What just happened? I have had my fair share of crazy life experiences, but the last two weeks have been by far the most hectic, emotion-filled, disruptive two weeks of my entire life. So, what just happened?
Monday, March 9th 2020, was by no means ordinary, but it was also nothing unusual. I was still quite upset from learning just a few days earlier that our Study Trek to Panama was cancelled. Surely everyone was overreacting. After all, there were only about 500 cases of COVID-19 in the United States, and there were 0 reported in Panama. So why cancel a trip to country where there were 0 infections? I can understand why the Treks to Seattle or San Francisco that other members of the class were scheduled to go on were risky, since that’s where the only confirmed cases of the extremely contagious virus were reported in the United States, but it didn’t seem fair to cancel everyone’s trips. The trip to Panama was the one thing I was looking forward to most during my 10 months in the residential Supply Chain Master’s Program at MIT.
It was Monday, March 9th 2020, when the rumors started to swirl. My Applied Macroeconomics professor said he was unsure if we would be having class in person on Wednesday, and he was preparing to give the class virtually if necessary. I thought to myself, “Why is everyone making such a big deal about this? It’s not like it’s any worse than influenza, and people contract that every year.” By Tuesday it was confirmed. Along with Harvard and Stanford, MIT would not have any more in-person classes for the rest of the year. Maybe everyone knew something that I didn’t.
Wednesday, March 11th woke me up like a splash of cold water to the face. I walked out of my Applied Macroeconomics class and fought back tears at the realization that my time at MIT was suddenly and unexplainably over. It felt like someone robbed me of something I had worked for a lifetime to achieve. It didn’t get easier, as our entire Supply Chain cohort gathered for what none of us then knew would be the last time that we would all be together in the same room. It was the room that we had gathered in at least 100 times together. The room where dozens of relationships were forged, hundreds of laughs were had, and where millions of memories were made. Was all of this really necessary? Is this virus really worth stripping people of things that they would never again have the chance to experience in their lives?
On Thursday morning, March 12th, we all gathered in Killian Court to take one last picture together. It was here that many of us said our tearful goodbyes. Some had to run to catch a plane before flights stopped to the countries they were trying to reach. Many of us vowed to stay and spend as much time together as possible. We promised that we would still get together and work on the remaining classes together. We decided that all of us who hadn’t left would meet up on Friday night and go out to eat one last time at the restaurant where we all met for the first time in August. What is ‘social distancing’ anyways? Sure, the MIT Administration had forced undergraduates to leave campus, but luckily, we are graduate students! Our lives will stay the same, right?
Friday, March 13th, will probably always remain one of the hardest days of my life. I woke up to an email from the MIT Administration highly recommending as many graduate students as possible to move away from the MIT campus if they had the chance. How did it come to this? I told my wife about the email as soon as she woke up, and we made the decision that it would be best for our two small children if we heeded MIT’s advice and moved back to the Midwest where our parents lived. After realizing that I would have to leave behind the most unique experience of my life, I put my head in my hands and I cried. I don’t remember for how long I cried, but I do remember the sadness that filled my heart as I thought of leaving behind the one place on earth that I had ever felt truly comfortable. Being surrounded by the brilliance of the people at MIT, by my new academic family that I had become so close to, by a city so rich in history and culture, was an experience unlike any other I am likely to have again during this lifetime. To leave it all behind can only be described as heart-breaking. I went to dinner that night with tears in my eyes to say goodbye.
Saturday, March 14th, started with a fury. We had to get everything in our 2-bedroom apartment packed up and sorted into what was coming with us and what was going into storage, and we only had about 8 hours to do it. Luckily, I had friends that are more like siblings to help distract my children and help my wife and I throw things into boxes as quickly as possible. With their help, we had our entire apartment packed up and loaded into either the back of my car or a storage container by 4pm. 15 minutes’ worth of hugs and tears later, we said goodbye to Boston for the last time as we headed west.
By 4pm two days later, on Monday, March 16th, we reached our intermediate destination in Edgerton, Minnesota, the quaint Midwest town where I grew up. We rolled into town, having traveled the 1,529 miles from Cambridge, MA, emotionally and physically exhausted. What do we do now? Where do we start? What does the new normal look like?
One week later, on Monday, March 23rd, I still have not figured out the answer to those 3 questions. To say that I feel lost is an extreme understatement. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to start. And I have no idea what normal is. As I write, the crisis surrounding COVID-19 is only growing worse. Currently, there are over 40,000 cases of COVID-19 in the United States, and much of the country has been asked to stay in their homes unless it is essential that they leave. The prediction is that things will continue to get worse, with the hope that we have done enough to keep from overwhelming the healthcare system.
I am angry that this virus has robbed me of something I worked so hard for, but I also think of the countless others that have lost so much. I think of all of the college athletes that worked to play in March Madness that will never get to experience it. I think of all of the college seniors that worked towards earning their degree that won’t get to walk across the stage to receive their diploma. I think of all of the people that have to sacrifice so much to ensure that those they love who are most at risk will stay safe and healthy. I think of the millions that will undoubtedly lose their jobs as a result of the economic fallout. I think of the families that will have loved ones taken from them as a result of this horrible illness.
So, what just happened? What started off as disappointment over a cancelled field trip turned into a global pandemic unlike anything since the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic. I was forced to make the decision between my family’s health and safety and saying goodbye to one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I made the choice to say goodbye to some of the best friends that I could ever hope to have. I thought COVID-19 was an annoyance that ripped me apart from my friends. I realize now that what is happening is a historic event that will unite my MIT family and me together for a lifetime, because we experienced and embraced it together.