In My Own Words: Thoughts during a pandemic by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The first draft of this column was written on January 27, the day that would have been my little brother Larry’s 59th birthday. I usually note the day, but this is the first time since he died in 2010 that I thought about how old he would be. I have to admit feeling teary at the thought. That’s partly because of the pandemic. Every emotion feels amplified during this time.

It doesn’t help that I can’t discuss this with my mother. Some of you may know that she survived a bout of COVID. I don’t think I ever felt as alone in my life as when the nursing home called to tell me she tested positive. I walked around the inside of the house crying and feeling lost. With the help of a wise friend, I realized my feelings were getting ahead of reality, but never before did I so feel the loss of not having someone beside me. Again, the pandemic took a simple emotion and magnified it.

My mom has also been less responsive since she was sick. I’m not sure if it’s a lasting effect of COVID or just a problem all folks with dementia are facing due to the fact they aren’t able to see families and friends in person. Even when I haven’t been able to visit, my mom and I would talk on the phone, but now she barely responds to me. My brother and I have arranged for regular Zoom calls with her, not that she interacts with us during those, but at least we can see her. What’s also hard is not to be able to visit. My last scheduled visit was supposed to take place on October 20, her 94th birthday, but it had to be cancelled due to COVID cases and no one has been allowed to visit since.

Add to this friends having health problems – whether COVID or otherwise – and other friends losing relatives – some from COVID, but others from different illnesses – and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. This serves as a reminder that normal life doesn’t stop even during a pandemic. Unfortunately, it’s mostly the bad things that continue, rather than the good. So, life feels out of balance in a way it didn’t before COVID hit.

But I try to take pleasure in the good moments because allowing myself to slip into a dark hole isn’t helpful. So, I focus on the good things, like the fact we live in the 21st century when technology allows us to connect in ways our ancestors would have never thought possible. For example, I didn’t have to skip one of my favorite things: my Temple Concord Sisterhood book review took place via Zoom this year. It wasn’t the same, but I reminded myself that I didn’t have to go out into the cold or worry about snow. Even better, I was given a wonderful surprise the day before the review. The week before, I’d made an off-handed remark to someone on a Zoom call about how I was going to say the food this year wasn’t as good as usual. (For those who’ve never attended, there is always a wonderful brunch before the event.) Well, the person who heard me discussed this with someone else from the Sisterhood and they arranged for me to receive my own personal brunch. A small bag of food may not sound that important, but it’s hard to describe how much it lifted my mood and made my week.

And I’ve been doing other things to keep my mood steady. The last time I lived alone, I never kept sweets in the house. The idea was that if I wanted something, I had to get in the car and drive somewhere to pick it up. Since that normally happened around 9 pm, I managed to keep my sweets consumption to a minimum because there was no way I was leaving the apartment at that time of night. But, with the pandemic, I’ve been keeping something sweet in the cupboard or freezer. It’s not always easy to limit how much of it I eat, but the treat feels important to help keep me on an event keel.

No one will be surprised to hear that I’m reading a great deal. (According to the Goodreads website, I read 207 books and 62,217 pages in 2020.) Since I’m working from home, there’s no commute, which gives me extra time in the morning and evening. (It is so wonderful not having to deal with the flyover during rush hour.) But I’ve also started watching repeats of two shows I never watched during their first runs. It’s embarrassing to admit one of them is “NCIS: New Orleans” because the characters continually violate the way investigators should behave. But I find myself watching it even when I shake my head at the plot and action. I’ve also been watching “Blue Bloods,” an interesting choice for me because its characters are far more conservative than I am. The show does offer some interesting debates – some well reasoned ones – even when I take a different view myself. And, OK, I like Tom Selleck, which is funny because I was not a fan of “Magnum PI,” which was his first big hit.

The roller coaster of emotions I’m experiencing probably feels familiar to many people, even though their ups and downs will be different. It’s not that we didn’t have many of the same problems before the pandemic, but it is easier to focus on them now because we don’t have as many ways to distract ourselves. I told (well, e-mailed) someone about Larry this morning and said if we were in the office, I would suggest that we go out for ice cream, something he would have enjoyed. That’s not something I’ll do right now. But I am hoping that what was once an easy, fun thing to do will once again become an easy, fun thing to do when the pandemic is over. I also hope that when that happens, I’ll remember to cherish it – to not take for granted the simple pleasures life offers.