Friday, March 13, 2020. That’s the day I mark COVID-19 as real and part of my reality. As an invader of the life that I had come to craft and live daily in relative comfort. Every day thereafter has felt like I’ve been living Bill Murray’s character in the movie, “Ground Hog Day.”
The past year has been one of many changes. I retired from spending every day of 35 years in a classroom accompanied by 7-to-11-year-olds. The process of educating children is rewarding in seeing the ‘aha’ moments and the success of students both in the long- and the short-term. It is tireless in that you are responsible for the care and learning of your students both educationally and socially when there are many variables that are out of your realm of control. It is frustrating when your profession has seemingly become the villain in a made-for-television movie that plays daily. However, it was my privilege to have served a community of children I delight in seeing become the adults that they were meant to be.
The picture of retirement is full of the newness of life that we get to experience as if we were in our 20s, just on a different level. I’m now in my mid- to late-50s and, personally, retirement has been nothing like the retirement I imagined or is sold to us through commercials for things like 55-plus communities. I thought I would transition into a Chapter Two of sorts in terms of career and direction. I have purpose left in me; I was planning on dipping my toes in and subsequently diving into another pool other than a classroom on a daily basis. Dive into something I did. But God had different plans for me.
My father was gravely ill upon my retirement and, as a consequence, I helped care for my elderly parents and then buried my father in November 2019. Since that time, I have cared for my mother through the end of her husband's life and the myriad of tasks that come with that as well as the realization that she would no longer be able to live alone and care for a home by herself. Fast forward to February 2020 when she moved into an independent/assisted living apartment complex closer to my home in Valrico east of Tampa.
Teacher Jennifer Keeler talks to her mom in assisted living during coronavirus lockdown.
Never before had she lived communally with others, but here she was at 81-years-old living in a cozy little apartment, going about the task of making new friends, dining, and living among an ensemble of 57 seniors. This is hard stuff. Difficult for even young people. I felt like I was sending my child off to live like a college freshman independent of the family unit. I called and went by daily to take her to lunch or see her.
Then March 13 came calling. The senior living facility was officially placed on "lockdown,'' meaning I wasn’t allowed entrance and she really couldn’t leave without red tape the likes that only the government can produce.
Here we are over a month later and the lockdown seems to have no end in sight for my mother or for anyone else.
I’m currently hoping and praying that June will bring some semblance of normal to our lives.
In the meantime, I’d like to cross the threshold of my mother’s building and sit with her in her apartment, take her to lunch, or whisk her away for a weekend for a change of scenery to visit with my brother and sister-in-law in St. Augustine. I’m quite sure that the other seniors who live in this community are ready to see their families in person and not via Facetime, Skype, or with phones and a window of glass separating them.
At some point isolation, even with friends or your immediate family can be detrimental. We need other people. We need to be in groups of 2, 5, 10, 50 or more for the celebrations of life on a small or large scale. We miss dinner with friends, attending church with other believers, celebrating graduations, weddings, and the lives of those who pass during this pandemic.
The good news, if I can muster even a seed of positivity from this pandemic, is that we all have made strides in our individual lives during this time of social distancing, self-quarantine, and imposed curfews.
My 81-year-old mother, as it turns out, is far more advanced in all aspects of the technology of her iPhone and her iPad than I may have given her credit. She has found some purpose in helping seniors who are less healthy, both mentally and physically. That is not to say she’s not ready to open up her world beyond the walls that confine her presently, but she has found community and some belonging in a world without my father.
My husband, a nurse practitioner, continues to work in his clinic and be a positive healthcare provider in this time of need.
My former colleagues in public and private schools are responding by learning new ways to teach despite being given an extraordinarily short amount of time in which to become virtual learning experts.
Health care workers in every single job in a hospital, clinic, or office are stepping up to provide healthcare to the public at large.
"Essential workers'' such as grocery store stockers, clerks, managers, postal workers, hardware store employees and managers, bank clerks and managers, gas station attendants, sanitation workers, government employees at the local, state, and national level, scientists who are working tirelessly to create a vaccine, our community leaders, governors, and mayors and many essential workers not named here are working tirelessly on the behalf of the public. All of these people are heroes and collectively deserve all the praise we can heap on them.
Like Bill Murray’s character, I learn something new each day too. Most lessons are welcome, some are not. But that is life with or without the pandemic that currently paralyzes the world. Some things I've learned are huge: I have the time to seek God’s word and I rely on the promises he has given. Some things are small: Never has my house been so in order or my flower bed so free of weeds. Each day brings another lesson and another layer to my life.
At some point, like the movie ending in “Ground Hog Day,” this pandemic will be over and we will continue with our lives outside the confines of COVID-19. The true task will be to take the lessons learned from this and translate them into life post-coronavirus.
Jennifer Keeler taught at Walden Lake Elementary in Plant City before deciding to retire after 35 years in the classroom. She is a graduate of Florida Southern College in Lakeland and earned an MA in early childhood education and teaching from the University of South Florida in Tampa.