COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic two years ago today, give or take.
Or so they say.
It was a lifetime ago, from where I sit. So much has happened, I thought I’d catch you up.
For me, the start of the pandemic will always be punctuated by my father’s death in February 2020. Just as would-it-or-wouldn’t-it talk about COVID turning into a pandemic was peaking, my dad’s prolonged battle with Parkinson’s Disease ended.
His last weeks of life were a series of alarming medical crises and trips to hospitals. My mother’s life became the emotionally and physically exhausting job of caregiver. She’d begun facing the prospect of my dad being in a hospital unit that she wasn’t permitted to enter, exacerbating his confusion and her anxiety.
My husband and I were there with her that Sunday morning in February when my dad died peacefully at home. It was one of those times of grief when there’s also gratitude for the suffering to have ended. Many times since, we’ve also been grateful that pandemic protocols weren’t yet in place, so that the rituals of saying goodbye could happen in person, face-to-face.
Upon the COVID declaration a couple weeks later, my job at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga immediately and simultaneously became both a sprint and a marathon. It felt like I suddenly had two jobs: the one I was hired to do and the new one required by COVID.
Routine work was ongoing, alongside racing to stay ahead of the speeding boulder that was COVID, with teams and task forces evaluating every aspect of life, work and the learning environment on campus–and the need to get word of all the changes out as far and wide and fast as possible.
I had been with UTC barely 18 months when the pandemic hit, so the extra work came with a bright side. As a result of being a member of several of the aforementioned teams and task forces, I was able to get to know and work with a great number of great people at UTC. For months, there were routine Zoom meetings–to check in on problems and COVID case counts–six mornings and five evenings every week. Every conceivable university operation and function had to be re-thought and re-configured, and every adjustment had to be communicated somehow.
A COVID information website was built, compliance protocols were established, HR policies were re-written, faculty prepared for long-term online instruction, graphics were developed for signage that had to be printed, webinars were organized for UTC leaders to discuss with parents the measures that would be implemented to protect their children and so on and so on, and all of it had to be conveyed through a comprehensive social media and informational campaign that was developed.
We did a great job–and a big one–and my circle of work friends expanded quickly.
As you may recall, COVID vaccines were introduced in early 2021 and by late spring, hopes arose of something like normal by summer. Bill and I even made plans for our first real out-of-town getaway since lockdown–a long weekend in Cincinnati to see a couple of Reds baseball games. The timing in May also would make it a birthday celebration for Bill.
Then came cancer.
First in the alarming results of what was supposed to have been a routine PSA test for him, then a comprehensive biopsy of the prostate gland. We went together to the urologist to hear the findings from the biopsy. Definitely cancer, definitely requiring treatment. You may have heard of the “stage” levels of cancer from 1 to 4, with 4 being most serious. Well, medicine has a different way of categorizing prostate cancer that is beyond me to comprehend, so I can’t explain to you here how Bill’s status was characterized by his doctors, but I can tell you it was very serious and very scary. He was going to have to undergo radiation or removal of the prostate.
That reality overshadowed everything else as we walked back to our cars and I followed him home. I was able to perceive that it was a beautiful spring day. It seemed a bit surreal, or like a cruel joke in the face of the news we’d just gotten. As we walked into the house, I felt both shock and numb. We sat on the couch and stared out the window. Until the phone began ringing. Bill’s daughter and my mother called for a report. The news seemed almost as hard to say as it had been to hear, but being forced to say it out loud seemed to shake us both out of our daze. We prayed, we talked about next steps, and I said to Bill for the first of what would be countless times that we were going to make him better.
The Cincinnati weekend was coming up in less than two weeks, and Bill’s calendar began to have a lot of medical appointments on it. I was unsure whether the trip was still a good idea–what if some test or procedure suddenly had to happen?
I was relieved and glad that Bill was not going to hear of canceling our trip. I knew the experience would be fun, a welcome distraction, and I was happy that he was still in good spirits.
The getaway was great. Good medicine for both of us.
You can take me out to the ballgame anytime.
A couple of weeks later, we got another much-needed dose of joy in the form of a kayaking weekend with my brother, Jack, and his wife, Carrie, and some friends. Kayaking is something we have taken up in earnest since the pandemic, initially thinking we could share one kayak–as in, take turns–and quickly learning we each needed our own so that we could paddle together.
Jack and Carrie have acquired various types of watercraft in the same timeframe, including at least two kayaks, and Carrie put together the fun weekend in early June when we “glamped” in their luxury camping trailer just below Center Hill Dam and took the most relaxing float down eight miles of the Caney Fork River that you can imagine.
You can check out that delightful day, preceded by a paddle to Burgess Falls, in my little video here: Peace and Kayak
We preceded the Caney Fork expedition by spending a couple of days with my mom, whose early-June birthday is two days after mine. We ate, celebrated, paddled (Bill and me, not her) from the Cane Hollow boat ramp on Center Hill Lake to Burgess Falls, and we even pulled off a good surprise when my mother went to her mailbox and found her new birthday shoes we’d ordered for her from Toms.
Those few days were a welcome break–the first we’d really taken after living in COVID lockdown for more than a year. Just as that sweet time was winding down, I got a new and large assignment on the job: Take over as acting head of the Division of Communications and Marketing. It was a great honor along with great responsibility, and I jumped in eagerly. My top priorities were to establish and cultivate effective partnerships across campus and to enable and empower our staff to do their best work.
I met with each of the 20 or so employees to ask what they thought our strengths and weaknesses were and to get their ideas on how we could improve. I asked the same, along with how better our division could serve them, in meeting individually with the chancellor’s cabinet and every academic dean.
Amazing progress has been achieved since then. Stronger partnerships, higher productivity and a warm, collegial work environment. I care about this team; I’m a passionate advocate for higher education; and it has been an honor and privilege to serve as Interim Vice Chancellor for Communications and Marketing at UTC.
Even with everything else going on last summer, we still managed to get my mom to Chattanooga for a visit, which also included a first trip for her, Bill and me to Bald River Falls in the Cherokee National Forest.
Hiking isn’t her thing, but a Sunday drive and some sightseeing will do–it was a bonus that I could take a smidgeon of a hike to the top of the falls.
I can recommend the place, but not on July 4th weekend if you want to find a parking spot in the same county!
Meanwhile, Bill opted for prostate removal surgery to treat the cancer. Successful surgery in August and preliminary good news at the three-month mark made for the most thankful Thanksgiving I have ever experienced.
At the six month mark, in February, blood tests brought the incredibly good news, more certain by this point, that Bill was cured of cancer. Did we celebrate? You bet. We visited one of Chattanooga’s most highly recommended restaurants, Il Primo, thankfully open again as COVID had eased.
Over the Christmas holiday, we also got to travel to my brother’s and Carrie’s new home in Mount Juliet, as well as a farm site they’d bought elsewhere in Wilson County. Our visit there came with a bonus trip to Bell Buckle, Tennessee, a delightful destination neither Bill nor I had ever been to previously.
We’ve even begun thinking about planning a serious trip–as in, for a few days and far away–again. And who knows? We just might. Soon, I hope.