The anniversary of the last time you ____
Went to a movie? Ate in a restaurant? Saw your family?
This time last year, COVID-19 was only a week old. Not the disease itself — China identified the first known cases in late 2019 — but the name of the disease. "I'll spell it," the director of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, told the press as he made the announcement on Feb. 11, 2020. "C-O-V-I-D hyphen one nine — COVID-19."
This time last year. It's a phrase rolling over obsessively in my mind as I've tracked the movements of my year-ago self across my Facebook Memories and Amazon Photo anniversary albums. This time last year, I was on the westernmost edge of the Sahara Desert, on the second-to-last night of a long-planned trip to ski in Morocco with my dad. This time last year, I still had my final in-restaurant meal ahead of me, my final in-studio yoga class, my final night out too late in a bar, my final time seeing my mom for what I didn't know then would be the last time for at least 12 months. This time last year, unbeknownst to me, I'd already seen what would be my final movie in theaters. This time last year, I was still calling it "the novel coronavirus," since "COVID-19" was not yet ubiquitous, not yet shortened to the familiar "covid," not yet something I thought about every single day.
In the next month or so, most Americans will hit the anniversary of the first lockdown in their cities, although the particular day we all consider to be the "start" of the pandemic will inevitably vary. You may have already forgotten, though, how quickly everything happened between now a year ago, and then, the moment you finally realized that the pandemic was real. This time last year, there had still not yet been a recorded case of person-to-person spread in New York State; but by the end of March, a hospital ship was docked in New York Harbor, overflow bodies were being stored on the street in refrigerator trucks, and I'd been in strict quarantine in my Queens apartment — searching for toilet paper and hand sanitizer on sold-out websites — for 16 days.
As a result, the past few weeks and, especially, the next few weeks will be crammed with anniversaries of the last time you — well, fill in the blank. The first major milestone for me was the last time I was in a theater (the Times Square AMC, for a press screening of Birds of Prey), something that used to be a near-daily part of my life in New York in the Before Times. I'll hit the last time I was in a bar in about a week; the last time I was in a restaurant shortly after that. The last time I was in my office will come in March, when my boss reiterated to my stubborn self that I didn't need to come in anymore, and when I cleared off my desk and grabbed a handful of books to read "just in case" I was gone for two weeks.
The last time, and the last time, and the last time.
In an interview for The Harvard Business Review that is not quite a year old, writer Scott Berinato discussed with David Kessler, "the world's foremost expert on grief," how the experience of living through the pandemic is itself a form of bereavement. "The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we're grieving. Collectively," Kessler explained. "We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air." Grief has taken many forms over the intervening months, too: anticipatory grief, "the mind going to the future and imagining the worst," as well as the monumental sorrow over the large loss of life all around us. Maybe, tragically, it is also the intimate grief of personally knowing and loving someone who died of the disease.
In grief, charting milestones is significant. An anniversary dredges memories, and can renew unwanted emotions of pain or anger. The last time I was in a coffee shop, or a bar, or at a concert — these are the most miniscule of possible human losses. But that doesn't change that bearing down on a year without them is still an emotionally loaded reminder of what we've been robbed of, the friendships we might have formed, the parties we might have had, the trips we could have taken, the precious time with relatives we could have spent — the packed lives we would have lived.
Grief counselors will tell you, though, that anniversaries can be a special time, too. A time for remembering what we did have, and feeling gratitude for it (the privilege it takes to be in a position to mourn something as superfluous as the last time I went shopping for clothes IRL! is not lost on me). But this week, and in the weeks ahead, it's also going to be a moment for reflection. You've survived a year in a pandemic. You've already carried this anxiety, this grief, and this pain so, so far. Your anniversaries count.
Still, sometimes, in my lowest moments, I get angry at the person I was this time last year. I'll get furious looking at pictures on Timehop and remembering the silly plans I'd been making, the assumptions I had. I'll get mad at my own naïveté for repeatedly thinking this will all be over in ... two weeks, a month, definitely by the end of the summer. That I had the audacity to look ahead, unaware as I was of the months and months it would be before any of us had a glimpse of honest relief.
But this time last February, I also didn't know that I could get through what, at the time, I had no suspicion was ahead. And so, here I am, on the cusp of another anniversary, in awe of the year we've survived, and still unshaken from my blind hope of the year to come.