In My Own Words: The summer of 2020 by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The title of the article was not meant to be ironic. At the time the magazine was written (usually six months before it appears), it was still possible to imagine we could have “(the) Best Summer Yet.” The article asked readers to list answers to the following: “it wouldn’t be summer without....,” “this summer I want to try,” “must-have moments,” etc. So, I decided to actually think about it. For me, it wouldn’t be summer if I wasn’t able to sit outside (in the shade) and read. Meeting friends for ice cream has ranked as an important activity the past few years. I didn’t have plans to try anything new because I am not adventurous, but going for walks in local parks and arboretums would have been pleasant change of pace. (I usually walk on the streets near my house.) 

One question provoked the strongest, and strangest, reaction. The question asked readers to pretend it was fall and to think about what moments we would have not wanted to miss. My immediate thought was not what the magazine would have expected. My biggest hope for the summer? I wanted to be alive – to not catch the coronavirus and, if I unfortunately did become sick, I wanted to survive with few side effects. That’s certainly different from the plans I had for the summer earlier in the year. August is my birthday month and, by the time you read this, I will have already turned 65 (and if for some reason that’s not true, I’m hoping my staff will publish this posthumously). There was supposed to be my regular birthday ad that appears in this paper when my age has a zero or five at the end. (I just couldn’t get my act together to do it.) I planned to visit a hotel that I like, where I would sit on its porch looking at the water and enjoy the incredible buffet breakfast. The hotel is open, but I don’t want to risk going.”I can live without it” is a phrase that has a very different meaning this year. 

I’ve had people scheduling birthday celebrations for me so please don’t feel that I’m actually missing anything. (In fact, between my first draft of this column and the second, I had a surprise birthday car parade in front of my house.) Birthdays have always been a big deal in my family, at least for me and my brother, Larry. When I was little, my mom used to joke that someday I would take out a full page birthday ad in the local paper. I actually thought that was a good idea. We had set celebrations when Larry was alive because everything had to be done the same way for each birthday. I’ve also been known to make my own celebration if nothing have been scheduled on the actual day. And I’m known for my extended celebrations, which began in college when college friends would say, “We’ll celebrate when we get back to school.” Then the first few weeks would be busy so we would postpone it to a bit later. Post-college years, one of those celebrations took place in November because that’s when I managed to visit one friend. Now, we tend to just send gifts by snail mail. 

August has been a particularly difficult month, though, even without birthday expectations. My mother is in a nursing home and I haven’t been able to visit her since March. The expected dates of visitation keep being postponed due to staff testing positive (although as of this writing, no residents in her home have tested positive). Earlier this month, my mother was diagnosed with pneumonia and dehydration. She is improving and I trust the staff to take care of her, but she’s not bouncing back as quickly as we all would like. I still manage to talk to her on her private phone line, but what I really want to do is be with her – to just sit together in the same room. One of the nicest visits I had with her before the pandemic was on New Year’s Eve day. I bugged out of work early and spent several hours with her in her room. She was watching a movie and I was half reading a book and half following the film. We did a lot of that – just being together in the same room – when she was at home and that made us both happy. I’ve accepted the fact that my mother won’t live forever. What’s harder to accept is that I might not have more time with her while she’s still alive. A friend has suggested sending blessings to my mom every time I think of her, which is a nice way to acknowledge both my feelings and the difficulty of the situation, while offering me something positive to do.

As for what will happen when fall and winter arrive, well, no one really predict that. Fall is usually my favorite season, but this year it may mean the last times I can visit with friends because it will still be warm enough to sit outside. If there is no viable vaccine, winter promises to be difficult, but I’m already making plans on how to handle that, including listening to more music. (I am so grateful for the cochlear implant, which makes this possible.) Financial considerations may also play a role in how the winter goes, but there is so much that I can’t control. I remind myself of that and try not worry about things that are out of my hands. But as I learned when I had to deal with turmoil in my life before, the important things don’t change: family, friends, community and love. It seems almost a cliche by now to say that we are all in this together, but, we are and we can help each other survive mentally, emotionally and, if needed, financially. Everything else pales in comparison.