This website is now 29 years old. It’s older than most of my students. It’s older than the Lisbon Treaty and almost as old as the Maastricht Treaty. It’s definitely older than most pop stars, beauty queens, and social media influencers. But it’s never quite as old as me.
This past year has aged me considerably. I spent some time examining photos of myself from just before the pandemic. (And just before the birth of my son.) I seem to have aged 10 years in 2, with 8 of those happening in the past 12 months.
Even so, I ended last year on a very hopeful note, quoting Tennyson: “Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering. ‘It will be happier.’”
But 2021 was not happier. In fact, I offer that it has been one of the worst –if not the worst– years of my life. I’m sure there are some miserable years in my 20s, fraught with romantic break-ups and the standard self-obsession of youth that rendered a more depressive outlook. But objectively speaking, 2021 was peppered with a great many personal challenges. And if one includes the latter months of 2020, the last 18 months or so have been, in a word, brutal.
Of course, this was the year my father died. A year ago this month, a child in my family died. In the intervening months, several other family members were lost. The assault on my privacy and influx of threats and hate mail abated considerably, but did not completely go away. And the growing pressures of fatherhood and domestic life, now complicated by grief and fatigue, all took their toll.
Back in early 2021, my spouse and I had a bet. I felt that by Christmas there would be no mask mandate and the country would be approaching normal. She disagreed. She was right. As I write this, the nation (and the world) are in the early throes of COVID’s Omicron wave, in what I think and hope is the last great battle of this pandemic. It has once more taken a toll on me, as I’ve been engaging with media (both traditional and social) to try to encourage policies that will help keep unvaccinated children from becoming infected. It has been exhausting, and has predictably invited more angry, insulting messages from that slice of society that still shakes its fist at the Moon for pushing the Sun away every evening.
But as a father I must do everything in my power to protect my child (and other children) in the only way I know how, from a threat that I’m professionally equipped to understand better than many. How could I live with myself if I did any less? This is what my Hindu forebears would have called my dharma. And dharma isn’t always kind or pleasurable, just obligatory.
Traditionally, I’ve reserved the first post of a year for a meditation on gratitude and optimism. But today I feel mostly melancholy. My sisters, mother and I spent last evening until 4:AM watching videos of my father in his latter years. What a powerful, charming, intelligent and loving man. I’m grateful that I even have security camera footage of the last few times he went out onto the front porch to pick up the newspaper. These small things now become cherished family possessions. These are the things we love about a person: their daily habits, not their practiced expositions.
The pandemic robbed me of quality time with my father in his last months. Technology was a half solution. But his progressing dementia and poor hearing made video chats increasingly challenging. I lingered on a recording of our final video chat, the last time he and I had had a conversation, days before his death. There was a moment when he did not recognize me, nor his only grandson. And while one would think that that would be a heartbreaking memory, it isn’t. It was a sign that the end was near, and I’m grateful that I got to have that conversation, given how little time actually remained.
I’m also grateful that in that strained, difficult-to-hear exchange, I got to tell my father how fortunate I felt to be a father when I still had my own father. I only had that experience, that overlap of being both a son and a father, for 14 months. But it was a precious 14 months. My moral touchstone is gone, my example of right thought and behaviour. This is the way of things.
But let us speak now of 2022. What will it bring? Epidemiologically, I find it curious that in 2020 the world learned of our terms “herd immunity” and “reproduction number”. In 2021, they learned of “vaccine efficacy” and “variant.” I think in 2022, the science words thrust into the public consciousness will be “nosocomial”, “sequelae”, and “Farr’s Law.” Google those things if you’re curious. They will give you a sense of what I think is to come.
I ended 2021 with maudlin sentimentality and a self-satisfied certainty of global improvement. Man, was I wrong. I think the first half of 2022 will be a hard slog indeed. But in the end, sooner than you might think, the Sun will emerge once more.
So what am I grateful for? Of course, the memories and teachings of my late father, whose presence I still feel. Of course, the love I continue to receive from all my family, both blood and marital. And the special love that spouts forth from responsibility, that which I feel for both my son and my dog.
Weirdly, I’m also grateful for the enormous challenges I faced this past year. Maybe it’s my obsession with Stoicism. But I appreciate the opportunity to test my mettle against such psychological onslaught. Life was not made for safety and comfort, but as a proving ground. Finding space in my heart to love those who cast hate in my direction has been challenging, to be sure. But I’ve succeeded in at least not hating back. And that has filled me with some hard-won calm.
We live in changing, unpredictable times, my friends. The world moves quickly, circumstances change, safety is transient and often illusory. Trust is fragile, as is the body. I resolve to be present to take stock of the moment, and to bend with the winds, not break against their howling torrents.
Happy New Year, fellow denizens of the great churn. I appreciate your company in this swirling mess.