Two years ago, I was happy.
I was living in Missouri, my home state, in a town that was finally starting to feel like home. No one had told me, “Go back where you came from” for two years. The fact that I was born less an hour away made that funnier to me than hurtful.
My job — I was managing editor at a small community weekly — was going well. My staff was dedicated, if smaller than I liked, and my coworkers were all excellent at their jobs.
My boss was great, treating me more as a partner and a friend than an employee, trusting my judgment as much as I did hers.
We won awards, beating out larger papers in several categories, and we were only getting better.
My friends were attentive, fun and involved in the community, something they inspired me to become as well, working as a volunteer at various fundraisers for children’s charities.
I was finally beginning to get over the loss of my wife, who died in 2016. I hadn’t really started dating yet, but I was beginning to think I might be ready.
For the first time in decades, I was living close enough to family — particularly my mother, who had just turned 72, and was all the family I had outside of some distant cousins — to be a part of things in a way that didn’t involve Facebook or the telephone.
Mom, who lived about 30 minutes away, would call often and sometimes just show up for a visit, sometimes a whirlwind affair that saw her sling a few things she’d found for me onto the kitchen table before she hit the road again and sometimes to stay for a weekend — or a week — as the mood hit her. She’d stashed one her special pillows in my linen closet to make that easier.
I’m not super spontaneous, not like her. I always prefer to have a plan, a schedule, a little warning, but she’d blow in like a tornado, unexpected and unstoppable, swirl things around and then leave.
She wasn’t destructive — she was an avid crafter seldom seen without some project in hand, and enjoyed gardening, cooking and baking — but she did leave random things in her wake, some of them cool, some of them useful and some just plain confusing, a perfect metaphor for her personality.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened. Everything changed.
A year ago, I was leading my reduced staff — we’d had to cut a reporter to save money — through the murky, sometimes confusing world of public health coverage, trying to spread factual information while still serving our purpose as the voice of our community. These were uncharted waters and I was doing my best to lay out a course that would take us through the turmoil.
As a newspaperman, the challenge was a bit thrilling, with new information coming almost every day as doctors and scientists continued to learn about the virus that caused this sometimes deadly disease.
It was also frustrating, as armchair scientists, Facebook physicians and crackpot conspiracy theorists challenged everything, using random Youtube videos and suspect statements from fringe witch doctors to justify their latest objection.
I suspect most of them were just being contrary, a phrase I use here in place of another, harsher, possibly more accurate and certainly more profane one.
I learned there were far more willfully ignorant people in my adopted community than I had previously thought.
At the same time, much of my contact with my friends was cut off as events were canceled, gatherings were restricted and businesses — like my favorite coffee shop and comic book store where I used to hang out every Saturday — either closed or changed their model to curb service only.
My world grew smaller.
My mom still called regularly, but I stayed away because of my frequent interaction with others in town. I encouraged her to limit her travels as well and made sure she was following the rules to hopefully avoid contracting this new disease.
It didn’t slow her down. I’d occasionally get a phone call — “What size shirt do you wear?” — that made it clear she wasn’t staying home as much as I would have liked, but she said she was being careful and I believed her.
At the end of August, as her 73rd birthday was coming up, she was still healthy, active and just as random as she’d ever been. I hadn’t seen her in person in months.
On her actual birthday — Sept. 1, 2020 — she and her best friend showed up in my driveway, masked and gloved, to drop off a bag of things she’d found for me, including some early Christmas presents.
I chided her for not staying home, even as I smiling so hard under my mask that I’m sure she could still see it, and gave her a quick hug and some hand sanitizer before she hopped back in the car and spun off again, ready to blow through someone else’s yard.
I wish she’d have gone home. I wish she’d have stayed there. I wish she hadn’t gotten sick. I wish she’d stayed healthy long enough to get the vaccine. I wish so many things.
On Oct. 15, 2020, she finally slowed down. She’d spent more than a month in the hospital — most of that on a ventilator. She never woke up. We buried her in the family plot in Charleston, Mo., next to her parents.
A year ago, I had a mother. Then the pandemic happened. And everything changed.