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A love story, for a second COVID-19 graduation

“This is a love story.”

So begins the second season of one of my favorite shows, "Fleabag." I started rewatching it on Thursday instead of driving to Durham for my makeup-graduation after I tested positive for COVID-19.

In May of 2020, instead of graduating in Durham like I’d planned, I drove to the woods outside my parents’ home in Columbia, SC and read some poems and cried. A few weeks later, I moved into a place called L’Arche, just outside Washington, D.C. L’Arche is an intentional community of people with and without disabilities who share life together. My official job title is Direct Support Professional, or Assistant, meaning I spend my days assisting the four people, whom we call core members, in their daily life activities. As a home, we share meals, celebrations, bathrooms, prayers, dance parties and days together. We center relationships, believing that each one of us is uniquely gifted and valued, and that we all are transformed by our presence with one another. 

On Thursday morning, I woke up, packed a few final things for my trip to Duke, put on my mask and washed my hands. I administered my housemates’ medications, made some toast, checked that the milk hadn’t expired, helped two people brush their teeth, put in a friend’s hearing aids and waved goodbye as a housemate left for his day program. I plunged the toilet that always needs plunging; I sang a song with a friend as he put his shoes on; I helped my friend in the bathroom; I sanitized all the high-touch surfaces in the house; I prepped my notes for a big doctor’s appointment; I logged onto the assistants’ team meeting on Zoom. Just after I logged off and was telling my friend who was working next about the morning’s activities, my phone buzzed with the results from the test I’d taken Wednesday, in advance of returning to Duke. When I saw the word “positive,” I ran out of my house.

If you’d asked me to name my list of worst nightmares on Thursday morning, a scenario in which I had COVID-19 and was showing no symptoms, therefore continuing to work and unknowingly expose each of my high-risk housemates to a virus that could kill them, would probably have been top of the list. And now, it’s happening. I’m quarantining in a basement room while each of the core members I live with are quarantining in their rooms. So far, all of us are feeling fine. In the past 18 months, no core members at L’Arche have tested positive for COVID-19. I keep looking out my little window in the basement and praying that that stays true for the next 10 days, that the vaccines and masks and distancing and testing and hard work done by so many people has been enough to keep my friends safe.

And I keep looking at my phone, seeing my friends gathered together in Durham, and missing them so much that my chest aches.

When the pandemic began, I wrote in The Chronicle that I got lucky and was still really sad. That feels more true as I look out of this basement window than it ever did before. 

I’m sad that my loved ones and I have to be isolated. Sad for all the things we were all looking forward to for the next few weeks to disappear. Sad that my coworkers have a harder job to do now, sad I can’t do anything to make it easier. Sad that it didn’t have to be like this. Sad that so many structures have failed and left my housemates vulnerable and isolated for far longer than these ten days. Sad that I did everything I could to keep my beloved community safe despite these failing structures and it still wasn’t enough.

Of course, I’m also sad to miss not one, but two college graduations. Sad not to be hugging anyone for the next ten days, let alone my sweet Duke friends, some of whom I haven’t seen since we left for spring break in March of 2020.

And I’m so lucky. Lucky to have gotten tested when I did -- makeup-graduation happened to be this weekend, and I happened to get tested beforehand and the test happened to come back sooner than it could have. Lucky I have so far had no symptoms, and lucky my close contacts haven’t either. Lucky to have had access to vaccines that have saved our lives more times than I’ll ever know. Lucky I didn’t come to graduation and hug so many people whose lives would be as uprooted by a positive test as mine is. Lucky to live in a house where I can have a separate room and bathroom. Lucky to work in a place with enough PPE and staff and food and medicine. Lucky to live in a time where we have tests and masks and contact tracers and disinfectant and Facetime and libraries and streaming services and fuzzy socks and donut holes. 

Lucky to live in a place where my housemates will leave mountains of snacks by my door and talk to me through my window. Lucky to live in a place where we care so much for one another that all of us will change our lives over and over again to keep one another safe. 

Lucky to have gone to school with some of the most remarkable humans on earth. Lucky to have learned and grown and been changed by them. Lucky to have loved and been loved so well that missing them brings me to tears. Lucky that missing a weekend together does not mean they are no longer my family.

I was an English major, so I know a love story when I see one. I used to think that my Duke story ended when COVID-19 hit, and my classmates and I never returned. But to say that would be to overlook all the ways that the people I loved at Duke have continued to shape and nourish and support me for the past 18 months. It would overlook the way that the people I met at Duke taught me to love, and how that ability to love has made all of the terror and loss of this past year at L’Arche worth it.

If the story ended in March of 2020, or in May of 2020 or even this Sunday when my friends finally throw their caps in the air without me, how would I have known how it feels every time my screen has lit up with their beloved faces, even now? Or how comforting it is to hear their voices through the phone? Or how full I felt in the moments when we gave each other air hugs from six feet away in one another’s yards? Or how good it felt, finally, to give real hugs when we finally had our vaccines? Or how the birthdays and new jobs and engagements and acceptances and little victories we’ve celebrated, the people and opportunities and diagnoses and relationships we’ve grieved, have all taught me to be more human? How would I have known that my heart could feel broken by the weight of the world and still so full of love for it all?

In Fleabag, a character says that “when you find somebody that you love, it feels like hope.”

This is a love story. I know the best part is yet to come.

Liddy Grantland is a member of the Class of 2020. Her Chronicle columns from the 2019-2020 school year will be published in a book titled "Flesh and Bones: Learning to Love this Body," published by the Resource Center for Women & Ministry in the South, out late fall of 2021.

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