If the first two days of my August road trip north and west carried a “fury road” theme as I mad maxed it across the deserts of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada, putting 1,279 miles between me and Ciudad Juárez in less than 37 hours, the following two weeks held a sweeter and more nostalgic appeal. From the pine tree-studded Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California to the beaches of San Diego, my first trip to my home state in just over two years was a time to slow down and do as little as I wanted. More importantly, I got a chance to spend a little time with some of the people who I love the most and who I hadn’t seen in far too long.
Since I was old enough to drive, I have always taken road trips. It was not unusual for me even at the age of 17 to drive for five hours between my mom’s and my dad’s houses, either alone or with my younger brother in tow. I later went to college in San Diego eight hours away, and when I didn’t fly home for holiday breaks, I would drive overnight, alert as an owl, burning up the road north after going to class all day and working all evening. I’ve maintained this affinity for driving throughout my adult life, taking any opportunity possible to get behind the wheel. Unlike friends and acquaintances who prefer to snooze the miles away and let their partner do the driving, there is little tedious about driving to me; I love every minute, every technicality, the precision of every operational movement.
So when I decided to take my first real vacation since summer 2019 to see my family in California and celebrate my brother’s 40th birthday, and did not want to expose myself to airports and air travel during COVID-19, the idea of driving the 21+ hours and nearly 1,300 miles alone did not faze me. It actually sounded like a welcome chance to get away and clear my mind from what has been a difficult period for most people, and particularly for those juggling the pandemic against health challenges and demanding on-call work.
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.
For the last several weeks, I have been filled with ideas for blog posts, but have been working so many hours that I have deferred them to a future, calmer time. In preparation for a long-awaited spinal fusion surgery this coming week, I have been trying hard to clear the decks at work and at home. I don’t know if I have been succeeding, but one thing has become increasingly clear: I would not have been able to put the recent amount of hours on the clock I have without crashing and burning, were it not for the protective bubble of pandemic-related health and safety protocols around me. For the first time in my adult life, I have now passed 13 consecutive months with zero viral illnesses.
This month brought us a tremendous gift: the opportunity to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
As 2020 comes to an end at last this week, my husband V and I celebrate 14 years since our first date in Georgetown and reflect on hopes for next year.
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.
Typically when a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) arrives at a new post, they spend much of their first two weeks “checking in.” Check-ins consist of a variety of consultations with people in your section, the leadership of other sections, security and HR briefings, and one-on-one meetings with any people you supervise. There are also the practical matters of getting your badge, receiving your unaccompanied air freight (if you’re lucky), navigating between your house and the consulate or embassy, and generally orienting yourself and finding your way around your new environment. But my first two weeks were spent mostly quarantined at home, in line with Post’s 14-day stay-at-home policy for all new arrivals.
So how does checking in work in the time of COVID-19?
Today I mark 15 years of federal service.
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.