Editor’s Note: Tess Taylor is the author of the poetry collections “Work & Days,” “The Forage House” and most recently, “Rift Zone” and “Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange.” Views expressed in this commentary are solely hers. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
It has been such a grim year. So much has been shut down and lost and shuttered. It’s been sad, hard, overwhelming.
Parts of it are also a blur that I barely remember, so I’m glad I kept a journal of the first terrifying pandemic months, and of our ginger but loving summer pod, and then of the horrible wildfires that made us flee California. I’m glad I documented our pandemic chickens.
I’m glad we have a new President, and a relief bill.
But I’ll be honest: lately, in our house, everything has felt stalled. We keep to careful routines, but the last few months have felt heavy, as if, for us, nothing would ever change. What would I report in my journal? “Ordered more canned tomatoes? Still bored of Zoom?”
With undeniable ache, we miss our families. Mostly we’re tired of not knowing what it is safe to hope for, or when we can hope again. My friend Rhea says she feels it too. She calls it “that donkey feeling” of plodding on, every day, blinders on, just waiting for this long road to end.
Then last week, out of the blue, a bit of news came to stir us up: It turned out that I was eligible for my shot. At first, there were no appointments. Then, suddenly there were many open, the very next day. I was supposed to be spending the afternoon with my son, so I took him with me. We put on our favorite music in the car, got celebratory frozen yogurt and headed out.
A cold breeze was stirring. There was light traffic to Oakland, heavier than in the closed world, surely far lighter than the traffic in a fully open world will be. The day was nearing the anniversary of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s shelter in place order. My phone reminded me that this time a year ago, I’d made a huge shopping trip out of wild hope that somehow enough groceries would help us weather this thing out. I saluted the self who believed at that moment that she could buy enough frozen chicken to last a pandemic.
As we drove, I remembered the freeway this time last year, the roads empty, the Department of Transportation billboards flashing the strangely sinister message “WASH YOUR HANDS” – as if everyone on earth had been raptured and extremely hygienic aliens had taken over our freeway messaging system. Ah, hand-washing: Remember when that was the world’s best advice?
Now I was in the car with approximately 17 masks (along with my hand sanitizer) and my nine-year-old son and the proper paperwork, and we were headed to the Oakland Coliseum, beside the Oakland Airport, a place that, in the beforetime, I’d access by train. Oh, trains. I remembered how many trains I used to take, how many planes I would fly. And, as we came up to the hulking shape of the Coliseum, I also remembered ballgames. I remembered, suddenly, the ballgames I got to go to when I was nine: Dennis Eckersley, Jose Canseco, Mark McGuire. That summer, I read enough library books to get free A’s tickets for myself and my dad on Father’s Day weekend, and we came to the Coliseum watched Eckersley record a save for the A’s.
“I really remember what it felt like to be nine,” I said to my son, sitting beside me. “I mean, I can enter that time, so clearly in my mind.”
What on earth will my son remember about what it felt like to be nine this year? What will all our lives be like after this? It’s hard to know now how this will feel in 30-odd years, but even then, I’m sure it will feel strange.
By then we were approaching the Coliseum exit, entering a lane guarded by police. The vast parking lot was given over to several checkpoints, and a long cone maze.
The first people we met were surely volunteers, directing traffic. I felt a little lump of gratitude in my throat. Beyond them, in their fatigues, were the corps of FEMA workers, checking my appointment code. The lump in my throat grew. With extraordinary kindness and precision, they directed us into and through the cone maze, which led to the distant glinting tents.
As we entered this oddly converted landscape, I could see in my mind’s eye a montage of all the converted parking lots we’ve entered this year; the parking lots down on San Pablo Avenue where we’d pulled in to be swabbed or to spit, the time the whole family got tested in a parking lot in Salt Lake City because we had fled the fires in California and wanted to be safe to see our relatives on their farm. I thought about how many health care workers have stood around in tents in parking lots all year, swabbing and recording, sticking Q-tips through windows, and I felt somehow dizzy, thinking about this mass project – of trying to get people tested, of trying to keep people safe. Just at this moment, another FEMA worker in her fatigues ushered us along.
As she did, I realized that the quavery feeling I was having was not a side effect of frozen yogurt or of my nostalgia ballgames past, but was pure and simple, present tense relief.
Here this is: An emergency. And here these are: People here to manage it. Here is our federal government, organizing the response. No, it is not as fast as we would like. Yes, it is hard to wait. How often this year it has been easy to be impatient or sad or furious. Right then, I realized, I felt sudden, abundant gratitude.
Just like that, I was at the tent and rolling down my window, and exposing my shoulder, and turning to face my son, who was chatting about how much he wants to go to a ballgame. Keith, the masked man with kind eyes, was jabbing my shoulder, and I didn’t have to look. He said something nice to my son – “I bet you’re quite a slugger!” – and poof, we were pulling ahead to the place where we could honk our horn in case anything goes wrong, except no one was honking.
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In the blessed silence, I felt like Jello. The 15 minutes we are supposed to wait flew by, and then we were back out again, entering the freeway, and suddenly everything seemed so much more beautiful, even the trash in the gully, and the graffitied sides of the boxcars, rising against the green grass of spring. We rose up on the 880. Against a peach-colored sky, San Francisco and the bridge looked like an elaborate layered cutout in a children’s book, and the distant city seemed like the most beautiful place, and I realized that it is a beloved place, a not-so-distant place, a part of the world that one day, not so far from now, many people will be able to collectively reenter.
“I wonder if you’ll remember today,” I said to my son.
“Maybe. I don’t know,” he said. “I’m glad I was here.” He paused.
Do you think we can go to a ballgame this summer?’”
Maybe not this summer, kid, but soon. But soon.