20 Miles to Go in Hill Country

December 1, 2020 at 1:23 am (Uncategorized)

Andrew says I am too pessimistic about Covid-19.  I told him that I feel like I am realistic and at least 50 percent of this country is living in la-la land.   “You have to let the present unfold in good ways,” he said tonight as we ate dinner—in separate rooms with air filters making conversation difficult.  “You have to prepare yourself for what is coming,” I said.  And then we dug into the excellent mashed potatoes that are part of his cooking repertoire now.  

Andrew has a luxury a lot of the folks I accuse of being in Covid la-la land have.  He is young and fit without know risk factors.  Should he contract Covid, he will likely have a mild or even asymptotic case. The prognosis for me and the tens of millions of other American with risk factors is more grim. 

Everything I’ve read from Dr. Ashish Jha about this pandemic has been accurate.  Formerly of Harvard, Dr. Jha is one of our nation’s leading epidemiologists and public health officials and now heads up a team at Brown University.   

Andrew would definitely find Dr. Jha even more depressing than I am.  In today’s New York Times, Dr. Jha predicts 250,000 additional Covid deaths in the US by March.  Pause.  Re-read.  Yes, that’s the prediction and it is backed up with solid data. We could double the number of our Covid deaths in four months.  This assumes vaccines will be arriving, starting at the end of this month, and still half a million of us could be gone.  “The next three months are going to be just horrible,” Dr. Jha added.  He wasn’t talking only about the deaths, but also our nation’s overflowing ICU units and shortage of nurses and doctors.  He said this in the context of infections surging (on top of a surge) because of Thanksgiving and a Christmas gatherings.  In Wisconsin, one hospital is stashing Covid patients in its ambulance bay.  In El Paso, Covid wards are called pits.  Intensive care units there are now enormous open rooms.  Once a day, a Catholic priest comes and stands behind some plexiglass and administers a stripped down version of last rites to those in need.  And this is before the holiday surge of infections catches us.

I keep myself as educated as possible about Covid not because I want to wallow in gloom, though Andrew might think otherwise. I feel like my life depends on it.  Without much leadership at all levels of government, I’ve got to understand the benefits of air filtration systems or the likelihood one of the new vaccines will be effective in someone immunocompromised like me.  Without the healthy’s luxury of banking on a good outcome, I must be prepared. But even with my extra stake in all things Covid, I am so sick of it.  We’re all tired of Covid.  I sure am.  I want to set my masks on fire, never think about viruses in HVAC systems or living quietly in my son’s upper respiratory tract.  I want to run home NOW and fling myself into Jay’s arms. I want to wake up next to him, with the light casting shadows through the blinds in a pattern I memorized years ago. I want to fall asleep to the sound of Andrew listening to music.  And in between, I want to be unafraid around the people I love best, in the home we once shared.  I want to see their faces without masks.  I want to hug them both long and hard.   

As tired as we all are, it feels like we should be done.  Surely we’ve parsed 6 feet enough, done enough “digital learning” with our kids, worried enough over every cough to have earned finality.  Right? But we’re not there yet.  These next few months will define who we are, what our values are, and what we will do to protect others.  

For me, this feels like the psychological equivalent  of the Team USA Cycling Trials back in 1988.  It was a stage race consisting of 3 individual races: a  solo hill climb time trial, a fast and furious criterium around city streets in a giant pack, and a 65 mile road race through “rolling” hills in rural Wisconsin.  I did terribly in the hill climb, good in the criterium, and had a shot of making the national team if I performed well in the road race.  It was hot and humid.  “Rolling hills” felt like Tibet to this Louisiana girl.  I somehow missed 2 water bottle exchanges in a row, so had the last 20 miles with only half a bottle of plastic-tasting warm water to get me through.  I was with a small lead pack, but I got dropped by them on a climb about 20 miles from the finish. For the rest of the race, I had my warm water to ration, more hills than seemed reasonable to climb, silence cut only when I changed gears.  And myself.  I had to try and catch the front pack, but could definitely not get subsumed by the peloton behind me.  I hated every pedal stroke. I hated the sun shining on the green countryside.  I hated the cows everywhere.  I hated the sound of my breath rasping. I hated the pain in my legs and my mouth that felt like sand.   I hated standing out of the saddle to get more power,  and I hated sitting back down and just turning my legs over.  But that is what I did, half-heartedly hoping my chain would snap or my tire would explode or a horde of locusts would descend…that something would let me legitimately stop turning those pedals over and yet not be a quitter.  

I finished 5th in that road race.  It’s one of the races I am most proud of.  I didn’t get caught by the peloton behind me.  Nor did I catch the faster women ahead of me.  I even sprinted on my own up the last “rolling” hill to the finish line (and then promptly passed out from dehydration and exhaustion).  Most of all, I didn’t quit. Pedal over pedal over pedal. 

I didn’t win a shiny gold medal.  I didn’t get chosen to wear the Stars and Stripes jersey as part of the official Team USA.  But I dug deep and found a place within me that wouldn’t let me quit, even though part of me really wanted to.

With the excellent news from Pfizer and Moderna on vaccines, it feels like we are (hopefully) in the last 20 miles of a road race.  We are tired. We don’t have enough of what keeps us feeling vibrant and alive on hand. Every cell within us can feel like it’s whispering to forget about restrictions or that just this once it will be OK.  But we’re on a road with stakes much higher than who gets on what team.  We are defining who we are —who we strive to be, who we want to grow into being—in these winter months. 

Mental toughness transcends pessimism or optimism.  Mental toughness centers you in the here and now, focused solely on what it is you must do in that endless-seeming present.  It’s not about glory or accolades.  Mental toughness is reticent and fierce. 

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good in this long, dark winter.  If you make a mistake, just refocus on being the kind of person you know you are: the one who saves lives, not through heroics, but by quietly taking this long, final leg one step at a time.  Imagine the quiet pride you will feel when you know you dug deep, stepped up and did what was needed.  

Keep on turning those pedals over.  The 250,000 of your fellow human beings Dr. Jha referred to are as yet uninfected.  We hold their fates.  We hold their lives and the pain of loss their loved ones will feel.

We know what to do.  We know we can do it.  I hope that we will.  


  1. Ish said,

    Beautiful & powerful! Loved this piece! Especially the part about biking and mental toughness.

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Thanks so much. Ish!

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