I moved to Portland, Oregon, during the Great Recession of 2008 and left during the Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020. At both points everything around me seemed to crash and burn. Like a phoenix dramatically rising from the ash, a new chapter began.
I hadn’t sought out the next global crises to make my big move, in fact I was just as surprised as everyone else. There hadn’t been a single clue that I would be uprooting my toddler and myself from a perfectly wonderful life and moving 3,000 miles away to a tiny town in Vermont. If moving can just happen to a person who is in complete control of that decision, then that’s exactly what occurred. I simply allowed myself to get swept away in a very unexpected direction.
But lots of big unexpected things happened in 2020. My first hint of the impending pandemic came on February 26, 2020, the day before my birthday. I was in a big department store, casually browsing right up next to other browsers, innocently touching everything with my bare hands and casually touching my face whenever I felt the urge, when my ears perked to a very quiet voice. A petite Asian-American woman was asking the lanky white sales guy where she could possibly find some face masks, please and thank you. [I’ve gone back and forth about whether to include their races in my description. At the time I did not think that race played a role in their interaction, but in light of the appalling increase of racist hate crimes against people of Asian descent since the beginning of the pandemic, I now believe that it did.] It was their body language that really narrowed my attention: She was tilting toward him from about 6 feet away instead of just stepping closer, and his voice came out much louder than expected, an explosion of fear or anger, “We are ALL OUT!” His reaction was almost as if he had been asked that very random question 100 times.
I was curious enough to keep my browsing to his aisle to catch what he’d say to his co-worker after the customer walked away. As soon as she was out of earshot he lowered his voice and explained to his coworker that not only were they completely out of face masks at the store, but so was their supplier— they were backordered with no ETA. I immediately googled “Face Masks Portland” and the first mention of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 popped up on my phone.
Of course, in those early moments, our government was successfully downplaying the situation. There was more talk about far off lands, and less of an imminent threat. And though I didn’t think that I was in immediate danger, something seeped deep into my subconscious. The next day felt heavy, a panicky fluttering knot of anxiety deep in my gut. I tried to brush it off as a common case of the birthday blues, or perhaps an overdose from that second cup of coffee.
I attempted to focus on the gorgeous weather and my birthday festivities. My attractive date smiled at me over a seemingly delicious meal at my favorite lively restaurant. When I first met him, that smile was all that he had been wearing. I’m not in the habit of dating people I meet at the spa, but we were inexplicably and uncomplicatedly drawn to each other. We hadn’t shared many meals in those months, but his presences always made food taste even better— except that time. I went to our spa for my birthday treat of a soak-massage-soak sandwich, and hoped that my sunglasses hid the disgust I felt for the general level of health and cleanliness of the people marinating in the hot water beside me. When I left I didn’t feel my usual floaty self. If a sunny day and a pampered body didn’t make me feel better, then something was decidedly wrong.
By the following week that feeling was more tangible. The germ jokes and playful elbow bumps from the previous week’s dinner party, had turned sinister with the constant pummeling of COVID-19 news and menacing virus particles. All day long I got notifications of booking cancellations on the 4 properties that I hosted on Airbnb, and I watched as my entire income slowly and steady slipped away.
Simultaneously a countdown began for my Bonus Dad’s brain surgery. As an important part of my life since I was a toddler, it was impossible not to be worried— though Leo always seemed to sail through with flying colors. His neurosurgeon had told him that he was a cat with many lives, and I longed to be there with my family in Montreal to help him land on his feet once again.
As I looked into travel, I saw news articles and clips of complete pandemonium in international airports, as people fled in all directions. Frantic and frustrated, they were crammed shoulder to shoulder, creating an endless sea of bodies, waves of people smacking up against borders as they began shutting down. It seemed impossible, but there were rumors that even the land border crossings between Canada and the US would be closed by the end of the week. I made the hard decision not to make a run for it with a toddler in tow, but instead stay in the safety of our home.
And then I was asked to move out. My landlord had some intel that somehow things were going to get even worse. As a smart business woman she decided that she needed to try and sell one of her properties asap. She simply invited me to move into the identical apartment next door. It’s amazing how a little shake can have the power to turn everything upside-down.
I started thinking: Was this really the best place for Daniel to be raised, so far away from familial support? He was growing up so quickly and spectacularly that it seemed a shame to be the only one watching. And what if my little aches and pains turned out to be cancer and sudden death. My fragile body was Daniel’s entire world. He deserved more than just me.
I had loved ones speckled throughout the North East. If I wanted to be closer to family, but still on this side of the US/Canada border, that narrowed my search down to Vermont. Great, I knew a couple people there! Somehow packing up all my things to move on the other side of the wall, or the other side of the country, felt comparable in effort. I tried not to think about what I would be sacrificing to make a move like that. I felt scared and guilty about getting excited. I stayed up late thinking. It seems that my craziest ideas often start forming under the cover of darkness.
The glow of my phone cast my shadow along the headboard as I scrolled the internet, putting together pieces of promises that could potentially be my new Vermont life. My shadow watched over my shoulder silently, the only witness to this wild new idea. I had traveled through the state a small handful of times, with no lasting impressions of it. But I had been a fan of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and Darn Tough socks for years. And Bernie Sanders. Vermont’s not so bad! I kept scrolling. The Vermont travel sites all looked quaint and quiet. There was some excitement in the challenge of a cold white winter, a successor to a dazzling show of autumn colors. Wikipedia filled in some more details: Safe, small, good schools, low crime. Not to mention lowest number of cases of COVID in the US. They must have been doing lots of things right over there! I stopped scrolling when I noticed the cold chill creeping up my spine. Oh my goodness, I’m moving to Vermont. My shadow disappeared into complete darkness as I finally put my phone away and drifted off to sleep.
My Poppa’s visit from New Mexico came before they closed schools but shortly after the beginning of The Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020. He hadn’t even made it out of the car with his suitcase before I blurted out all my new thoughts about moving to Vermont. His wisdom and support has always been instrumental in my decisions. And I was also hoping for relief from the compiling guilt. I spent my entire childhood, 18 months to 18 years, trying to perfectly split my time and energy equally between my parents— which is an impossibility that eats at a kid. The familiar childhood fear that a parent would be hurt thinking that I was favoring one over the other, was in my gut again.
But the core of my decision wasn’t about them anymore. Or really even about me. My attention was directed in the other direction of our family tree, down the branch to young Daniel and his future. Though my roots will always be in New Mexico, I felt such promise beckoning us to New England.
Shortly after my Poppa safely returned to New Mexico, Portland issued a Stay At Home order and life hasn’t been the same since. The world no longer felt small and accessible. Borders closed, cities closed, doors closed. We all masked up and stepped 6 feet apart. As my life flipped, so did our entire world. We sat separately in our homes, each of us a part of this unprecedented shared experience. The isolation made me crave large holiday celebrations and casual family dinners.
Like most people, we waded through our days in murky uncertainty and fear, a limbo that we had never felt before. We passed the time with increased levels of baking and TV watching, and I tried to limit my intake of the news. Despite my best efforts, Daniel immediately picked up on the stress and refused to sleep, or do anything at all that didn’t involve physical contact with me at all times. With lack of school and playdates, my social butterfly morphed into a wild beast, climbing the walls— or more accurately, my body. I often just settled with distractedly dragging him across the floor with my leg.
We gravitated outdoors to a pocket of spring sunshine located between the garage door and the hood of my car. In the months prior, my landlord had rolled out some astroturf and our sons had claimed the makeshift yard for playing. Thankful for the green at our feet, and the rising temperatures, we pulled out blankets to lay on and let our days slip away in an intoxicating cloud of blooming daphne.
Since we were home anyway, it seemed the perfect opportunity to potty train my 2 year old. On our first day, Daniel placed the potty insert on top of his head and giggled, “My hat goes Chugga Chugga Choo Choo!” I was so grossed out (and stressed out too) that I didn’t even get his train-ing joke until the following day. At which point it gifted me endless chuckles.
Waiting. Worrying. Cleaning up pee. Repeat. For the first time since Daniel’s birth we didn’t have a social swarm of friends to buzz around with. It only took a couple of days for me to realize that being isolated from my community wasn’t sustainable. People stepped up to drop off groceries and other essentials, while others generously sent money. Their kindness hit hard. It’s embarrassing to realize that you’ve let your shortcomings hang out. Graciously accepting help, is one of the hardest lessons that I have had to learn. It was a privilege that my first thought was that of gratitude instead of worry. And it is a profound truth that it takes a village to raise a child.
Knowing that we are stronger together, we decided to combine forces with another family. Since infancy Daniel and James have been best buds, and his parents became close friends of mine. They were living out in the small city of Bend, Oregon, with an abundance of fresh air and sunshine. As we began to make plans to join them there, I learned that there had been some complications with Leo’s brain surgery and he was fighting his way out of a coma. The helplessness that I felt was nothing compared to that of my mother’s, as the pandemic restricted her ability to be at his side.
Under the stifling weight of waiting, the uncertainty that engulfed us all, I put one foot in front of the other and began to sort through objects that we didn’t want to live without. The first step was to pack the car for life in Bend. We had no idea when we would return, at the very latest when the place was sold. At which point I’d be forced out the door toward the unknowns of Vermont, whether I was ready or not.
But as they say, when one door closes another one opens.
Or in our case, 10 doors opened, lighting the way over the threshold from life in Oregon into our new life in Vermont.