In the Suburbs: The day my world stood still

On March 13, 2020, I walked out of our school in Bridgeport into COVID-19 quarantine with no idea of when we’d return or even if we’d return. The feeling was very surreal and all I knew was that I was waiting in quarantine to possibly catch a virus that originated in China and seemed to be spreading aggressively.

My wife and I actually heard about this coronavirus two months before our quarantine while we were driving to the airport in Chicago after my aunt’s funeral. The radio announcer explained that the disease seemed to be contained in China and was spreading rapidly. There were no comments about number of cases or deaths. So we forgot about it...until that day in March.

Within a week, while the entire country was shutting down, my wife and I were sleeping in as long as our dogs would let us, finally using the single-cup Keurig coffee maker that had been sitting on our kitchen counter gathering dust and rifling through our freezer and pantry for appealing meals and snacks.

Fortunately, I was still working at the Fairfield University Book Store, so I wasn’t totally quarantined...yet. But when I got to work later that first week, our boss announced that, according to Gov. Lamont’s expanding restrictions on non-essential businesses, our bookstore would be closing indefinitely on March 23. We were all to be furloughed.

Meanwhile, it was to be business as usual until the last day. We would all receive a special “pink slip” so that we could file with Connecticut unemployment and receive a special COVID unemployment package, complete with a federal contribution. All of us were urged to file.

Within two weeks after quarantine our school administrators had established a teaching plan for our entire faculty, contacted parents and each of us had our assignments. Despite being home, I was finally feeling again like I was making a contribution to my students, albeit remotely.

Suddenly my vocabulary expanded to words like Google Meetings. Zoom and online professional development. School was working and I was providing support regularly for the group of seniors I was assigned to. A colleague of mine, Miranda, and I conducted help meetings twice a week and I continued one-on-one work with my special needs student to help her keep up her grades. And as the season changed outdoors, my work life and my routine were expanding indoors. Clearly, this quarantine was beginning to work for me.

One of the big decisions I made during the early weeks of the quarantine was to return to writing my column. Since early 2020, I had taken a self-imposed hiatus from my weekly writing. But this quarantine and the radical change in life as we knew it, made me want to write again.

I called my editor, who was happy to resume publishing the column as often as I wanted to write it, and by late March I was writing again. I wrote about isolation from family and friends and my gratitude for being able to just be with my wife, my nearly 55-year companion.

Longtime friends and readers told me that my ideas and writing were refreshing in this time of pandemic. And I gradually found myself turning out more and more columns on a variety of COVID-related topics.

Nevertheless, I kept worrying that I was still susceptible to this clearly deadly virus and wondered whether one day I would have difficulty breathing or lose my sense of taste and smell. All around us, across Connecticut and around the world, innocent people of all ages were becoming deathly ill, ending up on ventilators and dying alone without even the chance to say goodbye to loved ones and friends. I kept asking myself why I was being spared.

Within weeks of our initial quarantine, a growing array of masks were becoming part of our regular wardrobe. As the months went on, the masks became more colorful and fashionable. Social distancing and rigorous hand washing were a part of life from the beginning of shutdown.

Our Passover Seder in April became a Zoom call, followed by my wife’s wonderful brisket and vegetables spooned onto fancy paper plates and hand delivered by me as holiday care packages. Our grateful guests mushed and gushed and loved their dinners.

Cancer took our beloved cocker spaniel, Truffie, peacefully here at home on April 22 and with tears streaming, my wife and I quietly called the vet and had to to deliver Truffie for the last time to an animal hospital parking lot. We were so grateful we got to say goodbye.

While our other dog, Patches, a Jack Russell terrier, now nearly 17, was still there for us, we felt a numbness and loneliness without Truffie that still hasn’t gone away.

For Mother’s Day, we got a little bolder and our daughter and our two grandsons joined us at a local food truck near Silver Sands State Park in Milford, masks in place, for a great outdoor lunch.

Work resumed at the bookstore for me on June 1 and we followed strict rules for our own protection and allowed no more than 25 shoppers in the store at a time. Thankfully, we were able to relax that restriction on the day of the annual sidewalk sale in July.

By the late summer, we became slightly bolder about distance picnics with friends and returning to favorite diners at least for breakfast. And in August, we joyfully celebrated our grandson Caleb’s first birthday outside at our favorite Circle Diner in Fairfield. Our waitress Karen, who loves the kids, joined in the celebration along with Juan and Danielle, the hostess.

Things for me came around full circle at the end of August when we returned to our school building on a hybrid schedule for four days a week. It was like old home week to end my isolation from colleagues and rekindle friendships. We honestly felt the worst of this virus nightmare was over with until Bridgeport decided to pull the plug on schools again in November and adopt a fully remote schedule.

By the time we resumed our hybrid scheduling in mid-January, our new president was already suggesting a full return to in-school learning, possibly by the end of the school year, vaccine inoculations were imminent and the percentage of COVID cases in Connecticut was dropping.

By March 2, I had received both inoculations of Moderna vaccine, we were encouraging students to return to the building and the focus of our meetings shifted to a possible five-day schedule again with Wednesdays as potential half days. Then last week marked the anniversary of my surreal quarantine experience.

On the day I left for quarantine, I had no idea where I was going or what was coming next. Now a year later, I believe I have a direction and a goal again. My wife and I have survived quarantine, escaping the scourge of a virus that has killed well over a half a million people. We continue to live our lives behind decorative masks but we do have hope for a brighter spring and summer.

Our strongest hope is for the day when we’ll be able to hug our daughter and grandsons all the time, along with close friends and perhaps plan a small Passover dinner. More importantly is a prayer that we can begin to reconnect with more and more people in person and feel so much better emotionally.

It’s been a year of upheaval and change, but it has also been a year that has taught all of us something new or different about each other. What happens from here is still not clear, but I am trying to remain optimistic. I see no other choice.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at stevengaynes44@gmail.com.