Margaret Lynch was formerly Director of Digital Marketing at the Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation at University Health Network in Toronto
One Monday morning not long ago, I attended my yoga class. We stretched and twisted, breathed and meditated amidst a soundtrack of calming music and the instructor’s soothing voice. It was late January 2020, when we still took for granted our ability to move freely in and around the world. Afterwards, I chatted with another yogini. Standing close together, we discussed the first reported Canadian case of COVID-19. The National Microbiology Laboratory had confirmed the presumptive case two days earlier. We were concerned, but we agreed the problem could be easily contained.
The virus had seemed too distant to worry about, a continent away, an ocean apart. China had locked down the city of Wuhan and commissioned new emergency hospitals built in ten days. I viewed the time-lapse construction videos in awe and read residents’ blogs about self-quarantine, food shortages, and empty streets. Official news reports promised these extreme measures would contain the virus. A tiny alarm pulsed inside my head, low but steady.
In February I watched, horrified, as Italy reported climbing numbers of COVID-19 cases, then daily doubling, like some perverse form of Jeopardy. I didn’t want to believe the virus could affect us in Canada to the same devastating extent. Yet, the niggling warning in my brain wouldn’t stop. My internal alarm beat louder. Panic escalated. We assembled two weeks’ worth of food. I learned a long time ago that just because we don’t believe something will happen doesn’t mean it won’t.
I was 30 in January 1988, strong and healthy. My leukemia diagnosis came out of nowhere. The next five months were a blur of chemo that should have worked but didn’t. Instead, each day and week brought new shockwaves. Infections, seizures, and a coma. What was previously unimaginable became reality. Any illusion of control I ever had about the world and my life shattered. I was reminded that life is a delicate balance that teeters between uncertainty and optimism. That the future is unknown and there can be beauty and promise in that mystery. But that journey to acceptance was hard-fought and spanned years.
The experimental bone marrow transplant I survived was a long shot—a Hail Mary pass. After five years, my doctor said it was unlikely my leukemia would return. Only then did I start to believe I might have a life after all—to imagine what that might look like. It would be different than it had been; no more normal for me. My DNA had been transformed, and so had I. Which gave me licence to dream, to be fearless. Because what’s the worst that could happen? It already had.
These memories flooded back as I watched the relentless advance of COVID-19 across Europe and New York. In Canada, we benefited from seeing the future. Grim tolls paid by Italy and Spain prompted public health advisories and admonitions to #SocialDistance, #StayAtHome, and #FlattenTheCurve. Compliance was slow, as if our brains could only absorb change incrementally.
In Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, David Kessler describes anticipatory grief as that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. We can all relate to that now. We’ve overcome technology hurdles to seek comfort and connection in our screens. Zoom and Skype have become euphemistic verbs to recapture social interaction through Hollywood Squares interfaces. School classes and other pastimes have also moved online. My weekly yoga class is now broadcast on YouTube. I roll out my mat in my home office and stretch, twist, breathe and meditate.
Afterwards, I contemplate my rubber plant, which unfurled two new leaves recently in honour of spring—as it’s done every spring for the past thirty-two years. However, the act of renewal seemed more poignant this year. I received the small plant as a gift in 1988, the year I was hospitalized. It arrived in a wicker basket, encircled by wispy ivy coils, all wrapped with crinkly pink tissue paper, attended by a simple message: Get well soon.
This is the fifth generation of that original plant. Each time I moved, I cut a few branches, placed them in a glass of water, and waited for root tendrils to sprout. After a few weeks, I would plant the cutting in a new pot. Conditions haven’t always been ideal (not enough sunlight, overwatered, undernourished), but it’s a hardy plant and it continues to thrive.
I’ve been reassured by this symbol of resilience at a time when our humanity is being tested. It reminds me that we are a strong and tenacious community. We will get through this crisis together. There will be a return to regular life, although it may not look the same.
And for now, we must take care of each other from afar.