Navigating the long road back to normal

*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on March 14, 2021. An image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.

His nametag said “Dakotah,” and his help was like winning a little lottery. It was one of those pandemic days when the walls get tighter and the ceilings feel closer. Then Dakotah swooped in with a lightning bolt of normal, something I’d almost forgotten after a really rough year. 

I had piled our girls in the truck and pointed West, turned the ignition, and…nothing. Dead battery. Dead as dead gets. After I jump-started the car, with the kids in back, we went straight to the auto supply store and paid for a new battery. The guy behind the counter heaved the heavy black battery up on the counter. He then gathered some tools to lend me to put it in place (and take out the useless one). 

I resembled the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Lugging that big battery tilted me off-center, and when I exited the store, I saw I wasn’t the only thing that had gone sideways. 

It was the classic parenting moment. I walked into a firefight between two kids arguing over something they’d forget five minutes later. They’re somehow worse in cars because the confined space increases the intensity. A cage match for kids. 

But I had a battery to put in the car. So recognizing I couldn’t do both, I decided to ask for help. Like a well-trained parent, I checked for open wounds and excess blood, and seeing none, walked back into the store and admitted I needed a hand.

That’s when Dakotah walked on stage. Mother Teresa couldn’t have been more helpful. Not only did he get the battery installed, enabling me to keep a lid on the kids, he even produced a brush from his superhero tool-belt to wipe away the previous corrosion, a detail I’m sure I would have missed. (The kids, seeing someone with Dad, took the social cue to straighten up a bit.)

Most important was the small talk. The chit-chat that comes with human retail experiences. I told him I liked his watch. He pointed out that he’d made the leather band himself. He told me he enjoys trail-riding motorcycles down in southern Colorado. I offered that, as a family we’re planning on camping down that way this summer. 

A year ago, this interaction would have been routine. Nothing special. Tuesday.

But after this year, with over half a million Americans killed in a global pandemic, Colorado itself having lost more people than the entire population of Manitou Springs—this was something remarkable. 

It reminded me of before. It reminded me of normal.

It was just a moment, and afterwards we headed out West. As we pulled on to Highway 24, I thought more about that glimpse, how much farther on the road we have to go, and the ways we might get sidetracked. 

None of us had a say in starting this awful virus, but now we all get to put a nail in its coffin. All we have to do is take our shots and wear our masks. It’s amazing if you think about it. In the old days, we humans were helpless against viruses and pandemics. The Black Death, the Great Influenza, and the rest of misery’s catalog of horrible infectious diseases like smallpox, cholera, and Ebola. 

Not only that, think about how far we’ve come since those bad old days. The previous record for vaccine development was four years. Four. Today’s scientists, doctors, and pharmaceutical companies cut that down to less than one year, all without skipping a single step on the safety checklist. 

But instead of the big successes, sometimes it’s better to focus on the small stuff to find meaning.

For me, while driving past bison, snowy flats, and with 14ers on the horizon—I recognized that few minutes of help from Dakotah is the end goal here. 

Really, it’s three-in-one. We’re all people. We all have lives, we all want to be social with others, and we all want to get back to work. 

At this point, it doesn’t matter if you care more to save lives, or our social lives, or another person’s job or business as part of our economy. The only way to do that is to go get your vaccine and wear your mask, and you’ll get all three.

The road to normal’s been long, but we’re on it. Now it’s up to us whether we make it all the way back. 

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