Over the last couple of months as spring has turned into summer, I have found solace spending time outdoors. While I have deferred real hiking in well-known places, the dry heat and flat desert-like walks over the border in El Paso have provided me with a number of things I need: the mood-lifting and weight loss benefits of exercise, continued healing from spinal surgery, arthritis relief, fresh air, and safety and solitude away from others.
The last several weeks have been among the most difficult in my Foreign Service career. From my perspective, life has been worse overall these past two months than during the prior 14 months of the pandemic put together. This might be hard to understand and even a little hard to believe, given how many people – at least in the U.S. – seemingly feel their lives are finally returning to some sense of normalcy. But it isn’t hyperbole. As an immunocompromised person who has been living with autoimmune disease since my late 20s, and who is currently slipping into the public policy and social chasm between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, I truly feel left behind and isolated during this stage of the pandemic. Although I continue to be employed, meet my weight loss goals, and heal from back surgery, the rest of my life has become a slow rolling nightmare I never anticipated. I’m surrounded by a society that feels ignorant and selfish at best and eugenicist at worst, and rocketing towards a future where COVID-19 is endemic and those of us with compromised immune function face never getting our normal lives back, as everyone unapologetically eats cake right in front of us that we once talked about eating together.
Back in early May, my husband V flew to North Carolina to see his eldest daughter A graduate from college. Being less than seven weeks beyond major spinal surgery where healing of my bone fusion was critical, I was sadly unable to navigate a trip like that to attend. Each member of her graduating class only had a couple of tickets to share with friends and family, anyway, and she was unable to invite to the ceremony many people I’m sure she would have loved to share that important life milestone with. I attended virtually from Mexico, cheering from a hard-backed chair.
For me in early May, I was moving fairly slowly, had some difficulty getting up and down, and was not permitted to lift more than five lbs. I had been back at work since mid-April and in physical therapy since the end of April though, and the mental and physical haze of weeks of bed rest and the shock of the operation were beginning to lift. After spending a long work week in the office and coming home to an empty house night after night, I was ready to be somewhere else. I decided to take a Mother’s Day trip to Las Cruces, New Mexico; at about an hour and 40 minutes away from Ciudad Juárez, Las Cruces promised fresh air and a chance to change the scene while making some use of my new and fragile body. In other words, to feel like me again.
The United States is opening back up after almost 16 months of the coronavirus pandemic. According to Google, as of today about 152 million (or 46%) of U.S. residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. I have seen other figures that say half the country is vaccinated, and a quarter does not intend to get the vaccine. But for nearly 10 million vaccinated American adults like me with immunocompromised or immunosuppressed conditions, early data is showing vaccine efficacy may provide low or even nonexistent protection against the deadly virus. Medical experts warn immunocompromised people should get vaccinated, but continue maintaining the same masking and social distancing protocols we have the past year. In other words, get vaccinated, but behave as if unvaccinated. For how long, no one can say yet.
For the immunocompromised population, the so-called end of the pandemic feels like a party we have not been invited to but cannot leave. As people unmask around us and celebrate their safety and return to normalcy, public policy – and apparently most everyone we know – has decided the rights of the chronically ill to also be safe and protected from the virus should be sublimated by the convenience and comfort of the healthy, able-bodied majority. Amidst soaring hopes that society will soon be totally back to normal and unreasonable expectations about what activities are safe and medically appropriate for the immunocompromised to participate in, is it any wonder immunocompromised people could use more allies right now?
The week before last I went into the hospital in El Paso, TX for spinal fusion surgery. It seems like much longer ago. The operation was something I had wanted and pursued for months: finding a neurosurgeon, consulting on different treatment options, and even getting a second opinion. Had it not been for the pandemic I would have acted sooner, because the pain and left leg/foot numbness that started within a year of my 2018 back surgery was becoming unbearable.
By all accounts the procedure went well, although letting the fusion heal successfully over the coming weeks and months will be key. Although proximity and access to U.S. medical care has been a major plus for us at this post, the hospital “care” experience for me from start to finish was less than I expected and a rude re-introduction to many aspects of the U.S. healthcare system (especially after Australia!). Less than two weeks later, the whole thing already feels like a surreal dream.
This month brought us a tremendous gift: the opportunity to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
I always know it has been too long between blog posts when too many half-developed ideas jumble together in my mind, clamoring to get out before they morph into something else with the passage of time. I try to think through my ideas, make them distinct, articulable, frame a coherent narrative from which I can draw conclusions. But sometimes it is not until I just release the words to the page, as it were, that the cross-currents of thoughts begin to flow in one direction and I understand what it is I want to say better than I could when I left it in my own mind. It is almost as if writing is my process of thinking; whether and to what extent I succeed in making a point is another matter.
This isn’t everything, but it’s all true.
Since our terrific socially-distanced trip to New Mexico six weeks ago for my birthday, V and I have been settling in to life in Ciudad Juárez together. It has been both great, and tedious, and prolonged, kind of like 2020.
Two weekends ago, V returned after an eight-week work trip to Washington, DC to help me celebrate my birthday. As if that weren’t great enough, the Columbus Day holiday also made it a three-day weekend. Longtime readers know what that means – a road trip out of town. But socially distanced and in the great outdoors, given the current situation.
Three years ago at this time, we were settling in to Australia, and as much as I love Australia, that was sure a bumpy period. I wrote then about the challenges of settling into a new overseas posting when everything keeps.going.wrong. My post was called Glass Half Full, and it was about the struggle to stay positive and keep things in long-term perspective. The attitude of my then-boss (who had nearly 30 years in the Foreign Service) inspired me to reframe some of my struggles as things to take in stride, no matter how much they all sucked in the aggregate.
Some of those lessons have been coming in handy again over the past few weeks; I have made progress settling in to my life here, and have racked up some small wins. But the difficulties posed by the ongoing pandemic, the steep learning curve of a new and busy job, managing a remote team, the general amount of time and effort it takes to wrap up a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move, and most importantly, the fact that my husband V had to leave for a business trip seven weeks ago and still has not been able to return, have all weighed on me. Because I have been through a few bumpy PCS moves now myself, I know that it works out eventually. Some of the problems – like waiting for your diplomatic accreditation or household effects to arrive – resolve on their own with time and patience. Other problems require more energy. It is both helpful and necessary to keep reframing the inconveniences as temporary and part of the adventure, and reminding yourself that the settled life you had before was once something you had to build from scratch, too. But as one of my colleagues here on his 11th tour recently confessed, I like the beginning of each tour the least.
Since mid-March, the U.S. land ports of entry shared with Canada and Mexico have been closed to non-essential travel, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), as a joint cooperative measure between the three countries to “limit the further spread of coronavirus.” (Non-essential travel includes travel that is considered “tourism or recreational in nature.”) Each month since the initial announcement, DHS has extended the closure for an additional 30 days. Most recently, the governments have agreed to extend the closure through September 21.
And as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and sister cities along the border like El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico are hit especially hard, DHS announced it would further tighten its restrictions.
We left Shreveport as early on Thursday morning as we could muster and set out for the Louisiana-Texas state line, less than a half hour away. It was to be our lightest day of driving at only (!) 369 miles. We also had a visit to my dear friend K in Fort Worth to look forward to before breaking for our final night in Abilene.
Last Tuesday morning, we woke up in Hoover, Alabama (just outside Birmingham) and headed for our next hotel stop in Shreveport, Louisiana. On the way, we planned to stop in rural Mississippi to visit W, one of V’s best friends who had retired there several years ago. In our 2013 wedding, W was a groomsman, and literally gave V the shirt off his back when V forgot the undershirt to wear underneath his tuxedo. So, a 454-mile driving leg in a pandemic or not, there was no way we wouldn’t stop and see W. But little did we know we would find a bit more trouble in Mississippi than we bargained for.
We said goodbye to D and left South Carolina on Monday, headed for Georgia on interstate 85 south. It was a morning full of minor irritants: between severe insomnia the night before, wheeling a luggage cart back and forth four times in the morning heat and humidity to load the cars, and getting stuck at a gas station for an inordinate amount of time dealing with low tire pressure, we didn’t say goodbye to D and get on the road until just after noon. We also missed the chance to eat breakfast with her, since she’d slept as poorly as we had and needed extra rest. Then we had one mishap after another trying to eat on our own – two places in a row closed due to the pandemic, another with indoor-only seating, a final had closed its breakfast menu 45 minutes before we arrived. I was pretty well ready to go back to bed and start over by that point! But instead we just got out of Charlotte; strong A/C, tunes, and a lovely resort in Alabama we knew awaited us made for a good trip once it did get underway.
Last Saturday we hit the road on our 2,000+ mile journey to my third diplomatic posting at U.S. Consulate General Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Since Juárez is directly across the border from El Paso, Texas, our move is by car rather than by plane. After I’d received the assignment in late 2018, I’d perused blogs of others who had been posted along the Mexican border and read about how they turned their PCS moves into fun road trips. I collected information and daydreamed about places we could stop, people we could visit, and things we could see and do on the way to Juárez.
If someone would have told me that when we left, the United States would be in the middle of a national health emergency, that a viral pandemic would be sweeping the country and infecting millions, and that we would tear through the south like it was burning down rather than doing those fun things I’d planned, I would have been gobsmacked.