Life in the time of Corona

“How do we find gratitude when so many have died, or lost their jobs, or have been alone for months, and there is no end in sight?” Vu asked in one of the best pieces of writing on the web, his site “Nonprofit AF” on his post, “You are not alone. We will get through this together.”

My life during Covid has not been upended. My life has become simpler, not better and not worse. Despite some major trials like having a partner go through the disease; watching my loved ones suffer and die; and being away from health compromised parents for 6+months; and being with toddlers 24-7, I have found many things to be grateful for.

The Good Stuff

I have had more time to be still, to be present with my children. I was let go from my corporate job in Dec 2018, and there was a 18 month transition to this quieter style of homemaking, and full time caregiving. I was not satisfied with it completely but there were moments that kept me going like my son’s unexpected kisses, or my daughter’s interest in books. I had a smoother transition to the so-called Lock Down (more like Slow Down) of March 2020 because I had so much more time to prepare for it.

My childhood, education, and upbringing have all instilled in me a close proximity between identity and work. My grandmother, Lutfurnessa Begum who grew up in colonized India, taught herself English, raised 5 children, and taught English to thousands of brown children for 2 decades. My mother, too, teaches in NYC public schools, helping English-language learners and special needs children. It seems education is almost hereditary in my family, like brown skin, or a taste gulab jamun.  

Yet, when I left my corporate philanthropy job, working on systems and policy change related to health and healthcare, I gained everything. I had no more emails to check first thing in the morning, or board dockets to work on over the weekend. I had uninterrupted time to play with my children; never had to miss dinners with my family, or commute to remote parts of the country for learning meetings. I gained freedom when I left.

That freedom can feel overwhelming if you don’t know what to do with your time.  When you’ve lost a part of your identity, you keep asking for work, keep applying, keep interviewing, keep going until you’re in the ground. I kept trying, and did not stop. I got a call from a friend I hadn’t talked to in 5+ years who asked if I could do some work for his philanthropy. And in a blink of a few months, I began to work as a consultant.

The Hard Stuff

When the stay at home orders were announced in New Jersey, I had already been quarantined. In fact, I had arrived at Dulles International Airport on Feb 26, from a 40 hour journey from Addis Abba, Ethiopia with two vomiting toddlers, and my in-laws . We had been confined to a plane with mostly black and Chinese people wearing masks, and incessant coughing. My 2 year old was vomiting and I think I cried when I landed in the USA, feeling so grateful for our security checkpoint lines. We had gone through 10 different checkpoints in 3 countries, and the capital of the United States was by far the quickest, most efficient. With Covid-19 hitting the entire world like the black plague, the US government security checkpoint seemed absolutely oblivious both to my relief as a mother, but my consternation as a former public health worker. When we arrived home from EWR, I began to quarantine, mostly from jetlag and fatigue. I declined 2-3 social invitations because I said I was coughing, and my children were sick. This was early March. 

March 10 my nanny came to see my children, as she had been traveling for a wedding, and brought gifts for the children. That was my last day at any grocery store. For 3+ months, I did not have the courage to step inside a grocery store, or any public place due to Covid. I had forgotten the taste of fresh fruit.

I gained an appreciation for hot water (that was turned off for a day).  In the absence of grocery stories and hot water, I remembered that so much of the world is without what we consider these basic necessities ALL the time.

The Really Hard Stuff

On April 6th my husband, the breadwinner of our family, started to experience a mild fever. He argued that his small business was an essential business, and that he had to go everyday. While other friends (attorneys, too, sadly we are surrounded by them) transitioned to working from home, my husband insisted on going to the office, where there was construction he was overseeing. His mild fever turned into a headache that would not go away, followed by an intense sleep where he would not wake up. Under a state-wide quarantine, I quarantined in my home, keeping my 2 and 4 year old children from seeing, touching, hearing, and certainly not hugging their father. My husband diagnosed himself, with the help of doctor friends, medicated himself, and managed to recover by himself.

Belly of the Whale

I felt at moments like I was in the belly of a whale, like Prophet Jonas (Yunus, in arabic) and let my friends know. I cooked, cleaned, cared for my children each day, alone. The one key difference was I never felt alone, despite my absentee husband, and invisible social circle. I felt I had God with me. I felt a level of reliance on God. As his recovery took 2 weeks, and it had been 6 weeks since we had gone to a grocery store, I stared at cans in my pantry that I had never seen before. I became creative with the frozen veggies, and fruits that I began to discover in the far corners of my freezer. I might have lost some weight, and I began voluntarily fasting to preserve food for my growing children. And I prayed. I prayed to God to provide for me and my family. My in-laws lived down the street, and I pretended that we were doing okay. I told my friends, my husband has Covid. And I swear, every day, there were bags of groceries on my doorstep. Every single day, someone — sent or inspired by God or by a belief in mercy — left me food.

The Miracle of Neighbors + Friends + Family

When I had no milk, no eggs, no bread, no oil– someone dropped it off. I did not write about this scarcity publicly, or share my ordeal on social media (which i have left years ago, after noticing the toxicity of how inadequate it often makes one feel), and still I experienced such abundance. There was one doctor/neighbor/friend who moved into the neighborhood who must have bought $100 worth of groceries for us. This is someone I had last seen in Jan 2018, at a party. Her name is Dr. Naureen. She was literally an angel that saved me from hunger. In these times, I did what I knew how to do. I cooked. I cooked my last chicken roast, and gave it away. I cooked rice and lentil soups, for the people who dropped off these groceries. No one would accept my money. I do not think most of our extended family — a family of about 50 people who live within 10 miles of our house — even knew my husband was sick, or that we needed help. Another friend arranged for me to have organic beef that her husband had slaughtered herself. Friends offered to chip in to buy the cow. But God provided everything we needed, and then some, and there was nothing to say to them. 

People of faith have been known to be more resilient in times of trauma or crisis. They are more optimistic. I admit there were moments I wanted to text my husband for the updated will, and get all the finances in order, thinking this might be the end of his life. (I am also the daughter of an accountant, and very pragmatic under high levels of stress). My parents were appalled by my attitude, by how lightly I took this crisis. They have many health complications, and began googling and sending us links to do X, Y, Z; sharing stories from CNN. I told them, just pray for us. They did more than that. My father fed hundreds if not thousands of people in his rural village, believing that charity will help avert death. My mother said supplications 100,000 times, believing that death and calamity could be avoided. My 70 year old father in law would go weekly to get our groceries and drop them in front of my home. My mother in law played virtual games with my children of “hide the stuffed dinosaur” so I had 15-30 minutes of recovery from my children. Of course, they prayed for their son, and as trained pharmacists, they provided medical remedies to heal their son. I had with me, an army of believers, of prayers, that helped me fight. I did not have hundreds of comments on a wall, or likes on a video. I did not have many phone calls. I had only one name that I called again and again for help. 

And He was enough was enough for me to survive, heal and thrive. 

I savored chicken like it was a $100 entree at La Bernadin. I remember that anniversary dinner. I remember the memory of dining at Jean George’s or any number of places. I do not miss those “experiences.” A $5 meal of rice, beans and chicken can be savored like that. In fact, the frozen chicken tenders became my most prized possession for my kids.

I was grateful for the unopened birthday gifts from last year, and the Facetime videos with school friends.  I was grateful that I had enough.

During this time, I also took some important steps. I canceled Amazon Prime because of the way they treated their workers. I cancelled our tuition for private school in April because I had better things to do with my children than printing worksheets and uploading pictures of her work. I signed her up to work 1:1 on a foreign language, and started enjoying all the virtual field trips we could take all over the world. I began to read. I began to purge. I began to learn languages with my children. I started to give more and more away to charity, as a way to keep evil away and also as a way to show gratitude for the blessing I had received. I did the opposite of the scarcity mindset — I gave what little I had away and then received more and more.

For my kid’s birthday, we had homemade cake. For my birthday, my friend Sana baked me a cake. My friend Rashda ordered a few cakes. Most years, I am happy with a fruit tart from the grocery store, and this year, I was blessed with 4 different cakes over a weekend. It must be the prayers of my parents or grandparents keeping me alive and nourished. I ordered gifts, spent money I did not have on the people around me. Made hand-made cards and gifts. Dropped off books and snacks. Made time for things I could never have done a year ago.

As we approach a national holiday of giving thanks, I can say that above all of it, I am grateful to have faith, and to live in a country that gives me the right to believe (or not believe). God bless America. May our leaders put faith back into science and evidence-based policy and help create opportunity for all people to LIVE with dignity and achieve their dreams. Amen.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

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