bradley and sent her a message. Impossible, she thought, she’d canceled the service nearly a decade ago.
Nevertheless, they exchanged messages and three days later agreed to go on a walk on a trail near their homes in Kirkland. They walked for six hours. Two weeks later they got engaged, having never kissed or even held hands. They’ve had dinner together every night since.
They’ll marry on Jan. 3, at Winslow’s house, with fewer than 10 guests in attendance. They’ll livestream the ceremony for friends and family.
“We have become best friends,” Winslow said. “It’s all been wonderful for me.”
“We’re very sad about not seeing our grandchildren,” Bradley said. “But otherwise COVID brought us closer together because we didn’t have anybody else to do anything with. If I hadn’t met Steve I’d probably be eating alone at my house.”
In Port Townsend, Nick and Sue Jones found joy in a “one-eyed, freckle-eared, fire-pistol of a chihuahua mix named Bruno,” who they adopted from the Humane Society in February.
Bruno would rather starve than eat dinner before getting treats. Even with just one eye, he is “vigilant” in guarding the bird feeder from squirrels. He likes TV, animal shows in particular, but news or home improvement programs will suffice. He does not abide bed-making — he has to be locked out of the bedroom or he’ll unleash his wrath on sheets, blankets and pillows.
“We have become part of this little man’s small world over the year,” Sue Jones said. “That has brought us tremendous joy in these dark days of 2020.”
The ability to find joy amid the gloom is necessary, human. But it can be tough.
George Agosto married his longtime partner at a church in Ruston, Pierce County, in March, less than a week before non-essential Washington businesses were ordered to close.
It was a small ceremony. And his mom, who lives in Chicago, couldn’t come. But “it was beautiful and we still had a great time.”
Agosto, a manager of several regional bakeries, and his husband bought a house in Puyallup in September. They adopted two dogs: Doug, a hound mix, and Cristina Darling, an “English Shepherd runt.”
“It’s almost like similar to survivor’s guilt,” Agosto said of his happiness. “We’ve been very blessed and we don’t take it for granted.”
It’s also something people have long struggled with.
English poet William Wordsworth, months after the death of his 3-year-old daughter, wrote of his agonized dismay when he’d felt a moment of joy: “But how could I forget thee?—Through what power, / Even for the least division of an hour?”
It’s OK to feel happy.
Sometime in the years shortly after World War II, the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert sat down to consider why he was writing poems.
Herbert had joined the underground Polish resistance to the Nazis during the war and afterward was censored for more than a decade by his country’s communist regime.
In “Five Men,” a poem published just after censorship restrictions were eased, Herbert writes of five men, executed by a government firing squad.
“their buttons straps / and steel helmets / are more alive / than those lying beside the wall,” Herbert writes. So why, he wonders, has he been focused on the seemingly frivolous, “writing / unimportant poems on flowers.”
He answers his own question. What did the five men talk about the night before their execution, he asks? They didn’t talk about their cursed fate.
They talked about dreams and sex and trips and car parts and card games and getting drunk and life.
Thus, he says, “one can attempt to catch the color of morning sky / write of love / and also / once again / in dead earnest / offer to the betrayed world / a rose.”