One year later

Roxanne Cooke
7 min readMar 22, 2021

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Sunset in Long Beach, Washington

One year into the global coronavirus pandemic, I read a New York Times newsletter that summarized the past 12 months.

In a section about the switch to remote work, it read: “Leaving the office happened so fast that we didn’t have time to say goodbye — to our work friends, to our work plants.”

I paused, reflecting. I didn’t get goodbyes, either. But I left the office before lockdown.

Two weeks before the “official” start of the pandemic — March 11, 2020 — I was laid off suddenly and unexpectedly from my job of nearly five years. It was my first layoff. My network access was revoked in an instant, with no chance to wrap up projects or save files. I packed my desk hastily into boxes while my heart hammered, adrenaline and shock the only fuel I had. It was a Friday and most of my colleagues weren’t around.

My work plants came home with me, but the buds on my orchid snapped off in the process of cramming my entire work life — now former work life — into my car trunk. It felt like a fitting metaphor.

If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I likely would have gotten a new job fairly quickly. I had two promising leads immediately after the layoff, but both roles were eventually put on hold — indefinitely — as the pandemic stripped away all normalcy and businesses tightened their budgets, preparing for layoffs and furloughs and who knew what else, at the time.

Instead, I stumbled into a contract writing role for the local health department, which was serendipitous timing, really, since it was exactly the kind of work I would have been doing had I not been laid off. I had previously been writing and managing content for a health system, which was in emergency mode, all hands on deck to deliver messaging about COVID-19. While I hunkered down with the health department writing about whether it was still safe to eat in restaurants, I knew my former colleagues were doing similar work.

Bet they wish they hadn’t laid me off now! I couldn’t help feeling a bit smug. But then my former manager, who had been laid off alongside me, was asked to come back to help fill the gap, leaving me to grapple with confusing feelings. Not to mention, the contract work was immensely stressful. On top of processing grief and anger about my layoff, I found myself in a new environment with new people all dealing with a crisis together — and it was in person at first, too.

Trauma on top of trauma. Here’s the part where I acknowledge that many people had it much worse than I did. People who contracted and later died from the virus. Families grappling with the sudden switch to remote work and remote school. Health care workers and other essential workers forced to endure daily exposure and witness the worst of it all — and this was before we all wore masks.

But for me it felt like the universe was piling on. Think you’ve had enough? Think again!

By the time my contract with the health department ended, about two months later, I was desperate for a break. I needed time and space to do some processing — a luxury I realize many still do not have. My one refuge was near-daily walks with a local friend and the photos I’d capture of spring flowers and neighborhood cats. At first, we walked far apart, but eventually started wearing masks.

Late spring and summer 2020 are a blur, but I’m certain at the time I felt every grueling moment. Wake up, struggle to remember what day it was, feed the cats, make too much coffee, plant myself on the couch, catch up on the latest pandemic news, stare out the window, put on a sitcom for some lightness and distraction, then eventually go to my desk and apply for jobs, check on my unemployment claim, and count down how many days I had left on my employer-sponsored health insurance.

I’d develop routines that would keep me focused for a time before something would throw me off and I’d sink into depression again. My birthday came and went. I dyed my hair pink. I participated in early quarantine trends: baking, “Tiger King,” TikTok. I went to therapy, sitting 6 feet away from my therapist on her patio. I spent far too much time on social media, sharing petitions and donation links and wanting so much to do something, anything to be of use.

When I had bursts of motivation, I completed house projects I’d put off for months. One day I drove 90 minutes away from my home in Tacoma, Washington, to the Olympic peninsula town Sequim. I walked around for a few minutes, stared at the water, then drove all the way back home. I submitted countless job applications and cover letters and scored many screening calls and interviews but dealt with rejection after rejection.

The endless days of unemployment dragged on. Daily walks with my friend slowly tapered off as summer wound down. We drove to the ocean one August evening for sunset, a magical day I think about often. We flew a kite. Took photos. I played songs from “folklore” on repeat from my phone. It felt like an escape, a release, a small bit of joy to cling onto.

Then the wildfires and smoke came. We were suddenly stuck inside when the only refuge during the pandemic had been the outdoors. I obsessively checked the air quality index and routinely looked out the window hoping for improvement. I double-masked if I had to go outside, not realizing that would become a pandemic norm months later.

Finally, reprieve. The smoke parted. Summer was ending, but we saw blue sky for a short time once more. Then grad school started.

I had applied for my program back in February, when COVID-19 hadn’t even been named yet. I was accepted in March and remember the mixed feelings of gratitude and uncertainty.

But by the time fall quarter started in late September, school was a welcome distraction from unemployment. I poured all my energy and focus into my classes and was grateful to interact with other humans, even if it was all over Zoom.

By the end of October I was working again. It was another contract role, but in an entirely different industry, and the work had nothing to do with COVID.

I dove in. I had purpose again. I appreciated the novelty of working and of being in school again. I worked and did homework during the day, attended class at night, and relaxed and took care of housework on the weekends.

But time passed, and the monotony sank in, as it already had for many folks who had been doing this since March 2020. The novelty was gone. And it was winter.

Out of nowhere, I took up cross-stitch. I purchased a pandemic-inspired kit for a pattern proclaiming in all caps “Wear a [expletive] mask” and got to work. It was an exercise in shedding my perfectionism. I made mistakes but pressed on, for once learning by doing instead of needing to know everything before I even started. I enjoyed the process instead of getting preoccupied with the outcome.

I quickly finished the piece, then immediately ordered more supplies and started another. And another. By February I was dreaming up my own patterns to stitch as gifts and received a free kit in the mail from a company that saw my work on social media.

The cross-stitch got me through winter, but it was still rough. My cycles of depression, followed by hypomania, followed once again by depression seemed to be finding a rhythm, spaced closer together. One day, full of energy and hope, I’d KonMari my closet or spend hours on a cross-stitch project. The next, I’d be sunk into the couch napping the afternoon away and overindulging from my supply of snacks, all the while trying not to think about the pandemic weight I’d gained.

And just like that, I passed the one-year “anniversary” of my layoff. My second term of grad school came to an end. The weather started improving. The news turned more positive. I began to see the so-called light at the end of the tunnel.

I watched a presidential prime-time address and didn’t feel absolute disgust and rage and fear. Instead, I cried, feeling hopeful, some of the doubt fading, my whole demeanor softening.

I had barely been able to cry this past year, too shell-shocked, not to mention numbed out by monotony. But something opened up in me this past month and suddenly I couldn’t stop crying. My emotions spilled out of me and I felt my toughened exterior give way to vulnerability once more. I was grieving, truly grieving, because I could finally see beyond my current circumstances.

And then, totally impulsively, I woke up one Friday morning and decided to book a one-night stay at the coast that very same night. My heart was racing as I made the reservation over the phone. I shouldn’t be spending this money but I desperately want a getaway. I can stay in my room most of the time or be outdoors away from people.

I worked a few hours, threw my clothes in a bag, told a friend where I was going, then drove three hours to the coast. I arrived just in time for sunset.

Just like that August trip to the coast, it felt like a perfectly timed escape. I savored every moment and felt restored.

When I drove home the next afternoon, I blared my music, rolled down my windows, and felt some stress wash away. My problems weren’t suddenly resolved, but I got the peace and calm I had been seeking.

After a long year and a long winter, I am admittedly still processing. I am still skittish and full of doubt. Yet I am also brimming with hope and longing for what comes next. My orchid has even bloomed again.

Pink orchids in bloom

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Roxanne Cooke

Roxanne is a storyteller, writer, editor and photographer based in Tacoma, WA.