Our family came home early from a spring-break vacation in the Dominican Republic when Covid-19 was declared a pandemic in March, 2020. I don’t regret the decision to return, but it wasn’t an easy one. It was a first pandemic for everyone, after all, so there were no guidelines to follow beyond the CDC’s, and they didn’t know what was going on either.
We landed in New York, dazed and confused, one half hour after then-President Trump had advised all travelers overseas in Europe to head home. If we’d waited any longer, we would have returned to an airport teeming with people and Covid in way-too-close quarters. We counted ourselves lucky.
Two years passed.
In March 2022, my spouse, young adult daughter, and I tried again: a last spring recess before our daughter heads off to college. We stayed domestic and traveled to Puerto Rico for our do-over. The days leading up to the trip felt like slowly and gradually waking up after a long, bad dream. In the school I serve, Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School, we learned that, after spring recess, masks would become optional in many places on our campus. We would be able to resume singing in worship.
Of course, I was excited about that to which I might return after break. I headed off on vacation with an unfamiliar emotion I might now label “anticipatory relief”. But just like an injury that was at-first numb from shock, the beginnings of relief also came with stabs of deferred pain.
The day before we departed, I chatted with a dear colleague. Amidst casual conversation, I asked him how “Jeff” was doing, as I’d remembered “Jeff” — my friend’s boss and an acquaintance of mine — had retired. “Jeff died,” said my friend, incredulously, not realizing I hadn’t known. Jeff had evidently died of Covid-19 shortly after retiring, more than a year earlier. Stunned, I had to ask twice more: “Jeff died? Jeff died?” I wondered just how many reports like these I’d start hearing as we emerge.
If the “Jeff Died” news woke me up, the Puerto Rico pause helped me to prepare for the more pervasive waking-up to come. I feel immensely privileged to have had it. First, it gave our family space for rest and togetherness. Second, it gave me a step back to assess where I am in my own arc of returning to something like normal spiritually, emotionally, and even logistically. Third, Puerto Rico was the right place to do that healing work, because healing is what we witnessed in the land and people we encountered.
We felt good about supporting tourism in Puerto Rico after the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017. I’ll never forget watching that storm’s impact and aftermath on the news with my former student and current colleague, Puerto Rico’s own Abner Cotto-Bonilla, from the YDS Refectory. He showed me footage on his phone where I thought I was looking at a parking lot, and I was… but then I saw that cars weren’t rolling, but floating. Everything was under water.
While in Puerto Rico on vacation, I engaged in a simple practice whenever in-conversation with those making our stay delightful: when asked if I had any questions, I brought up the hurricane and asked the person how they got through it. Eyes lit up when I did, as stories of resilience abounded, and people appreciated being asked to testify to it. I learned that the hotel where we were staying had been flooded and had closed down for months. Although no one we met reported losing loved ones, everyone but everyone had lost their routines, stability, and senses of security.
Some Christians struggle with the idea of resurrection, the same way they might struggle with the notion of a virgin birth. Familiar with Greek mythology prevalent around the time stories of Jesus were first written down, they might wonder if “miracles” surrounding birth and life-after-death were just how storytellers emphasized a character’s specialness.
I’ve had my own moments of doubt about water being turned into wine, and fish jumping into nets at Jesus’ command. And really, I could care less if Mary was a virgin; I would understand Jesus to be no less of-God if she hadn’t been. What I don’t doubt is resurrection. When life seems to be over, it finds a way around obstacles the way water moves around rocks in a river. It might change course, or even dry up for a time. But then the rains come, and water returns, as does life.
Now that the pandemic seems to be moving into an endemic phase, with outbreaks still likely or even inevitable, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for us to think about how we’re going to grieve. Our world has gone through two years of sadness, with millions dying, but we’ve experienced losses gradually; not all-of-a-sudden. In a smaller yet significant way, Puerto Rico experienced the acute shock of a storm, followed by longer suffering; it’s emerging, verdant and redolent. All around the island one hears stories of resurrection.
We have reasons to weep. The first day of chapel after our health officials had lifted restrictions on singing, our community sang “Holy, Holy, Holy.” I didn’t realize how much I’d missed belting out hymns until my tears started to flow with the music… right into my mask, which was kind of gross. We’ve suffered losses of normalcy, community, and people we loved. We’ve lost trivial things like vacations, and we’ve lost that which was important, such as people like “Jeff.”
The grief of a person who believes in resurrection is manageable, even meaningful, because it takes place against a backdrop of trust that whether sooner or later, life will press back up out of the ground. It couldn’t stay buried if we wanted it to. That doesn’t mean life’s return is without pain. On the contrary: the pain we actually allow ourselves to feel, trusting the realness of resurrection, hurts like hell.
As life slowly reemerges, we must hold each other in tenderness and love. The pain that we had to numb to get through long days will prickle, like pins-and-needles in a limb that was once asleep. We can’t be asleep anymore; we have a lot of work to do. We can take courage in and from those who are further down the road to recovery, reminding us that resurrection isn’t just another miracle, but a way of life.