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Illustration by Winnie T. Frick

Rachel Jansen lives and writes in Vancouver.

On March 9, I danced with three of my best friends at a local bar, chasing tequila shots with pineapple juice because they had run out of limes. At 1 a.m., the bar’s lights came on and we walked 20 minutes to another bar in the area, not wanting the night to end. We bundled our hair off our sweaty necks, and shuffled our feet on the sticky floor, strobe lights blitzing around us. Most remarkable to me now is that we hugged each other. We grabbed each other’s arms, we hooked elbows. We bumped into other dancers and apologized, not for touching them, but for getting in the way of their groove. We handed bartenders cash and had them drop the change directly into our hands. I left first because I had work in the morning at a glasses store. I stumbled into my boyfriend’s room, pressed my face between his shoulders and fell asleep, worrying only about my hangover the following day.

On March 13, my sister told me over the phone that a friend of hers had been stocking up at a grocery store in Toronto when a gun was pulled over a dispute about toilet paper (it turns out the incident had nothing to do with hoarding toilet paper). At this point, social distancing was still only required of people who had travelled recently, were sick, or had been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, but the contagion of fear was already starting to spread. By March 15, I went on a hike with my boyfriend and the few people we met on the trail swerved to avoid us, and us them. By March 17, all restaurants and bars officially closed. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau implored citizens to stay home; soon after, playgrounds were wrapped in caution tape. Laid off from my part-time job, I spent two whole days bingeing TV shows and internally chastising actors on them for getting too close, or gathering in numbers too big, before remembering.

We rarely ever know when we’ll be doing something for the last time. There are some markers, of course. Ceremonies meant to commemorate this divide between Before and After. Birthdays, graduations, weddings. But often this cleaving happens without our awareness, and it’s only afterward that we pinpoint, with a particular kind of heartache, that last time we did something. The last time we rode in the back seat of our parents’ car. The last time we kissed an ex. The last time we saw a loved one before they died. Always, at least for me, when these unmarked bifurcations pass, there’s an instinct to reprimand myself. For not savouring the moment more while it was happening. For not knowing it was happening while it was happening. Why did I leave the bar before my friends? Was an hour more of sleep really more valuable? But doing so is difficult; we can be more mindful, more fully tuned into the present moment, but to always treat each moment as though it may be the last is to be constantly nostalgic for the present.

Like many people right now, I’m trying to make sense out of this pandemic. It’s hard right now to not see everything before March 10 as Before and everything else as After. I think, in many ways, it’s the truth. This pandemic will inexorably and indelibly change the way we move and think. It will affect our economy, our autonomy, our environment, our memory. Like a war, we will recount to children and grandchildren the days when we had to stay six feet apart from people, even our own family, especially our own family, for months.

Death is coming for us. It always has been, its trajectory only more acute now than it was before, careening all the more rapidly toward what and whom we love. And with that cold slap of mortality comes a certain kind of mental acuity, which is I think what people are talking about when they talk about how much less anxious they’ve been during self-isolation than they were before. Even with the job uncertainty. Even knowing how strained the medical system is. Even hearing about friends of friends becoming critically ill. Because what matters, what really matters, comes into focus during a crisis such as this. And it isn’t gaining prestige, or making more money, or getting more followers; it’s connecting with loved ones, resting, helping where we can.

While there is a level of lamentation about creature comforts – coffee from an actual coffee shop, a good workout class, a movie in an actual theatre – it occurs to me that even in all these scenarios, what people miss most are other people. Sitting with a steaming cup of chai, another patron working quietly beside you. A movie made better by a communal laugh or cry. When I look back on that night out dancing with my friends, I don’t miss the tequila, or the music, or even the feeling of being out at the bar. I miss being able to be by my friends; to walk close enough to them to feel the heat off their body, to hold their hands while we giggle and twirl. I’m trying not to berate myself for not knowing this would be the last time I’d see my friends for a while; instead this pandemic has reminded me what it feels like to miss them, so that I don’t take them for granted in the future.

Evidence of the effects of this collective clarity is continuously being chronicled these days. Crime is down. Social connection is up. Socialism is in. But every surge of optimism is met with a sobering reminder of how many deaths are occurring, how many jobs lost, how many lives changed.

Much to the disappointment of Hallmark cards and Instagram hashtags, we can’t actually live each moment like it’s our last. It’s just not a sustainable way to live. But we can look back, to remember and recalibrate. We know, thanks to scientists and epidemiologists and health-care officials and politicians, that things are going to get worse. They are going to get worse and then, improbably, inevitably, they will start to get better again. We won’t be able to track the paradigm shift as it’s happening, of course; won’t be able to know which day will be the last day we fear COVID-19. But, looking back, we’ll be able to pinpoint it, that last day we felt afraid – afraid for not only ourselves, but also everyone around us – and we need to remember what we felt, and how we treated one another, our time, our resources, and yes, the Earth, because of it.

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