ALBANY — “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Winston Churchill delivered these famous words in a November 1942 speech at the Lord Mayor’s Day Luncheon in London, just after the British routed Rommel’s forces at El Alamein and drove German troops out of Egypt.
By November 1942, Britain was two years into World War II. Its cities had endured months of constant bombardment from the German Luftwaffe with nearly 200,000 civilians killed or injured. They had already suffered a disastrous and humiliating retreat across the English Channel from Dunkirk. This tiny island nation seemed helpless against the mighty German war machine. The comparison to the current worldwide battle with a deadly, invisible virus seems apt.
I have spent a good bit of time wondering and worrying about how we are ever going to get back to the way things were — back to “normal.” But the longer this goes on, the clearer the outcome. We probably can’t go back to the way things were. We need to accept a new normal and move forward. After six months, we may be facing a new reality. We are, it appears, at the “end of the beginning.”
Sept. 13 marks my own six-month anniversary of sheltering in place. This is my 15th, and final, article out of the file I marked “COVID articles.” I think I have said all I have to say. In my first article, back in the middle of March, I was just getting accustomed to being a “shut-in.” I was trying to avoid watching the depressing news stories and thinking I might write some more light-hearted articles about my time at home with my wife. I followed that with articles about the flowers in Karen’s garden, a family of wrens that nested on a coatrack in our driveway, and the squirrels that haunt our bird feeders. I have written about the importance of books during periods of isolation, my need for daily routines like walks in the neighborhood, and how buying local can help our neighbors.
I have tried not to be too negative (woe is me) nor too fatalistic (might as well look on the bright side). My attitude has, in fact, evolved over the last six months. When we began our self-imposed isolation, we followed the advice of the experts. We stayed home except to venture out for supplies. We wore masks and washed our hands obsessively. Finally, after 3 1/2 months, we needed to travel to Kentucky over the July 4th holiday to check on Karen’s elderly father. The following weekend we went to Atlanta to help our son move into his new home. It was a strange new world out there. It was obvious that not everyone was taking the pandemic seriously. I wondered whether all of those mask-less people didn’t believe there was a pandemic or simply didn’t care if there was.
I try not to live my life in fear. I don’t walk around with a gun strapped to my hip, but I do wear a seatbelt when in my car, a bicycle helmet when on my bike, and a mask when inside public buildings. It seems to me that my mask is like a seatbelt except that it not only protects me, it also protects those with whom I come in contact. Those mask-less folks out there should thank me for wearing mine since they don’t know whether I am COVID-positive.
In our church’s September newsletter, my pastor used the analogy of driving a car to help me keep to my Christian journey. If heaven is in my future, then I need to focus on what is ahead and only occasionally glance in the rearview mirror. It occurred to me that that this analogy works for the pandemic, as well. I need to keep my eyes on the road ahead and stop focusing on the rearview mirror — the good old days.
Most people my age remember “the good old days,” when cars had no seatbelts, polio had no vaccine, and death from the measles was relatively common. So as we open our economy back up and take our first steps toward whatever our new normal looks like, I am cautiously optimistic. The past few months of adjusting to the fact of COVID-19 was just the beginning, and we are not anywhere near the end of our challenges.
We live in a new reality and, just like I will continue to wear a seatbelt when I am in my car, I intend to mask up in public and refrain from hugging strangers or even shaking hands for the foreseeable future. When our stimulus check arrived, Karen and I pledged to spend it at a different restaurant twice a week, in order to help our struggling neighbors. We intend to continue that practice, mostly because we just like the convenience of it. And we will continue to shelter in place and avoid crowds for a while. I already have reclusive tendencies, so that one is easy for me.