As we look ahead to life after the pandemic, many people are wondering what will be different in our lives.
Will we go back to living the way we did before? And what if we do? Do we risk losing something we’ve learned from one long and terrifying year?
For some the ordeal brought inner reflection about the meaning and shape of life.
“I don’t think I can go back to a ‘before.’ I don’t think I fit into that life anymore.”
Mary Fugate, Punxsutawney, Pa.
“I care much more about being with people who make me feel whole now. The pandemic scraped away all facades we’ve built around our lives.”
Elena K. Cruz, Washington, Mo.
“It has made me realize that I am no more than human, and that there is nothing I can think or do to change that, and that I must embrace that for whatever it means.”
Lucas Jakobi, Tustin, Calif.
Who We Are Now
By Elizabeth Dias and Audra D. S. Burch
Photographs by Amr Alfiky, Rose Marie Cromwell, Ryan Jenq and Elliot Ross
Produced by Heather Casey, Rebecca Lieberman and Eden Weingart
Certain moments in life have the power to shift our core sense of being. The death of a parent. The birth of a child. An incurable disease diagnosis.
The coronavirus pandemic and all it has wrought is such a moment. Everyone knows someone who got sick or died or lost her job. Everyone has a personal “before” and “after.” It has been a collective near-death experience, for those lucky enough to survive.
People have found themselves close to life’s deepest questions, those forced by an apocalypse. Questions about how we live, how we suffer, and how we make meaning of our short time here on this earth.
Who am I? Who are we? Who are we becoming? How have we been transformed?
Through it all, the world has not stopped. The killing of George Floyd. The Capitol siege. More mass shootings. For some, facing trauma feels too hard. Others have found unexpected resilience and courage, rage or stillness. Transformation was forced on some, and for others it was chosen. For many, the suffering of this past year has birthed an awakening.
The questions of how we have changed will be with us in the months, and years, ahead. The process of reflection is just beginning. Where it takes us remains to be seen.
But the clarity that comes with intense suffering often clouds as time moves on. We have a window now to look at our lives anew.
This is the story of how America is beginning that journey, in her own words.
“You do what you need to do for the people you love.”
Mary Fugate, 31, who works in higher education, moved home from Cincinnati to Punxsutawney, Pa.
I spent most of 2020 dying for human interaction. I lived on the top floor of a duplex, I had this gorgeous front porch. There were so many birds. I downloaded an app to learn all of their songs. I learned the barn owl and the mourning dove and house sparrows. They would be constant friends to me — my mourning dove, she always sings between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m.
Then in the summer my sister in New Mexico was hospitalized with a cyst that could have been cancerous. She just got really sick really quickly. We had had a falling out and weren’t speaking. When I offered to go, I was expecting her to say no. I am thankful we are back to being sisters.
The exact moment I knew I was going to be OK was when I was driving to New Mexico and realized, “I’m the girl that despite all challenges will drive across the country in a freaking pandemic to be with the people she loves most.”
That was a moment of such clarity. I had been diagnosed with PTSD, and wearing a mask is very triggering for trauma. If I couldn’t even leave my house to get groceries, how could I drive across the country? You do what you need to do for the people you love. Realizing that strength — that was such a changing moment in my life.
In the hospital, with my sister 10 hours a day, it became almost a meditation: I am the girl who can wear a mask for the people she loves. I am the girl that can go to the pharmacy for the people that she loves. It has become something I say to myself.
It was the utter dark loneliness of coming back to an empty apartment that made me decide to move home to my parents.
I got in my car and did one final lap around my neighborhood, and then I just started driving. I cried the whole time. Grief over the future I thought I was having, grief over not just being able to tough it out and stay. Grieving the loss of my independence.
One of the first days back, I heard a mourning dove, and instantly started to cry. It meant a lot to know its song, and to realize I am in a completely different physical location, and the birds are still familiar to me.
I don’t know who I am becoming. I like who I am becoming, I just haven’t fully met her yet.
I don’t think I can go back to a “before.” I don’t think I fit into that life anymore. I’ve just grown and changed, and many priorities and values have shifted. My peak excitement right now is getting ready for baby ducks on the farm in spring. I like the slowness of things right now.
There are parts of 2020 that I never want to talk about again in my life, the dark moments. There were moments I thought I was going to lose my sister, moments I thought I would lose myself. There were moments that propelled me to where I am now. I don’t want to give 2020 credit, but I feel it put me on a conveyor belt to transformation that I wouldn’t have had without it.
“My husband quit his job and we moved to his hometown. No one yells every day anymore. I have come to the realization that maybe I deserve to be happy too.”
Erin Peregrine Antalis, Lincoln, Neb.
“We had an unplanned pregnancy. I’ve experienced grief because I never realized what you give up to be a new parent. But I would give up all of those things again and again for my son. I think the pandemic helped this new transition. We had so much we had to give up that it softened the blow a bit.”
Angela Windnagel, St. Paul, Minn.
“I applied to over 400 jobs in 2020 alone. It feels like there’s no way to catch up, let alone get ahead. I focus on enjoying the little things, because those are things I can control.”
Morgan Anderson, Palatine, Ill.
“The pandemic has forced me into the present. It’s the meditation I never wanted but have come to appreciate. That said, last week I kicked a hole in the bathroom door.”
Jessica Berta, Milwaukee
“I made a vow to not skip another Christmas or Japanese New Year with my parents. I don’t know how many I’ll have left with them.”
Paige Bowman, Washington, D.C.
“I just couldn’t deal with the lack of empathy. Now I have very few people who survived on my list of friends. And my phone is a whole lot quieter. But I honestly wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Iara Diaz-Araujo, Orlando, Fla.
“I don’t skip walks with my husband just because I am tired.”
Rebecca Vaughan-Geib, Herndon, Va.
“I know I am becoming someone different.”
Joelle Wright-Terry, 47, a hospice chaplain from Clinton Township, Mich., is a Covid survivor. She lost her husband to the virus last April.
Our Covid story started with us both having a horrific cough. My husband had Type 1 diabetes. I had a fever of 104. I have never been that sick in my life.
My husband drove me to the hospital. I came back the same day. That night, he drove himself back to the hospital. Before he left, he turned to the boys and told them to take care of your mom. A couple of days later, the doctors put him on oxygen. His chest was hurting so bad and by that time, my Covid had kicked in full force. We could barely talk to each other. We basically suffered in silence. Then he started to really decline.
We FaceTimed and told him how good a husband and father he was. And we reminded him how much we loved him. That was at one o’clock on the 2nd of April. My husband let go at 8:50 that evening.
I honestly thought I was going to pass away at home. I kept saying I do not want to leave the boys, I do not want to die in front of them. Covid is a kind of warfare that changes you. The only thing that got me through was Psalms 57.
It attacks your mind. It attacks your muscles. It attacks your joints. It attacks your lungs. It is a pain that I’ve never felt in my life. And I’ve had surgeries. And I have had cancer. You can’t go back to living the same life after surviving Covid.
My husband took care of us. He never missed a beat with the boys, going to their school functions. He worked as a business owner, making gravestones and monuments. He left behind at least 100 orders — some Covid victims. I looked at the number of orders and I began to pray. I emptied out my entire savings to try to save our business and keep his legacy going. Now we, the boys and I, are learning the gravestone business.
I have been strengthened by the testimonies of other widows who have come into my shop, and we sit there and we grieve together. If it had not been for the Lord on my side, I am not sure how I would have made it.
We had a small private funeral. He passed away by himself. And I didn’t want him laid to rest inside of a cemetery where he would be alone. I believe I will eventually move South again to be closer to my family. And I did not want to leave him alone again, so I had my husband cremated so he can always be with me.
I am a volunteer minister at my church. I often presided over the funerals. Never in a million years did I think that I would be sitting on the front pew, you know, with my husband lying before me, as other families have done. I never, never imagined that I would be sitting there with a minister speaking Scripture and praying and eulogizing as I have done for families. The pandemic, my husband’s death and God have taught me to appreciate our loved ones. I’ve already told my boys, we’ve got to figure out a way to get to Alabama to see my mother and sisters more often because family is just so important.
My husband died a year ago. I know I am becoming someone different. I just don’t know what that difference will be yet. I know I was a wife. And now I am 47 years old and a widow.
“I no longer have any clear trajectory, and I am learning to make peace with that.”
G.J. Hodson, Arlington, Texas
“I broke up with my boyfriend of almost four years. I’m trying to take it one day at a time, but also still feeling so lost because I still don’t have an ‘after’ defined.”
Jamie Tylicki, New York
“Coming out of this, I realized emotions can’t wait for another day. I am calling my parents more, and expressing my love and gratitude to them.”
Vaneet Singh, Memphis
“I am not going to try to be polite anymore. I am going to hopefully become a less behaved, less likeable, ballsier, more outspoken, more dangerous woman. All these rules I had followed, these rules will not save me.”
Aline Mello, Marietta, Ga.
“I really feel like I learned a lot during the pandemic, but this new feeling has this real feeling of emptiness I’ve never felt before.”
Justin Parker, New York
“I’ve completely lost interest in traveling. I think most about wanting to have friends over in our home. For me, looking forward is all about making my deep roots here even deeper.”
Namir Yedid, San Diego
“My church has been paying for my rent, utilities and food while I am living with no paycheck. This year has stripped me from so much, but it also allowed me to focus and evaluate the big picture of my life. What kind of legacy do I want to leave behind?”
Beca Bruder, Alexandria, Va.
“I finally started looking at myself.”
Melva James, 42, is a cybersecurity consultant who grew up in Jackson, Miss., and lives in Massachusetts. The tumult of the past year inspired a dramatic life change.
One of my best friend’s mothers passed away of Covid. And a friend committed suicide during the pandemic. There’s been a lot of suffering around me.
The other thing that was happening, was all this stuff around the police killings and the fear of the Trump presidency and all of the hatred he was fomenting. I was feeling very unsafe, particularly as a Black person. And I was like, you know what, life could end at any moment. I need to figure out how to enjoy my life with whatever time I have left. How do I make my life more complete?
In October or November I started identifying as nonbinary. Before that, I identified as a woman, as a gay person. I think I’ve been trying to find myself for a long time.
People talk about feeling like they were mismatched or that they were really a boy, but they had been assigned as a girl. That was not my experience. I was just totally estranged from my body, I did not think about it at all and that’s an important distinction.
There is a major turning point in my life that I feel is connected. The death of my mother. Her death marked the end of my childhood though I was, on paper, a grown person. It was unmooring. It was this sense of being alone in the world, even though my dad was still alive. But he was grieving and I did not want to lean on him. So what I feel like I’ve experienced during the pandemic and what I experienced at that time was the same sense of, I could die at any time and I don’t want to die not knowing how to be happy.
I talk a lot about “being happy” and “learning to be happy,” which implies my life has a lot of sadness. This is not my day-to-day experience. Happiness versus sadness is not what I’m thinking when I’m saying that. What I’m thinking is the difference between surviving and thriving, between living and being truly alive.
The pandemic has forced me to spend so much time alone. Last year, I started taking yoga two or three days a week. In doing my yoga practice, I became physically stronger, as well as more aware of my body and aware of my breathing and I paid attention to myself in a way that I hadn’t before. I learned how to stand up straight. I used to brush my teeth and wash my face every day, but I did not look at myself. I finally started looking at myself. And when I looked at my face, I was like, I want a more masculine face. I naturally grow hair on my chin and I always shaved it and I stopped trying to make it disappear. And I’m like, this is what my face looks like. And I would be happy if I had a mustache. Me spending time with me and my body and learning how to stand up straight and learning how to see what other people see when they look at me — that’s how it began to happen.
Especially with regard to my physical self, I’ve felt a lot of nothing in the past. Depression, so often, is less about feeling sad and more about feeling nothing. Living inside my body and getting to know my full self is part of my journey from nothingness to joy. I’m so excited and hopeful about what life has to offer now that I don’t feel like I’m just existing.
“I have hands, I have work I can do.”
Maria Judith Alvarez Quiroz, 41, of Glenwood Springs, Colo., is a medical assistant from Mexico who has lived in the United States for the past 15 years.
In December 2019, right before the pandemic, I was laid off.
Before, I had a good job. We bought a trailer home and two cars and we had two telephones, one personal, one for work. It was the first year that we were by ourselves. We had always lived with other people, family. My husband did not have a job and was depressed. I got therapy and started working again with a doctor as his assistant in a clinic.
At the end of March my husband became ill and was hospitalized. They moved him to another hospital 90 minutes away, for two weeks. It took me three hours to go there and back. My son was not able to go with me. My husband was not diagnosed with Covid, but I didn’t understand why there was a problem with his lungs. He had fluid and blood coming out. He never recovered. We were married 15 years.
I lost a lot of weight after the loss. When I would take a shower, I would think of him and that is when I would cry. The hospital bills, I cannot begin to tell you.
I am completely different. After the pandemic I have decided to forgive everyone I can, treat them like family, brothers and sisters. Life is too short. It can change in a moment. You can’t go around with resentment in your heart.
When we moved into the trailer home, I’d said, Why would we fix ours up? We don’t even know if we will stay here or not. But the thing is, you have to live each day.
I was a general doctor in Mexico. As a doctor I know you have to take care of your health, so I started eating healthier, and I got closer to God.
When I was little I had poliomyelitis in one foot. That was a pretty big trauma for me. I fought with God, because I would say: Why me? Why can’t I play or run or jump or dance like other kids? When my husband died, I fought with God again. But afterwards, I forgave him. I don’t fight with him anymore. I just go on. If a job comes along and I get it, I say thank you. If he takes it away, I say OK.
When my husband died I felt like I had lost everything. I had nothing left to lose except my son. When I moved here from Mexico 15 years ago, I lost my dream of being a doctor. I work with the doctor in the clinic and it makes my heart happy, but I don’t treat the patients. But I thought, I have hands, I have work I can do, and if I can help people, that will be good.
That gives my life some sense. I am able to earn money to take care of my son, my family, my parents in Mexico. This is the first year I was able to send money to my parents so they could buy gifts for poor kids for the Day of the Magi.
The Latino community has suffered quite a bit with Covid, because we don’t have information. We don’t have information because we are afraid. We are not here legally, this is not our country.
I’d like to be a leader in my community. I don’t talk very much in meetings, and I’d like to talk more to be able to work with others and resolve the inequities in society.
I have discovered that really, we are all leaders.
“While I was just a few weeks into maternity leave, I was the first person to be let go from my office. It’s a disgusting feeling — nausea followed by rage. My husband and I are running a business together now. But one thing is clear: We will never be someone else’s employees again.”
Sarah S., New Orleans
“It forced me to let go of any notion that I could hold myself together and get on with the show. But it also made room for me to fall fully apart and look at the pieces. Since then, I’ve changed my housing, my church, my career plans, and the family and friends I allow in.”
Shelby Doyle, Melrose, Mass.
“There was a moment where I walked by my neighbor and asked her how she was doing. She was 82 at the time and in a sad, but very honest way, she told me that she was prepared to die. It wasn’t that she didn’t love life, I think she was afraid that in this year, life wouldn’t love her back. After listening to what she said, I felt guilty for being so unfazed by death.”
Gabriel Murphy, Winthrop, Mass.
“I am falling back in love with myself, taking extra time each day to care for my African violets and orchids. How I plan to live my life moving forward: no more doing for others what I do not want to do. I am centering my attention on the things that give me peace.”
Jeffreen Hayes, Chicago
“I’ve had such toxic assumptions about work, what ‘hard work’ is and how if you do it, it means you are a good person. Now I’m not even sure the ‘work’ I do in a day means anything. It has shown me how fallible all our thinking is.”
Annick Dall, Minneapolis
“Nobody will take care of me other than myself. We need to take responsibility not only for ourselves but for others.”
Huangliang Chen, Boston
“I had to close my small flower shop. In June I made $400. I do not want to go back to before. There is a lack of compassion and help. It is all about money. When I see such inequality, unfairness, sometimes I am like: Why are we doing all this?”
Yasmine Karrenberg, New York City
“How do we go forward?”
Ramah Commanday, 70, a ceramist, delayed a cross-country move to stay safe during the pandemic. Then, on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Glass Fire destroyed her home in St. Helena, Calif.
It burned when it burned. Just before the time the heavens are supposed to open up and we are supposed to be inscribed in the Book of Life. I had to leave immediately. I didn’t grab anything. It was up to the powers. By nightfall, my world of home and objects was gone.
I went back to the site, to see what remained, if anything. What I was able to dig up was a ruined, a completely ruined version of itself. It was like viewing the body. It is a task you have to do.
My kiln remained. I actually found a few pieces of my work that were intact, and a few more that were repairable, which I did. The act of repairing the broken pieces was healing. The rest I just walked away from.
What this did unexpectedly was refocus me, without even my conscious effort in doing so. It refocused me on what I had, as opposed to what I had lost.
The intensity of that refocus really took me by surprise. I am as amazed as anybody. How can I possibly weep for an armchair when so many people have lost multiple members of their own families?
I feel braver than I did before all of this happened. This is a kind of resilience that is real, and I am not alone in it. Maybe I am more glad that I know these things about myself than I am sorry to have lost a bunch of stuff. If this is what it took to put me in this place in my life’s journey, this is what it took.
I was born in 1950. I am Jewish. A lot of the Holocaust stories, apart from stories of unthinkable cruelty and destruction, are stories of strength, if not grace. The people who go through it due to various kinds of courage and iterations of kindness, and intelligence and resilience. If your parents’ generation can do that, then you can get through this.
We are living through a sea change that is just so dizzying, it will take a lot to process it. I will never forget the apocalyptic experience aspect of things. The big turning point for everyone was the year 2020. The new political realities created by the Trump phenomenon. The environmental climate change crisis. With Texas freezing. California burning. The mask requirements. The virus realities.
It is like how the world changed irretrievably after the world wars. We are facing a very stark question as individuals. How do we go forward? Do we give up or not? And if you choose not to give up, how do you keep going?
There are the people who are creating their own personal bunkers, either literally or metaphorically. Then there are people who just figure, we have to find a way of joining hands and plodding forward. What do we have as human beings that is not evil, that is not destructive, that is the opposite? What about art? What about kindness? What do we have that we can call on so we can live out our lives, deriving as much joy and positive experience as we can? Because wasting our lives, or living our lives in a state of misery insofar as we have any control over it, is unbearable.
This is what is driving me forward. There is nothing I can do about the stuff that burned up. Everything has a life span. I can look at this as the end of the world, apocalypse, but really, our worlds all end when we die. And in the meantime, I am alive, I am still here, and what can I do about it?
Additional research by Susan Beachy.
Amr Alfiky/The New York Times
Rose Marie Cromwell for The New York Times
Ryan Jenq for The New York Times
Elliot Ross for The New York Times