In recent weeks, my kids’ bedtimes have edged backwards to the point that it is rare for either of them to be asleep before 9 p.m. They are typically getting up each morning by around 7:30 or 7:45 a.m., which means they are still getting plenty of sleep, just on an altered schedule. I realized the other day that as a family we have shifted back, more or less, to Standard Time schedules. If we had not changed the clocks in March, the hours they are keeping now would be equivalent to going to bed around 8 p.m. and getting up around 6:45 a.m., which would make sense for school schedules. This presumption, of course, ignores the regulating influence of virtual school schedules and other routines, and a tendency that runs in my family to be night owls (i.e. even on Standard Time we might be staying up later and sleeping in these days).
But still, in spite of my family’s general restlessness because of social distancing, I can’t help noticing that our altered sleep rhythms seem to be more in tune with nature and that, while I am noticeably fatigued as a result of juggling so many things at home, I am not as tired as I usually am at this time of year. I am not alone in noting the silver linings of living at this time, such as clearer skies, and more time to be with loved ones, and it turns out that slowing down our pace is helping my family recalibrate our sleep cycles in beneficial ways.
I know that it is more than a little preposterous to think that this experience will lead directly to changes in Daylight Saving Time policies, but I am hopeful that, along with evaluating our impact on the environment, this time will give us pause to consider how living in tune with nature’s rhythms can physically be better for us..
It’s the first week of May, which means we are getting close to Mother’s Day, to be followed soon by Memorial Day Weekend and graduation season, not to mention the Jewish holiday of Shavuous. Normally at this time of year, the weather is becoming reliably warm, and we become more carefree as our thoughts turn to celebrations and vacations. But this year is different.
In addition to not having public gatherings, the weather this week is unseasonably cold, with a chance of snow in the forecast for later this week. It’s like nature is adding insult to injury as we slog through this. But that’s if we take a very narrow view of things.
The 1918 flu pandemic killed an estimated 675,000 Americans. That was at a time when the U.S. population was around 103 million. Today, there are more than 330 million Americans, and, as of this writing, the projected death toll for COVID-19 is estimated at 135,000. (More than 70,000 Americans have already died from the disease.) The difference in the death toll may be a reflection of the severity of either illness, but also demonstrates the advancements of science and medicine.
First of all, it is deeply tragic that so many people are dying from this illness (more than the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War), and we need to continue doing our part to make sure that the numbers don’t go even higher than that.
However, as harrowing and difficult as this experience is for all of us, it is reassuring that the benefits of modern medicine and technology, while not able to completely protect us from contagious disease, are doing a lot to slow the spread and help those who are ill to recover.
A combination of improved hygiene, better nutrition, vaccines, and better treatment for chronic medical conditions help us in 2020 to be more resilient to illness. Scientific knowledge and the generally widespread access to cleaning products (despite the shortage of disinfecting wipes!) help us to prevent the spread of illness, and Internet connections and video conferencing allow us to do work safely from home that we could not have accomplished even a few years ago. These advances clearly are not enough to completely stop this virus, or to prevent devastating economic consequences for millions of Americans, but they go a long way in helping us in general.
If we had to be hit by a pandemic, right now in history is an easier time to deal with it than any time before now. Until recent decades, humanity was accustomed to dealing with waves of deadly infectious disease every few years. Until this spring, we had forgotten what that was like, but it turns out, we are vulnerable in ways most of us never considered.
In 2020, we are isolated at home, and scared for the future, much like people were in 1918, but we have the benefits of rapidly advancing medical research that is saving lives. Right now is a really difficult time, one that most of us never imagined would happen in our lifetimes. However, our great-grandparents survived in a world where this happened all the time. We should recognize how fortunate we truly are, and learn to never take the absence of illness for granted again.
To build upon yesterday’s thoughts, I don’t in any way want to imply that we are “lucky” that 70,000 Americans have already died from this illness, and many more are expected to die. The mass casualties of this illness have been devastating, and the trauma of coping with loss and fear during this time will reverberate for many years. What is going on right now is not to be taken lightly. COVID-19 is a vile disease that has struck in unpredictable and swift ways, leaving families bereaved around the world. We are simply “lucky” to have better tools to manage this disease than were available in 1918. (And, truth be told, many of the lessons learned from 1918 provide the best guidelines for how to deal with COVID-19 since the world has not seen a pandemic of this magnitude for more than 100 years.)
I only met one of my great-grandparents, because the rest died before I was born. In my younger years I didn’t spend much time thinking of them, but I find myself increasingly connected to them. One hundred years ago, my great-grandparents had school-aged children, as I do now. They were young adults, younger than I am now, with the responsibility for managing large households without modern conveniences. They lived at a time of World Wars and great societal change. They had resilience and strength, ambition and determination.
In spite of the difficulties of life at that time, they also had incredible joy and optimism, and their love of life and family is what is recalled most clearly by my parents’ generation, who knew them in the waning years of their lives.
Thinking about my great-grandparents now gives me a lot of hope for the future. Despite the hardness of life, they persevered and lived happy lives. This gives me hope that we will too.
When I was 37 years old, I had surgery to remove a benign thyroid nodule. Such nodules are quite common, and are not usually cancerous. My gynecologist, who discovered the nodule during an exam when I was 35, and ordered an ultrasound to get a closer look, told me that it was unlikely to be cancerous. However, she sent me to a general surgeon for a needle biopsy.
The surgeon, for whom I have enormous respect, grew stern when I told him my gynecologist told me the nodule was probably not cancerous. He would not offer such a blanket reassurance without performing a biopsy and knowing for sure what I was facing. I knew that he was right, but this shook me up. For the first time in my life, I realized that there was a possibility that I could have a serious illness. (Fortunately, thyroid cancer has a very low mortality rate and is less complicated to treat than many cancers. But still, cancer is scary.)
The needle biopsy came back negative. No cancer. But I continued to see the surgeon every six months to a year to monitor the nodule. When it grew, he told me it was time to surgically remove it. The removed nodule would also be examined for cancer cells. The surgery involved an overnight stay in the hospital and a week-long recovery at home.
I was very lucky that the biopsy showed no cancer cells in the nodule, and I healed from the surgery and went on with my life. I have looked back on that experience with gratitude for the opportunity to contemplate, in a very real way, the fragility of my own life. Several weeks after my first meeting with the surgeon and the needle biopsy, I learned I was pregnant with my second child. I thought often during that pregnancy and the early months of my son’s life that I was so fortunate to enjoy these milestones without the complication of a cancer diagnosis. My son was 18 months old when I had the surgery, and he came with me to my follow-up appointment a couple of weeks later. The blessings of my life had never been clearer.
I’ve been looking back on this experience now, when all over the world we are dealing with the possibility of illness and the spectre of death in chilling ways. Usually we go through life without contemplating our mortality, but really none of us knows who among us will be alive from one day to the next. One benefit of this very difficult time is the opportunity to truly consider the blessing and fragility of life, the time of whose end is unknown for all of us.