COVID Confessions: From seeing Cher to social distancing, so much has changed so quickly

By Keely Lewis

By some quirk of fate, my husband and I took a long-planned tour of Italy in October, never imagining that within four months, the entire country would be closed off to the world, an early epicenter of virus-related deaths. To see Venice’s famous St. Mark’s Square emptied of tourists, the Vatican shuttered, the charming hillside towns effectively closed down is eerie, surreal.

Keely Lewis is board secretary for the Palm Valley Animal Center and The Laurie P. Andrews PAWS Center.

Closer to home, it’s incredible to think that on Feb. 29, more than 600 people attended the Puppy Love Gala to raise money for Palm Valley Animal Society. With so many other key events on the calendar for March and April, no one suspected it would be the last major fundraiser in the Valley, at least for the foreseeable future.

In early March, I flew to McAllen from Phoenix on a crowded plane, from and to airports where face coverings were still an oddity. Only the TSA agents wore gloves.

But the most incongruous event happened on March 8 when my family and I packed into the Bert Ogden Arena with 9,000 other Cher fans. March 8! That seems recklessly recent considering all that has transpired since.

Because her hits have spanned multiple decades, Cher’s audience that Sunday night included young and old and everything in-between. Entering the arena and finding our seats required everyone being tightly crammed together, like cattle in a crowded stockyard, and most of us spent well more than three hours in that sea of humanity. The term “social distancing” wasn’t even being used yet, at least not down here. None of us, Cher included, had any idea that Edinburg would be the second-to-last show on her most recent “farewell” tour.

I keep a daily diary, and on March 12, for the first time I noted “Coronavirus fears increasing.” Yet that same day, I stopped by to visit elderly relatives, which in hindsight seemed like a terrible idea. The virus still seemed very remote in Valley circles. That same day, I stopped by Target and had the option to buy as much 2-ply toilet paper as I wanted; no shortage, no limits.

By March 15, fears had increased enough that it wasn’t a complete surprise when the “Carole King: Beautiful” musical at the McAllen Performing Arts Center was postponed, one of the first large local gatherings not realized.

We had one last business-as-usual board meeting at Palm Valley’s Trenton Center on March 18, the last time we met non-remotely. Our centers started curbside adoptions to keep saving the animals even when no one could come inside. Welcoming a new pet helped some families deal with the isolating shelter-in-place orders that went into effect county-wide March 27.

During the month since, the Valley has caught up with the rest of the world in its justified paranoia. Virus testing at UTRGV has ramped up, thank goodness, but results still require many angst-filled days.

When a dear friend, Mark Peña, died March 29 from a non-virus-related illness, we were reminded how completely devastating a death is to a family, no matter the cause. Mark was a beloved member of our community, still young and working to make the Valley and the world a better place. Even a month ago, his service would have been standing-room-only, not limited to fewer than 10 immediate family members. Not only is this a brutal time to lose someone, adequate goodbyes aren’t even possible. No visits, no hugs, just remote condolences, at a time when physical presence and touch would mean so much.

In recent Facebook posts, I see people sharing the glories of spring, artists creating amazing works of art, friends appreciating the little things and living in the moment. I do know that whatever normalcy we reclaim, we’ll all have a greater appreciation for many things formerly taken for granted, from fully stocked store shelves to leisurely meals inside restaurants to hugs without fear.

Maybe on the other side of this uncertainty, we’ll emerge less divided, more in tune with nature, kinder to the earth and animals and each other. I know Mark Peña would have liked that.

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A retired journalism teacher, Keely Lewis is president of Palm Valley Animal Society and a member of The Monitor’s Board of Contributors.