The 50 Minute Goodbye
I think I was in the car when I got the email. With squinted eyes, I tried my best to make out the tiny white letters on the screen before me: STUDENTS’ SPRING BREAK EXTENDED. I then read the message out loud to my family, whom–much like me–were elated to hear the news. We were on our way back from the beach that day, and, more specifically, still relishing in our afternoon cheese pizza splurge at a seaside Grotto’s. Save for trying to process how I’d get by another week on an already under packed suitcase, I hadn’t thought much about the message at the time. Talk of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus had begun to infiltrate the nightly news segments more frequently, but the idea of life actually being upended as it had been halfway across the globe seemed like hardly a possibility.
“It’s just being blown way out of proportion,” I remembered hearing someone say. “It’s just like when they make a big deal out of some snowstorm and everyone loses their mind. It’s never as bad as they say it’s going to be.”
Barely a week had come and gone when a flabbergasted neighbor driving past stopped to share the breaking news with my parents and me: his daughter’s school had just closed its doors for the remainder of the semester. She was a freshman like me, attending West Chester University just thirty minutes from home–one of Pennsylvania’s first institutions to make such a call.
“We have to go move her stuff out by the weekend,” he’d said reluctantly. By then, Bloomsburg had already sent out a second update letting students know learning would be done remotely through at least April 6th. But standing there listening to the man with the rolled-down car window, I had to wonder, is my school next?
On March 16th, I’d have my answer. Once again, I found myself reading more fine white print off my little phone screen. Except now, I was not on my way home from an eventful day at the shore, but rather sitting in my room alone with social distancing measures suddenly in full effect–and it’d only been a week and a half. Trying my best not to completely wipe out on the stairs, I ran down to the kitchen to deliver the news to my mom.
“They just called it,” I told her, “The rest of the semesters going to be online.”
“What about your stuff?” she asked. All of my belongings were still at school, untouched. I assumed I’d still be going up there sometime this week. After all, that had been the original plan for the University, for students to retrieve what they needed while in-person instruction was paused. Certain time slots had been assigned according to building, floor number and last name. My day was supposed to be Wednesday. Initially, I had anticipated going up alone, but seeing as the trip had changed from a grab-and-go to a full-on move-out, that just wouldn’t be realistic.
“Dad can take you,” she assured me; and thankfully he’d be around to do so. Starting tomorrow, March 17, he’d be working from home indefinitely, a growing reality for many Americans.
That following Saturday, March 21, my dad and I woke up at the crack of dawn in preparation for the three-hour drive that laid ahead. About forty-five minutes in, we pulled into a Dunkin Donuts. Not wanting to wait in the car, I stood idly by while my dad ordered his usual iced coffee to counteract the drowsiness of our morning journey (frankly, I’ve always been more of a tea person). I took this moment to let my eyes roam around the room. That’s when I noticed a paper was laid carefully atop every table. I took this time to skim over the message typed in bold black print: “AS PER GOV. TOM WOLF, YOU MAY COME IN AND PURCHASE YOUR ITEMS, BUT YOU MUST NOT STAY IN THE LOBBY,” now this was new, but I was hardly surprised. I continued reading down to the last line, “YOU MUST TAKE YOUR ITEMS WITH YOU.” and without contest, we did.
The rest of the drive went rather smoothly, especially given traffic lately seemed to be dwindling as each day passed by. We got there right at nine–that’s when my visit had been scheduled for. In an attempt to adhere by social distancing measures as much as possible, shortly after that previous Monday, Bloomsburg students had been informed that all those from Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery counties were required to make an appointment to retrieve their things; and being from the Southeastern corner of Pennsylvania, that order just so happened to include me.
We were met with doors ajar at the front of my building and a self-serve hand sanitizer stand set up out front for our convenience–a simple yet very telling sign of the times. The building was uncomfortably empty, and the parade of loud footsteps that seemed to echo just about any time of the day or night was now replaced by an almost deafening silence. My door was the first one on the left, but even situated at the very beginning of my hallway, I could see that all my neighbors had already gone. Even the doors had been stripped of their personalized decor, not so much as a name tag left.
I had an hour to get my things and go, which surprisingly wasn’t as taxing a task as I’d predicted it’d be. Quickly but carefully, my dad pulled down all the Fleetwood Mac posters off the wall while I took the liberty of clearing out my desk that was still littered with pictures and old papers I promised myself I’d throw out when I came back from spring break. We used my roommate’s bed–which had been bare for a few days now–at our discretion, piling up items on top while we figured out when and what would be loaded up into the car first.
But I was far from alone in my experience. Schools across the globe shutdown, resulting in an outpouring of responses from learners everywhere.
Aaron Bovin, another Bloomsburg University student had this to say: “I wasn’t expecting to have to move out when I left for spring break so none of my stuff was packed away and my room was in a bit of a messy state.” Bovin was a resident in Soltz Hall, an on-campus apartment building. He had gone up on Monday during the extended spring break to retrieve his things.
“It seemed everyone had the same look on their face like, ‘Yeah, this is how this is going to be I guess.’ I’m glad they let us get everything back but I wish it didn’t have to be like this,” he concluded.
But not everyone would be so lucky. Julia Engel, a friend and fellow freshman attending Stevenson University in Baltimore County, Maryland got the short end of the stick.
“I haven’t even been able to get my stuff from my dorm yet,” she expressed to me with disappointment. As of April 24, students have allegedly still yet to hear from Stevenson regarding when they can come to pick up their belongings. Move-out had been set for the week of April 6 but was then unfortunately canceled due to Maryland’s travel ban. Since then, Engel and her peers have taken it upon themselves to email the University individually to request personal appointments and have found some success in doing so. In fact, just recently she was granted personal permission to clear out her dorm Saturday, April 25. The authorization was no doubt a huge sigh of relief, as she expressed her stress regarding running out of clothes and eye contacts among other things. But she quickly confided in me that, “If [she] hadn’t reached out, there’s no plan for moving out at all.” Upon hearing her story, I was reminded of just how grateful I was to not find myself in her shoes.
Shoes–that was the last thing I packed that day, probably because it was the easiest. One by one, I threw each pair into a big black trash bag, comforted at the thought of no longer relying on one homely set of white sneakers to get by. I tossed the bag into a large rolling bin we’d parked right out my dorm door and my dad wheeled it out to the car while I followed closely behind. After loading the remainder of my belongings and shutting up the trunk, together we pushed the cart back into the lobby, the last task on our list completed.
“We should go back one more time,” my dad stood with his hands on his hips. That morning had been a workout, no doubt. “Just to make sure we got everything,” silently, I agreed.
I hadn’t had much time to think in those 50 minutes–I hadn’t much time to say goodbye. But now here, standing in the frame of my empty dorm room, I could finally discern how I feel: sad.
But it was strange, because I wasn’t sad about losing the rest of my freshman year, or mourning over the memories I would now not get to make. Rather, it was a sadness born out of the abruptness of it all, of how my life–how everyone’s life–had changed so suddenly without notice. Planes had been grounded, weddings canceled, schools closed, churches sealed up, business powered down and hospitals filled to the brink all within the blink of an eye. As Spring swept in with its invigorating glory, the world had ironically been forced to shut her windows and close her doors, and it’s people suspended in a state of angst. And I could see that now, deeply reflected in the white walls of my very first home away from home.
We left shortly thereafter. The drive was quiet almost all the way home.
That was over a month ago. It’ll be May in a few days. They say the peak is behind us, that the “curve is flattening”–just another phrase of new terminology I’ve gotten to know all too well during these past few weeks. I’ve been spending my time doing a number of things: keeping up with classes online, learning to bake all different assortments of bread, and writing every now and then when I can force myself to be productive for something that doesn’t involve food. Luckily, I’m privileged enough to have my absence from society be nothing more than a source of boredom, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared–I am. I’m scared of the unpredictable nature of the times we’re living in, and the thought of how this pandemic may, and likely will, change our lives permanently in one way or another (my concern for the health of my loved ones of course goes without saying). But I do have hope, too. Hope that this time home helps us hold our friends and family closer. Hope that this time alone helps us reflect and know ourselves better. And, perhaps most importantly, hope that this time itself we’re living in–this age of uncertainty–serves as a reminder that nothing is really ever certain at all; that life is short and we are vulnerable, and that every day and every thing we consider to be routine should be looked at as a gift.
I’m not going to argue that a wake-up call is worth the havoc this virus has wreaked on our world because that’d be an insensitive and ignorant claim to make (not to mention it’s not one I personally agree with). But I will say that while I don’t believe everything happens for a reason, I do believe there is something noble in giving a reason to everything that happens to us. And this is something I’m moved to say I have seen, this act of trying to make the most of such a pressing period. From our kitchen window, I’ve watched happily most nights as families walk by in numbers I haven’t seen since I was a kid; and even from afar on social media I’ve been entrained daily by the many paintings and poems shared by artists doing their best to past the time, or the funny videos made by siblings showcasing just how creative humans can be.
It’s weird how different life is right now, and often I wonder if and when things will go back to how they used to be before. I’m definitely looking forward to going to the grocery store and not seeing every friendly face shielded behind a mask, or worrying over the state of the economy right as I’m emerging into adulthood. Sometimes I think back to that day at the beach–that was the last real outing I had before everything began to change and I didn’t even know it. It doesn’t really feel all that long ago, and I suppose that’s because it wasn’t all that long ago. But I hope more days like that are coming, and soon. And when they do, I know I’ll cherish them more than anything. You know, I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but God what I’d give to eat at a Grotto’s Pizza right now.