Photo of the author as a child with her mother and brother.

Photo of the author as a child with her mother and brother.

NORFOLK, Conn. — On the July 4th holiday weekend, I took three days off from work. It was the first time I was able to spend two nights away since February 2020, when Dan and I spent a few days in Sunnyside Queens apartment- and dog-sitting for my friend, Celia, prior to the pandemic. We even got to visit my dad briefly in New Jersey. I haven’t seen him since.

While I was able to get away for a “night at a time,” at least once a month, during the pandemic, I was never able to get more than that because of inadequate caregiver staffing for my mom. Essentially, it was difficult to get overnight help.

Since 2015, it has been a tradition to spend the July 4th holiday with my boyfriend Dan and his extended family in Norfolk at Doolittle Lake. Last year, Dan’s family had a more intimate gathering with only immediate family because of the pandemic, so this year it was important to see family we hadn’t seen in nearly two years.

After dinner with 10 or 11 of Dan’s extended family, Dan’s 20-something-year-old second cousin posed a question to everyone at the table.

“What was your COVID discovery?” she asked enthusiastically. The question of what one learned from the pandemic was a fair question, but my answer was complicated and not the kind of thing I was comfortable sharing around the dinner table. The topic was not the light, fun dinner conversation it should have been. But what would this young, unknowing 20-something-year-old know about that?

I started to think about the last year and a half, and honestly I cannot believe I survived it, even if my mom ultimately did not.

Taking care of my mom and keeping her healthy during a global pandemic was a mammoth undertaking. But with the exception of fewer news events to cover, my daily life changed very little. As a photojournalist covering the Berkshires, I still had to go out and cover the news. Furthermore, I was tasked with caregiving duties that sometimes extended into my normal working hours, when I had to fill in for caregivers who, for whatever reason, were unable to do their shifts.

As others around the table responded to the question, whether it was learning some new skill or watching an entire TV series, every answer I heard was far from unique and even predictable.

What I learned, but did not say, was that I discovered I am a bit of a germaphobe. The truth is, I really don’t want to shake anybody’s hand and in my line of work that is difficult to navigate around. The truth is, I was the healthiest I’ve been during the pandemic. I didn’t catch a cold or anything, so yeah, I don’t want to share my germs or get sick from anyone else’s. I also learned that I really value my time alone. My job puts me in crowds of people at times and while I can be social, the pandemic has left me weary and out of practice.

So I was trying to think of an answer to the COVID discovery question. I had nothing remarkable to say. I really just wanted to get up, leave the room and skip my turn. Maybe no one would notice? But when my turn was up, I found myself saying dramatically, “I learned I could survive during a global pandemic!”

It was certainly not a fun or inspiring answer, but it was the truth, even if the pandemic isn’t officially over. I’ve been amazed at how many people have emerged from COVID looking better. People did so much during quarantine. Many lost weight, got in shape and learned a new skill.

For me, I did not evolve in the same way. My responsibilities to my job and my mom were overwhelming.

Watching an entire TV series, learning a new skill or getting in shape was a privilege that I did not enjoy. Getting my mom to survive the pandemic meant that I was fortunate enough to be able to be with her when she died.

Living without her is something I am still discovering how to do.

Gillian Jones, an Eagle digital visual journalist, is writing a monthly op-ed series on caregiving. Her email is gjones@berkshireeagle.com.