2020 was supposed to be the best year of our lives. Enter Pandemic. Suddenly, we were living a nightmare, but for my family, the hell was yet to unleash. It happened a few days before Easter, when we were expecting it the least, and it forever changed our course. One year later, as we draw the line and see what’s left of us, I’m still struggling to understand how, despite all of it, we managed to count so many blessings.
The following is a personal story of my family.
I’m bleeding these words from my fingers to try and make better sense of the changes we’ve been through. I’m hoping it to serve me as a reminder of the precious lessons I’ve learned during the most challenging year we’ve lived.
If you’re reading this and feel inspired to review your gratitude reasons from the past year, even better. As M.J. Ryan said,
Gratitude is like a flashlight. It lights up what is already there.
And I don’t mind helping you turn on that flashlight. So here we go. We were supposed to rule the world in 2020. But the world had other plans.
The world entered in lockdown and ruled us instead
In March 2020, when the pandemic hit my country, my husband and I were making a living from his small IT firm and an even smaller vacation rental business with four tiny studios we had in Bucharest.
At the end of 2018, we had our first baby, and that’s when I stepped aside from the day-to-day management of the short-term rentals. My husband was pretty much the one-man-show in both businesses. I was the one-woman-show at home, with our baby, and only kept the rentals’ PR side as the contact person for all the tourists who booked our studios.
The small IT firm was doing okay. My husband was keeping up with the studios’ management and maintenance. He was totaling up to 6 hours of work each day, from Monday to… Sunday.
I was spending between 2 and 3 hours a day ensuring communication with the tourists. To me, it was a Monday to Sunday thing, with availability at pretty much any hour of the day or night. Other than that, I took a break from my freelancing career, dedicating myself to raising our little boy.
My parents lived with us, my dad working as a programmer, and my mom on early retirement. My father-in-law had his household, where he lived alone, 100km away from Bucharest, providing us organic foods for our son who had multiple food intolerances.
Those were the days! Or so we thought
As the first COVID-19 cases were diagnosed in our city, people started to freak out. Many of the Romanians working in Italy flocked back home right before the first lockdown began in Lombardy around the 21st of February. And seeing the horrors happening in the Italian medical system, our local authorities were preparing to initiate a premature lockdown here as well.
Tourists began to cancel their travels. Our bookings were going down the drain. By the 24th of March, when the lockdown became our reality, we had no one staying in our studios. The ones who booked for March have all canceled their reservations. Within the next two to three weeks, so did the ones who were supposed to come in April. The bookings for May were still standing, and we were naively hoping things will get back to normal within one or two months, and we will be able to resume our activity.
Meanwhile, my husband had no clients for his IT firm either, as they have all switched to working from home, where they didn’t need him to service their computers and network equipment.
The quarantine was drawing the curtain over our entire country, our two businesses, and our life. In the first half of March, we’ve seen both our income streams gone with the wind. To think that, due to our previously productive activity, we had some cash set aside would be an overstatement.
Only one month before, we’ve pulled out all our savings to get rid of the significant debt we’ve made in the spring of 2019. Back then, we used our savings and a 10k loan from my sister to buy our fourth studio and skyrocket our rental business. Now, we’ve used our savings and paid the loan, right before we got to watch our business landing square on its backside with the full force of the pandemic gravity.
We were free of debts but also free of savings. Free of business, entering the pandemic free to starve. The joys of this new freedom were about to open up in front of us — I kid you not!
But first, life was planning on slapping us one more time.
Bad news comes at dawn
It was Tuesday, 14th of April, five days before Easter, at 7.23 PM. My phone buzzed, and the WhatsApp notification that was about to shatter our world popped on the screen.
It was a message from my husband, with a 13'54" audio file and two short sentences: Can you come down? Now.
He called me from upstairs, where I was playing with our child.
When I got downstairs in the living room, he was on the phone with our GP, talking about a seizure.
Meanwhile, I played the record and could barely make sense of a conversation he had with his father only a few minutes ago.
My father-in-law had an accident at home and was hardly coherent. The GP prompted us to call for an ambulance. When the doctors arrived at his home, they’ve stabilized him and recommended further investigations for a brain seizure. He was feeling better, though he was in no state to be left alone.
The next morning, my husband filled the paperwork that would justify him getting out of the house and went to do the groceries for us, so we won’t have to get out of the house anytime soon. Then, he filled another statement for traveling outside the city during the lockdown, kissed the baby and me on the forehead, and left.
We didn’t know at the time, but we weren’t going to see him for the next three weeks until the 5th of May.
His father went into surgery on the 21st of April, then moved in with us, and the next two months were a series of nerve-wracking medical investigations for him. We could no longer leave him on his own, and my husband had to accompany him to all doctor appointments and take care of him at home.
We were unexpectedly six souls living under the same roof, with an atomic toddler and an adult that needed more care and hand-holding than a baby. Meanwhile, the pandemic wasn’t going anywhere.
“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” — Max Planck
Not knowing when we’ll safely rent our studios for tourists again, and with the uncertainty of what his father’s illness would bring us, we decided to try the long-term rental. We, and all the other homeowners in town…
So “trying” was just another word for “struggling”. The pandemic stopped people from coming to Bucharest for better jobs. The Universities were holding online classes, and many of those who had previously rented their properties to tourists switched to long-term too. Few people were interested in renting. The market was flooded with offers while the demand plummeted.
We weren’t going to give up, but we had to search for solutions elsewhere in the meantime. We knew that we will rent for a much lower fee than we initially expected and that we were barely going to make it through the month with that rental revenue. My husband’s IT business was in survival mode. And so I had to get back to freelance writing.
Stay at home mom becomes a work from home mom
Since I entered maternity leave, I’ve had a couple of clients now and then. I took them early on, as I was having troubles adjusting myself to motherhood, and desperately felt the need to do something different at last occasionally. A few months later, however, as my son grew and started to crawl and climb and turn the house upside down, I came to enjoy being in his company more than putting in the client work hours. I had the luxury to stop because I wanted to.
This time, things were different. I wasn’t in it because I felt like doing it, but because we needed the money. I was nervous that I might not be able to make enough to make our ends meet. And I had to work whenever my son would allow me while breastfeeding him and waking up countless times a night.
We were lucky because I had my parents living in with us, and someone could keep the baby upstairs while I was trying to work downstairs. Of course, that didn’t turn out very well, as the baby was continually going to the safety gate at the top of the stairs screaming for mommy. I was taking regular breaks to check on him and try to calm him down innumerable times a day.
Health issues left aside, we were in this situation because we had the audacity to buy our fourth studio only one year ago and used all our savings made throughout 2019 to pay our debts in January 2020.
When you decide to cash out on everything and clear all your debts before a global crisis hits the scene, you’re heading for a harsh but welcomed lesson.
“One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do.” — Henry Ford
Lockdown peak found us as a big (un)happy and almost broke family. We found tenants for the 4 locations, but that was going to be an adventure in itself. Some of them left after a few weeks, others lost their jobs and asked to pay only half of the rent for a few months, and one of them was continually failing to pay on the agreed date. To top it off, the expenses with my father-in-law’s healthcare were piling up.
It looked terrible, but at least I discovered that I was still getting traction from my freelance writing. What could we do other than slowly going forward? We didn’t know, at the time, that it was a turning point in our lives and that it was all going to bring us massive changes.
As we drew the line at the end of 2020, we felt tired, worried, although also pleasantly surprised. Surprised with how much we have managed to achieve despite all the hardships we went through.
Pandemic + Terminal Illness News = Conscious Living
The pandemic completely changed the dynamics of our family. Those who were doing the most intensive labor were forced to take a break. And those who were taking it easy had to change gears into full speed.
The shift was gradual, and most of what we accomplished came with my husband’s support. Left without a job, he had a hard time finding his place. He had to attend his father with all the radio and chemo sessions. Do the groceries for the entire family, as the only one with a driving license and capable of handling bulk shopping. And cook meals, but that’s something he was always good at and enjoyed doing (or was forced doing, given how terrible cookers the rest of us are). Plus, he had a son who would stick to him like glue whenever he’d come around him. Whatever time he had left for himself, he used it to read books.
Anyway, our conscious living came as hot lava of fear, awareness, and knowledge.
When things were going tough, which often happened, we were using gratitude as a flashlight:
“Gratitude lights up what is already there. You don’t necessarily have anything more or different, but suddenly you can actually see what it is. And because you can see, you no longer take it for granted.” — M.J. Ryan
We had an elder diagnosed with cancer and a little boy with multiple food intolerances and respiratory sensibilities in our home. We were terrified at the perspective of one of us getting COVID. And so, among the first changes we made was to go out for groceries as rare as possible.
With little money, groceries, and outings, it was pretty easy to stop drinking Coke and eating junk. Yet, many of the health-related choices we’ve made were only eased by the pandemic. Fear and awareness were our motivators, as the news that my father-in-law had stage 4 colon cancer with brain metastasis shocked us all.
Numbed by the dreadful prospect, we’ve somehow managed to get together and find ourselves a new rhythm. We’ve split chores between work, housekeeping, our son, and our father-in-law.
My husband read, among other things, financial and investment books that helped us make the most of the money we managed to save, and we started to test different investment strategies and options.
Even though our revenues were far from what they used to be, we slowly but steadily began to put some money aside. We started the year without savings and ended up saving approximately $20K.
Eating healthier, we’ve come to lose between 10 and 30% of our pre-pandemic weight by the end of the year.
I found the calm and the focus to wean my son without drama. And from there, I was able to jump on a more thorough rotation diet plan to identify some of his food intolerances easier.
We’ve all worked hard and lost sleep. But we’ve changed our priorities completely. Things we couldn’t picture ourselves living without were out of the picture, and we didn’t even blink about it. In many ways, we started to live more consciously and purposefully than we ever did.
We expected 2020 to be an unforgettable year
And it was, though not in the ways we have imagined. It became evident to us that it doesn’t matter how you prepare yourself for life; it’s how you handle what life prepares for you.
So, in the light of what life prepared for us, we have learned that:
- To live a meaningful life, we don’t need as much money as we think we do;
- Spending our time at home cooking healthy meals doesn’t just make us healthier but also brings us all closer;
- Being is more important than having or doing — after all, we are human beings, and we simply have to figure out how we want to be.
My father-in-law is not doing well at all. It breaks our hearts to see him like that. But it also gives us the strength to carry on and recalibrate all our thoughts, goals, and efforts from the perspective of what we think truly matters in our lives. Maybe this is the greatest lesson we had to learn — you can’t be sure of anything, you just have to be ready for everything.
“Time is a wastin. I shall pass this way but once. Therefore, any good that I can do or any kindness that I can show — let me do it now. For I shall not pass this way again” — Theodore Dreiser