Last week I realized that I hadn’t washed my car for an entire year.
Why would I wash it? I rarely drove it on a day-to-day basis anymore, and when we went on long car trips I figured it was going to get dirty anyway. Plus, I truly don’t care about my car. When Shawn was alive, I did almost nothing to it, as he was in charge of all of the maintenance, right down to the windshield wiper fluid. After he died, I learned enough to keep it running, but I only cleaned it when it was truly disgusting. And I haven’t been in it enough lately to care.
Anyway, I decided that I needed to put on my mask and take my car to the car wash on the corner, since it was sort-of a special occasion. The first car wash in a year!
When I got there, I handed over my keys and went to sit in the waiting area outside. There was one bench, and no one was around, so I sat down. About a minute later, a woman came up and stood awkwardly nearby. It was clear that she wasn’t sure if she should sit down or not. I tried to motion to her that she could, but she seemed to misunderstand me. I got up, and then sat back down, and finally I just said, “If you want to sit here next to me, it’s okay. I’m a teacher and I’ve been fully vaccinated.”
She smiled under her mask. “I’m a vaccinated teacher too!” she said, sitting at the far end of the bench. “I wanted to tell you the same thing, but I wasn’t sure how to say it.”
We both laughed at how little we’d been out in the world lately, and then we talked briefly about what it had been like to go back to in-person teaching. We marveled at how difficult it was for the two of us to interact as strangers, as though we’d both lost our social skills. Weren’t we the ones who were supposed to be imparting social skills to young minds? Didn’t that mean we should know how to interact with other human beings? We laughed at ourselves, and then our cars were ready and we said goodbye.
I called my sister afterwards. “I think I forgot how to be a normal human being in the world!” I exclaimed. She laughed. “You’re fine,” she said.
“But really,” I continued, “how am I going to re-learn how to move in the world?”
“Just keep doing it,” she said. “It will seem normal after a while.”
We talked about the fear that we’d both felt in the beginning of the pandemic. Of course her fear was much more justified, as her Covid exposure was so high in the ER. But she told me that eventually, she had to get over that fear. The way she did it was by going to work every day. After a while, the fear subsided somewhat.
I know that it will be a while before things are back to normal, especially for those of us with kids. But as we slowly return to the world we once knew, even previously normal spaces can feel awkward and foreign.
As we were talking, I thought about the things I say to new widows. I always tell them that it’s okay to feel overwhelmed by everything in the beginning – in fact, it’s very normal. You have to go easy on yourself for much of the first year. The other thing I always say is this: it will get better. Not right away, but eventually there will come a day when things are just a little brighter, and then there will be another day (not necessarily the next day, but another day) that’s even brighter than that. It will not feel hopeless forever.
The way to that brighter spot? One foot in front of the other. It took months after Shawn’s death for me to really laugh again, but eventually I did. Similarly, it might take quite a while before I can normally interact with strangers after being at home for a year. What’s the secret? Just keep living out in the world, failing at times, but putting one foot in front of the other. As a cab driver once told me, “I made it and you will make it too. You just do each day and then the days become your life and you realize you did it. That’s how you make it in this world.”