Our coronavirus gap year

by Brian on July 19, 2020

in Cancer,Covid-19,Health,Science

My wife, Jody, and I were invited to the wedding of the daughter of good friends. The wedding will be in the U.K. in July – 2021. 

My first reaction was – wonderful! We’d love to come. An opportunity for a much-needed holiday overseas, rejoicing with friends and plentiful vegan food.

My second reaction – do we really think things will be any different a year from now? That the pandemic will be over and a vaccine will be widely disseminated and effective, such that we can return to the life we once knew?

On my gloomiest days, I doubt it. 

With every news cycle we are hit with more questions. Will the virus just fade away? (Not likely.) Become less contagious? (It seems to be doing the opposite.) Become less virulent? (Maybe…or is it just statistics?) Will we be ordered back into quarantine? (For some of us, probably.) 

Israel, which was once the poster child for how to beat a pandemic, now has one of the highest rates of new infections per capita in the world.

In order to cope with the ping pong of good news followed by harrowing aftermath – in what may very well be a repeating pattern of Whac-a-Mole over the course of months if not years – I’ve started thinking of this time as our “coronavirus gap year.” 

Gap years are traditionally about students taking time off between educational institutions. This, however, is a gap year from normal life. 

Whatever we hoped and planned for the rest of 2020, we’d probably be better off just forgetting about. This year might not be entirely lost, but it will certainly be something “different.” 

To wit: a friend of mine who was laid off from his job was fortunate to land a new position at the height of the first wave. It’s boring, he told me, and doesn’t come close to matching his decades of professional experience, but he’s grateful to have any income at all. 

Many others are not as fortunate.

My youngest son, Aviv, is debating whether to continue school in the fall. Most of his classes were switched to Zoom over the past months, which isn’t easy when you’re a musician and you need to practice in person with an ensemble. Should he pay the expensive tuition for another semester (or longer) of virtual classes?

I’ve long since given up on thinking about that trip to Vietnam we’d planned for earlier this year. At this point, I’m just hoping that my cancer stays stable until there’s a vaccine for COVID-19. (My last scan showed my tumors were still there but hadn’t grown.) If I had to go back into treatment before then, the hit to my immune system could mean my body might not be able to handle a vaccine – if and when one becomes available. 

Is there any way to cope with the relentless despair, both personal and global, in the midst of this gratuitous gap year? 

Here’s a parable I’ve found helpful. It was originally written in 1987 by Emily Perl Kingsley about having a child with Down syndrome, but the metaphor works for both the corona crisis and cancer, as well. It’s called “Welcome to Holland.”

You’ve planned a fabulous vacation in Italy. You bought all the guidebooks and your imagination is churning with anticipation. You can envision exactly where you’ll stay, the things you’ll do – touring the Colosseum, lounging on the Spanish Steps – even how much gelato you’ll consume (“just three times a week,” you promise yourself).

You pack your bags and board the plane. But when you land, the flight attendant announces, “Welcome to Holland.”

“Holland?” you cry out. “What do you mean Holland? I signed up for Italy! All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Italy.” 

But there’s been a change in the flight plan, and you have no choice: you must stay in Holland. No Italy for you.

Holland isn’t a terrible place. It’s just not what you expected. So, you have to go out and buy new guidebooks and learn a new language and meet a whole new group of people. 

You could spend your vacation pining away for Italy, fantasizing about all the things you’re missing out on. 

Or you can accept the reality and make the most of your time. The hotel room is spacious, after all, the stroopwafels are sweet and you discover you really love chips with mayonnaise. You might even begin to notice that there are windmills and tulips and Rembrandts in Holland.

“If you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to Italy,” Kingsley concludes, “you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things … about Holland.”

That’s where we are now conceptually as a world with COVID-19 (and for me personally with my body not where I thought it “should” be at this point in my life). 

We’re in Holland when we wanted to be in Italy. It’s not the worst place to spend a vacation … or a coronavirus gap year. Amsterdam is in fact one of my favorite cities.

And who knows, maybe my pessimistic protestations will turn out to be entirely off the mark and at the end of this crazy alt-world gap year, we’ll all be healthy, safely vaccinated and might actually be able to fly direct from “Holland” to the U.K. to attend our friends’ daughter’s wedding.

I first wrote about gap years and Holland for The Jerusalem Post.

Photo of Amsterdam Centraal Station by Slaunger / CC BY-SA

Photo of Buckingham Palace by Diliff / CC BY-SA

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