Sand in my shoes
A trip to the Oregon coast heals even as it recalls hard days of the pandemic.
By the time the Omicron wave receded in the late spring of 2022, I was not so much burned out as simply exhausted. The ER doctor and single mother in me had been running for over two years and called a timeout. I was done.
Friends and family started booking vacations and traveling in earnest, making up for lost time. But except for work, I could barely bring myself to leave the house. While so many people had spent the previous two years trapped mostly inside, I had been out in it, all of it—Covid, the wild, unpredictable far-reaches of the pandemic, whatever else you want to call it, since March 2020. I just wanted to go home.
So I did, and for many months, did not leave. I slept, took long walks with my children and the dog, and watched spring become summer, all while Covid case counts dropped in the emergency room.
And after two years of wearing personal protective equipment in the hospital taking care of sick patients, I finally caught my own case of Covid—from a neighbor. I took Paxlovid and ibuprofen and sat in the shade of my backyard recovering and reading Paulette Jiles's News of the World. I had taken care of so many people in respiratory failure—and watched friends and colleagues die of the disease—that my own round of illness was an anticlimactic, contemplative experience. I was tired and achy—and grateful for every vaccine and booster I had had—and for the way evolution had ground such a lethal virus down to an illness most of us could tolerate.
Eventually, I wanted a change of scenery and booked a hotel for a couple of solitary days on the Oregon coast. I was looking for perspective on my pandemic experience and could hear ocean waves in my head. I wanted to take all my accumulated Covid stresses from Utah to the Northwest. I had this idea to leave them on the shore and let the tide carry them out to sea.
The trip turned out differently than I planned. I flew into Portland and when it was time to disembark from the plane, realized that my suitcase was missing from the overhead bin where I had stowed it at the beginning of the flight. “Someone must have mistaken your suitcase for theirs and taken it,” the folks at the baggage claim explained, saying that this kind of thing happened from time to time. This worried me because I had medications and other things I needed in the bag—that was why I had not checked it. I gave them my phone number and they promised to call if the suitcase was returned.
Still eager to see the ocean, I trusted fate to return the suitcase and left the airport. I bought a change of clothes, some toiletries, and a phone charger at a local store, then made the winding, twisting, nearly three-hour drive through the Oregon forest down to the coast.
I found the beach and the waves that had been calling me. The sky was grey. The water was, too. Its teeming, towering, unstoppable waves were loud, consistent, and insistent—and somehow matched my internal post-pandemic landscape. I stayed until the sun had set. I was cold, and a light rain had soaked me through. If I had had a tent, I would have pitched it and stayed all night.
The next morning someone from the airline called. My luggage had been returned. The representative apologized: they would like to bring it to me, he said, but because the problem was not the airline’s fault I would have to collect the bag myself. I was loath to leave the water, but needed the contents of the bag, so drove another three hours back to the airport, and then another three hours for the return back to the coast. All this on a day when glorious ponderosa pines reached for the sky and framed each of the road’s turns–but when all I really wanted was to hear waves crashing, washing, and crashing back up onto the rocky shore.
When I made it to the baggage counter at the airport, the same man who had taken my number the day before was behind the desk. “Nice of the person who took my bag to return it,” I said to him when he looked up from his work.
“Oh, don’t be so sure,” he said, gazing up at me from under thick eyebrows, and explained that the other passenger had called the airline baggage service angry about their missing suitcase—but had only reluctantly copped to taking mine. “There was a little arm twisting involved,” he added. “We told him if he really wanted his bag, he should return yours first.”
“Well, thanks for that,” I said, thinking the persistence of this man with bushy eyebrows must have been part of fate returning the bag to me. Then we both commented on how random and unpredictable life can be.
He handed me the bag, and I found my way back through the city, down through the forest, and out to my hotel on the shore. It was dark by the time I arrived, but I Iistened to waves all night long through my open hotel window.
The next day, I drove back to Portland and flew home. “I wish I hadn’t needed some of the things in the bag,” I told a friend when she asked about my trip. “I would have just left it at the airport.”
“Not quite the vacation you planned,” she said.
“No,” I responded.
And then, in that quiet, insistent tone friends sometimes take when sticking up for you, she added something else: “I think you were robbed.”
“But I got the suitcase back,” I protested, not understanding what she meant.
“That’s not what I was talking about,” she said, and I let her words settle in.
Soon I was back at home, and a few days later back at work, and I put this experience—the beach, driving up and down though the coastal forest, lost suitcase and all—on the back burner of my mind, where it continued to percolate, holding something for me I didn't yet understand.
I retold the story to a group of friends a few weeks ago. Losing luggage on a weekend getaway to a beautiful place is a problem of privilege, I told them. I was not complaining. But something about a getaway that was supposed to be an antidote to the pandemic had ended up reminding me of the pandemic. So I kept turning it over and over again in my head.
What I mean by this is that three years ago I was minding my own business, stowing a suitcase in a bin a few rows ahead of me, planning a vacation and the rest of 2020, when a random virus came along and walked off the plane with my life as I knew it. I liked that life. I am still not sure how to understand the years I got instead. So sometimes I feel robbed.
The things the pandemic thief took include reservoirs of energy I do not think I'll ever get back, time I could have spent with my aging parents, and too many moments of my children's childhoods to count. My daughter grew from a girl to a teenager while I was trapped in the hospital. My son passed many milestones, including learning to read, while I was gone. For many people, including those who lost loved ones or their health, the thief took much, much more.
But to make it even more confusing, I also think there are things the pandemic left. I remember pine trees twisting and curving along a narrow road, stretching so tall and close to the sky that I could not see their tops, only the sunlight they framed. My son taught himself to read, I think. And I also remember the crazy creative way my daughter has learned to apply makeup—and even more, how unfailingly straight her moral compass has learned to point. All while I was in the hospital.
And in the hospital, my colleagues and I upregulated ourselves into a giant virus-fighting machine, practicing medicine with expertise and ferocity we still carry with us. These colleagues were always my friends. Now they are my people, bonds forged in dark moments which will never leave us—the bonds or the moments.
It was not the vacation I was planning on, I think over and over again to myself. It was not how I thought I'd spend three years of my life. But I am also not yet ready to reject the whole experience outright.
On my last morning on the Oregon coast, I carried the pair of shoes I had worn in the hospital throughout the pandemic to the beach and left them there. I felt guilty for littering but needed to offer the universe some kind of symbolic gesture.
These shoes were the shoes I had walked miles and miles around the emergency room in, the ones I stood in while I intubated people. They were the shoes that held me up and kept my ankles steady when I told people that their loved ones were dying, the ones that carried me back to my car at the end of every shift, and the ones that sometimes watched me weep on the way home. Institutional, interchangeable, hospital scrubs had been my pandemic uniform, but they never belonged to me. The shoes were mine. I would have loved them if they had not become associated with so much pain.
When I set them down in the wet sand that day, I was not sure if I would feel relief or sorrow. But when a wave rushed in and swallowed up one shoe so quickly it disappeared in seconds, I felt relief. It took my breath away.
But the second shoe sat on the shore for a long time. It was almost like it did not want to leave. Sometimes a wave would sweep under it and move it a few feet, but the next wave always brought it back to me.
Frustrated, I picked up the shoe and threw it into the ocean wanting to get it as far away from me as I could, wanting to rid myself of it and everything it represented. How much good could a single, worn out, memory-laden shoe really be? But no matter how many times I did this, the waves and the shoe must have felt differently because it always got returned to me.
After a while, I gave up and sat down next to the shoe in the sand. When it was time to leave, I ran my fingertips over the dog eared leather in the same way I rub my actual dog’s ears. Then I threw it out to sea one more time, turned, and walked away.
Although I long ago recovered from Covid, these days I continue to recover from the pandemic. I grieve losses, all while keeping my eye out for gains, looking for traces of them as I raise my children, care for patients, and venture out more and more into the world.
Sometimes I lie awake at night trying to understand what has happened to me—and where what has happened might take me next. Then my alarm goes off and I get out of bed to wake the kids. I open the closet door, put on my robe, and rummage around with my feet for my slippers. Looking down, I halfway expect to find an old shoe, still covered with wet sand and smelling of salt air.
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