Let’s Brace Ourselves for the New (Old) Normal

Illustration by Draden Ferguson

Confession: It’s been over a year since I’ve had my teeth cleaned. Let’s blame it on COVID and not the fact that I hate going to the dentist. Or at least, I thought I hated it.

During my first routine check-up in over a year, I plopped myself down in the dental chair. The dental assistant prepared my x-ray, and the sun shined through the leaves outside. It was nice to see a different view from the one at my kitchen table, where I work all day. I inhaled the plastic smell of fluoride and dental equipment and exhaled my anxious thoughts: the bill sitting at my desk. The cat food I needed to order. The text message I forgot to reply to five days ago. The dental assistant asked me to bite down on the little piece of x-ray film, and I was soothed. Yes, it hurt when the film dug into my lower jaw, but it hurt so good. The light beeps of the x-ray machine almost lulled me into a nap.

When my dentist arrived, I asked her a million questions. Does she like the new office? Has she been busy? Does she live close by? Before I can ask for her Social Security number, she tells me to open my mouth and lie back. I close my eyes like it’s a massage. This is what a year of quarantine does to a person: It makes a dentist appointment feel like the spa.

It’s not just the human contact and gentle touch of the latex gloves against my cracked lips. It’s the routine of it all: the light chatter of coworkers, the packaged dental equipment that lay neatly on the tray table in front of me, the new insurance card I hand over to the receptionist. I’d gotten so used to this new way of life — in isolation, on edge — that I’d forgotten what everyday life was like before COVID. It’s exciting to think that by summer, we might be able to travel, see friends, celebrate. It’s also exciting to think about the return to a mundane world full of dentist appointments and waiting in line.

Last April, just a month or so after the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, I drove to the grocery store to pick up ingredients for a baking project. When I got there, I realized I’d left my mask at home. “This is our world now,” I texted a friend. “‘Oops, I forgot my mask at the grocery store!’ is a totally normal thing to say now.” I had to document the ordinary absurdity of it all, the way life felt like a boring apocalypse. Zoom game nights with friends. Street vendors selling hand sanitizer and masks. Restaurant signs with clever quips like, “Hey COVID, get the fork out of here!” Soon enough, we all got used to it.

If only masks and puns were all we had to get used to. The first time I heard about someone who died from COVID, my mother told me her colleague had contracted it and passed away, days later. My mom was considered an essential worker, which basically meant her managers didn’t know how to set everyone up to do their jobs remotely. As her department waded through politics to figure out what their new normal would be, the virus made its way through the office, infecting lots of workers and eventually killing one of them. I thought about what I would do if it if happened to her, and I could feel the rage surge through my body. For many people I know, that rage is real. Friends have lost parents, grandparents, loved ones. If you didn’t lose someone you care about to COVID, chances are, someone you care about did. Globally, 2.6 million people have died, but how many more are still recovering, grieving, struggling? In the past year, loss has become the new normal.

2020 (and beyond) felt senseless and chaotic, a true testament to how little control any of us really have. It underscored so many inequities within our economy and healthcare systems. It showed just how inhumanely we treat other human beings. Systematically, there’s a lot to be done. But I’ve been wondering what to do individually. As we enter a post-pandemic world, what do I want to take with me? Is there anything to take at all? The only thing I can think of is an appreciation for every moment — even the mundane, routine ones I never considered could be taken away.

As I sit and wait for my x-rays to process, I get a text message from my best friend. It’s a photo of her first vaccination shot. “I can’t wait to see you again!” she says. I think about how long we’ve gone without a hug, without watching bad reality shows in the same room, without driving home together in silence, exhausted from a long road trip. Immediately, I text her back. “It’s going to be the best.”

Kristin Wong has written for the New York Times, The Cut, ELLE, Travel + Leisure, and Glamour magazine.

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