Alex Gary| Special to the Rockford Register Star
The coronavirus pandemic is the closest thing to a worldwide event since World War II. Last year, the Register Star reached out to 19 Rock River Valley natives from all over the world to see how COVID was affecting them. Over the next few weeks, we will update several of their stories, seeing how the coronavirus has changed their lives and living habits.
Evangeline Whitlock, a 2001 Keith School graduate, was a visiting assistant arts professor at New York University-Tisch School of the Arts and a professional stage manager when the pandemic hit last year. She lost her father to the coronavirus in December and relocated to live closer to family during the pandemic.
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Q: Has the coronavirus affected you personally or professionally?
This question is the hardest one of all. Yes, to both. Ill start with the sad.
My dad passed away from COVID-19 on Dec. 26. He was 62. He went into the hospital on Nov. 29, and into the ICU on Dec. 5. The rest of the month was an emotional roller coaster. Some days were good, some days were bad, some days were even worse. Every day was a nail-biter.
I dont know how I got any work done at all or focused on anything. The doctors were certain he was through the worst of it and was going to pull through. I got a call from my mom on the morning of Dec. 26, saying, "They had to emergency intubate him overnight."
"Should I come up?"I asked immediately.
"Yeah. Youd better."
I was still down in St. Louis but my sister and brother-in-law had driven up for the Christmas holidays. My boss offered to drive me halfway and my brother-in-law met us in Bloomington. I knew I was too distraught to drive safely. When we were about an hour outside of Rockford my mom called and said, "Come straight to the hospital. The doctor called. Hes not going to make it."
Id like to think that even though he was intubated and unconscious, Dad somehow knew that his family was together and that he could let go. I made it just in time to suit up in full PPE, dash into his little ICU room, and say my goodbyes.
You dont think it will happen to you until it does.
I tell the sad part first, because I firmly believe that what happened last year with my life was a way of preparing me for this great loss and tragedy.
Last summer, I moved across the country and started a new job. I received an offer to take on a professor of stage management position in the Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri, where my sister and brother-in-law live, and about a four-hour drive to Rockford where my parents live.
With the shutdown of everything in New York and great uncertainty surrounding the future of my career there, I jumped at the chance to live closer to family and to start a new chapter in my life. I dont want to say this move was a result of the pandemic; rather, a form of collateral beauty that the catastrophe of the pandemic offered.
I cant imagine going through what we are all going through now as a family if I still lived in New York, hundreds of miles away from my family. At one point during the hellish uncertainty of December my sister said to me through tears, "I cant imagine dealing with all of this if you werent close by.
Q: Has anything in your life gotten back to normal or is there a new normal?
My job as a teacher provides structure and routine, even with all the continued uncertainty of how we are going to come out of this, and in particular when theater and live events with audiences will return. I am accountable to my colleagues and my students, I have all the obligations and responsibilities of learning a new job and working in a new environment, and I am finding the strength to show up each day with hope and joy.
Ive always said that my life in theater makes for certain uncertainty. I live the routine of no routine. In fact, I was looking back at my responses from a year ago and in one of them I talked about how my career as a freelancer has uniquely prepared me for the change and uncertainty that the pandemic has wrought.
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Without my dad on this planet anymore, I must admit I feel a little rudderless, unmoored, adrift. And yet, I know that I have it in me to find my way back to shore because in many ways, I have always had to live my life this way. Moving from job to job and city to city, crying because the show is closing at the same time Im packing my bags and excited to head to the next one.
What Im finding is that instead of going through that every few months when the show closes, Im feeling that feeling every day right now. The feeling of packing the bag, not quite sure where Im headed, but knowing that someones booked me a plane ticket and I have to show up at the next venue tomorrow.
I know Ill get there, even though some days its harder to see how than others.
Q: What have you learned about yourself over the past year?
Ive learned that its not for nothing my birthday is in April and thus my birthstone is a diamond. Just when I think I cant stand any more pressure, I learn that I can. Just when I think the weight is too much to bear, I learn I can carry just a little bit more.
Im not a chemist, so this metaphor may be a bit unscientific, but go with me here. A diamond, which is formed from carbon under immense amounts of pressure, has an extremely stable crystal structure. Its unique in that way. Ive learned that to get to that state of diamond, that state of extremely stable structure and crystalline beauty, there is a period of immense pressure that one must withstand.
Ive learned that joy and grief can hold hands with each other, that I can be happy and experience the beauty of each new day, and at the same time cry tears of grief and sadness. The juxtaposition of these extreme emotions is all a part of living each day fully present to myself and to the world, and reveling in the small moments that are the stuff of life.
Q: What have you learned about your neighbors or community over the past year?
Ive learned microcosmic things and macrocosmic things. In my responses from last year I talked about the interconnectedness of communities, and how the pandemic was revealing that in new ways to me. Ive learned tiny, intricate details about my neighbors, and Ive learned global, universal things about my communities.
Even in the last days of my time in New York I was learning new things about my neighbors. Seeing them in the hallways and stairwells in passing, making sure each other was OK, making sure that no one needed anything.
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It was interesting that in my building, the forced stay-at-home measures led to a deeper commitment to taking care of each other in whatever small way we could. I learned that my expectant neighbor welcomed a new baby girl into the world just after I moved out. I learned another of my neighbors had applied to New York University, which was her dream school, and was eagerly awaiting the decision. I learned that one of my neighbors had been in the hospital for three weeks with Covid, but he made it home and was on the way to a full recovery just when I was getting ready to move.
And about my new community here in St. Louis? Ive learned that its really, really cool, and even in the middle of the pandemic Im discovering amazing people and places. Ive learned that I can put down my roots in a new city, in the midst of a global crisis, and I will find ways to be watered and nurtured and grow, because thats what a good community does. And Ive learned that Im a vital part of the life force of whatever community in which I find myself. My actions matter, both small and big.
Ive learned that even without New York, I can still walk to the coffee shop, the bar, a restaurant, and ice cream, and that city life does exist outside the Big Apple.
Q: What was the most difficult part of the pandemic?
Losing my dad. Full stop.
What do you think is "next" for you in a post-COVID world?
I am looking forward to being an aunt! Alongside the sadness our family is experiencing, we are also eagerly anticipating the arrival of my sisters first baby! And that joyous upcoming event has caused me to say a word I usually try not to say no when Ive gotten some offers for projects this summer.
Ordinarily, I jump at every single work opportunity that comes my way. Now, I am pausing and realizing that after a year of such sadness, such loss, and such grief, I dont want to miss a single moment of the first few months of my nephews life.
Professionally, I am hoping I can get back to freelance work soon, and get back into a theater with a full audience! St. Louis is an amazing city for arts and culture, and there are so many great theatre companies here. I cant wait to hear the murmur of a gathering crowd, to call the cue that takes the house lights down, to experience the collective intake of breath from an eager audience as the actors say their first lines and take us into some fantastic story. Thats going to be a beautiful moment.
Alex Gary is a freelance correspondent