Year (II) of the Plague

One year ago: wow. One year ago: eep.

One year ago I had lists.

Lists of things to store up ahead of the approaching pandemic. Groceries: of course. Beans are a staple food in our household, so of course canned and dried beans. Canned beans, tinned tomatoes, cat food, boxed soup, soup stock, salt, pasta, condiments, pizza sauce, tinned fruit, flour. Batteries. Toiletries and tampons. No toilet paper, because one package of Costco toilet paper lasts for months. Or so I thought: by May we were queuing at Costco for more.

People kept talking about hand sanitizer, which I loathe, but added it to the list nonetheless. Shoppers Drug Mart had packages of scented travel-sized hand sanitizer, so I bought bunches of those, and some tall dispensers of unscented sanitizer. By early March hand sanitizer was impossible to buy, except online from opportunistic price gougers who were eventually shut down. A year later, we have mostly used up the cute little travel sanitizers shoved into every jacket pocket, but the tall dispensers still stand sentry in our front hall, nearly unused because the first thing we do upon returning home is wash our hands with soap and water.

Seeds. Seeds and potting soil. Seeds and potting soil, because I garden, and because of the likelihood shutdowns and supply chain issues would affect nurseries and garden centres. Answer: they did, but only because many people suddenly became back-to-the-land apocalypse preppers and the demand for seeds and bedding plants reportedly exploded in 2020. Corner groceries and flower shops sold bedding plants by the trayful at the beginning of May, and garden centres opened almost as usual a week or two later. My seed potatoes arrived without issue, and I was able to buy the usual amount of seaweed meal from Urban Harvest. Sadly, my favourite plant sale was cancelled, but overall it was a good year for growing, and I spent much of the summer communing with bees and tending to the secret garden on the top deck of our home. Almost all of those seeds, though, are still in their packets, because as things turned out I had no spare time to grow seedlings from scratch.

I also maintained a list of the kinds of nonessentials that are nonetheless worthwhile to have when things become difficult. Summer shoes for my daughter, whose feet — stretching a half size every season — have long since outgrown mine. Easter presents to be hidden away in a closet. Books: oh, so many books, because even with a house filled with books one needs more. Chocolate. Cheetos. Luxury soaps. Lovely scarves.

Another new kayak, which, thanks to severe shortages in sporting goods, was paid for by the sale of two older kayaks that no longer suited our purposes. Sadly, our fleet made it out on the lake only once during the summer.

We did not buy gym equipment, although now I wish we had. Gyms were permitted to open in August, and I went three times a week until shortly before they were forced to close again. And while I support most of the policy decisions to close nonessential businesses as the second wave surged in our region, I think gyms, like other health-related personal service establishments, could have been kept open, subject to strict protocols. My gym, the West End YMCA, had stringent safety protocols and to my knowledge no cases of Covid were transmitted among GTA YMCA members or staff.

The pandemic hit Canada with a bang in March. A week before things began shutting down, we moved my elderly mother-in-law into our home. This move had been planned since shortly before the beginning of the year, but its urgency accelerated as the global case count began to rise. We spent the first two months of the year packing up her condo, and then several stressful weeks preparing it for sale, hoping to beat the shutdowns. In the end the listing agent advised us to wait, and we did, wondering when — or if — we would be able to sell the unit. Remarkably, when the embargo on open houses was lifted and the condo was listed for sale, it sold very quickly (although not as quickly as it would have prior to the pandemic) thanks to pent-up demand from buyers sidelined by the shutdown.

In late March both my husband and I became sick with something that, on the balance of probabilities, we thought might be Covid-19. I developed a terrible headache, and experienced a cough and lung congestion–ordinary cold symptoms, and not concerns on their own. What did worry me was pain in the lower lobes of both lungs, and shortness of breath, which I had never experienced before. We did not qualify for testing during those anxious early months when everything Covid-related — masks, personal protective equipment, hospital capacity, and of course tests — was in short supply. In the summer my doctor swabbed my cheek for research attempting to estimate how much of the population had developed Covid antibodies, but neither she nor I were able to access results due to the double-blind nature of the study. So we have no real idea whether what we had were mild cases of Covid or simply an unusual cold. And as the months have passed, we’ve concluded it doesn’t matter whether we had Covid or not: the safety protocols remain the same, and emerging variants may reduce the protective effect of past exposure.

And then the rest of the year went by in a whirlwind of at-home learning and then in-person schooling followed by another school closure, online teaching (a dismal way to run undergraduate courses that normally would proceed through urban exploration fieldwork), caregiving urgencies, and business responsibilities that kept us from ever being able to lock down. At the end of October we took in a cat belonging to friends who needed to cross the border and who are now stuck in the US. After the provincial stay-at-home order was issued in December, I had fantasies of spending the winter locked down at home, baking sourdough bread and inventing new recipes for canned beans while we waited for vaccine distribution to ramp up.

No such luck. Although I do manage to make sourdough bread once or twice a month.

Here we are, about to enter our second Year of the Plague. Our region appears to be emerging from the second wave, but there are concerns highly contagious Covid variants will propel us directly into a third wave amid efforts to reopen nonessential businesses and restart in-person learning even though vaccinations continue to lag due to supply issues.

This year, once again, I have lists.

But this year my lists inventory the things I miss.

Value Village. Book stores. The annual University of Toronto book sales. The Marshalls-Winners-Homesense retail trifecta. Teaching in-person courses. Literary events. Brunches, dinner parties and tea gatherings. Biking downtown on an elective trip. Brushing past strangers on the subway. Awkward social hugs. People holding doors for one another. Casual conversations about the weather. Sending our kid off to camp. Sending our kid off to school. Taking her to swim meets. taking her anywhere at all. Picking up building materials and being able to choose our own 2x4s. Dressing up. Sitting on a restaurant patio or — sigh — inside. Not wearing a mask. Sitting in a move theatre. Visiting my best friend and joyriding all over Northumberland County. Not thinking about Covid.

[In the picture are our Plague Doctor and Plague Nurse, keeping watch over the household.]

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