Unexpected Beauty and Heartbreak during a Pandemic

February was supposed to be the start of my new life. I quit a stressful, well-paying job and began a sabbatical, thinking that a pause from work would restore my health and sanity.

Gabriela Frank submitted this story to the Burien Pandemic Story Project, a partnership between the City of Burien and Highline Heritage Museum. The project aims to document the stories, photos, and other artifacts of our community’s experiences during the pandemic. New submissions are still encouraged! Share your own story with curator@highlinehistory.org.

February was supposed to be the start of my new life. I quit a stressful, well-paying job and began a sabbatical, thinking that a pause from work would restore my health and sanity. I had grand plans for this time: I would edit the novel I finished last year and pitch it to agents. I would do things I never had the capacity for, like volunteering, road trips, soul-searching and spending time with my husband. Michael and I bought a house in Burien three years ago and, until I quit my job, I mostly saw it in the dark before and after work, a cycle I wanted to change. By the end of 2020, I hoped to make a career change informed by these experiences.

Taking a break from work at forty-five, the peak of my earning years, felt risky. What if I couldn’t get another job? My fears of financial ruin aside, I knew I could not keep powering through work at a frenetic pace, ignoring its toll on my body, mind, and attention. If I wanted to change my life, I had to invoke a pause. I copied a quote by the author Robert Poynton into my journal, which captured the adventurous spirit of my quest: “A pause allows to happen something that would not otherwise occur, and you never quite know what that will be.”

I did not imagine events unfolding as they have this spring.

Michael and I planned to kick off my sabbatical with a vacation to New Zealand so that I could decompress before diving back into my novel. Instead, we learned during my last week of work that he needed open-heart surgery—five bypasses and a new aortic valve. So began the season of conflicting emotions. We were crushed to see our dream vacation dashed, grateful that Michael’s cardiologist found the blockages in his heart and that they were fixable, afraid he might not survive the seven-hour surgery, and relieved I didn’t have to deal with my job anymore.

On March 1, we read newspaper articles about the spread of coronavirus in Washington. If Michael caught so much as a cold, let alone COVID-19, they wouldn’t perform surgery, so he requested that I stay home from the gym and refrain from taking mass transit. If I got sick, I could infect him, too. The term self-isolate wasn’t yet part of modern parlance, but that’s what we did. Starting that Sunday, we canceled get-togethers with friends, which I had scheduled as loving send-offs before Michael’s surgery. Instead of working out, we walked around our neighborhood, Gregory Heights, and the Des Moines Trail out to the water. We adjusted our plans for life after Michael’s recovery. New Zealand was canceled, but we looked forward to a summer road trip to Walla Walla and Winthrop in July not knowing that this, too, would be canceled.

Cases of coronavirus escalated during the week of Michael’s surgery, yet it was hard to pay attention. We were engrossed in a giant binder of information intended to prepare us for his surgery and aftercare. The next six weeks were a blur. Michael survived surgery—twice—on March 12, a week before they stopped performing elective surgeries in Washington State. His surgeon suspected he was bleeding internally after the operation, so they opened him up again that evening to make sure. After fifteen hours in the hospital, they sent me home. There was nothing I could do but wait and pray. His surgeon called after 9 p.m. to say that Michael was alive and stable, but I found it hard to relax in the good news, knowing it could change. The next morning, I phoned the hospital and learned that visitors were not permitted—it was too risky for Michael’s health and that of other critical patients.

Meanwhile, cases of coronavirus surged on the other hospital floors. Because I wasn’t there to witness his initial recovery, I was unprepared for the frail state in which they sent Michael home five days later. My plans to write dissolved as I assumed the role of caregiver.

The word essential rose alongside social distancing in prominence, in reference to those upon whom we depended—health care workers, people who shopped for and delivered our groceries—and we, too, came to redefine what essential meant at home. Vacations, movies, teeth cleaning, and haircuts were not as important as we imagined. Healthcare, food, and shelter were essential—and time together. As he recovered, Michael began taking ten-minute walks with me outside, working up to longer jaunts each day. We were both thankful he was alive. Period.

Read the full story on the Highline Heritage Museum website.

Gabriela Denise Frank

Gabriela Denise Frank writes essays and fiction exploring the themes of identity, faith, aging, nature, cities, and technology. She lives in Burien’s Gregory Heights neighborhood with her husband, Michael.

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