I was probably more fascinated with leap years when I was younger than other children my age, but something about the idea of having that extra day at the end of February just clicked in my young brain. Given my natural curiosity, the whole concept of the leap year just triggered a lot of questions in my head: How did people figure out a leap day was needed? Why every four years? Why in the years that have them, instead of the ones before or after? Why add the day to February instead of a warmer month? Yes, some of these questions weren’t exactly logical, but keep in mind that I was in my early years of grade school when I was first introduced to the whole notion of leap years and leap days, let alone that this was a time before I could just go look up all sorts of stuff on the Internet.
It was probably around the time I changed schools that leap years stopped feeling special to me; like so many other things in my life, the abattoir of a “school” I wound up in kind of killed my curiosity off for several years. Even after I was long gone from that place, leap years never became more than a footnote to my life again, and although that transition probably would have happened on its own, I still don’t like it. More recently, though, both of my parents passed away in leap years, and the dynamics surrounding leap years played a huge role in how those passings have affected me all these years later.
My father died in late February of 2008, and his memorial service wound up being held on the 29th. (I didn’t attend the service, and neither did Mom; she explained to me that the service was for other people, and she and I should remember my father in our own ways. She later requested that I not attend her memorial service for the same reason, and of course I honoured her request, but doing so made me even more of a black sheep in my family. I didn’t even think that was possible.) Just like my young mind wondered about how people born on the 29th of February celebrate birthdays when there isn’t a leap year, part of my brain still clings onto the fact even though the anniversary of my father’s death has now passed twelve times, the anniversary of his memorial service has, at least on some level, only happened thrice in the years that have followed.
Although Mom passed away in late October, another facet of leap years — the fact that all of America’s presidential elections happen on them — came into play that year. I’ve already detailed elsewhere on this blog the twists and turns that Mom’s condition took in the six months and four days between her hospitalization and her passing, but the key thing I want to mention from that experience is how surreal the whole experience felt. Mom had been hospitalized twice for diverticulitis in the eight years after my father’s death, but to be in that house without her for six months — without her baking, her cigarette smoke, her constant playing of Game Show Network on the living room television, her talking with the Amazon Echo that I got her right after they first came out, her watching Dragnet and Adam-12 DVDs — never felt right to me. Even as I accepted that her condition was deteriorating, and even after her passing, something felt wrong about being in that big house without her, like the rules of the universe had changed and no one had told me what I was supposed to do at that point.
What made that whole period around the time of her passing all the harder to get a handle on was just how much was going on that I couldn’t believe was happening. Even as I cautioned my students in the leadup to that November’s election that the oft-mentioned high probability of one presidential candidate winning didn’t mean that candidate was a lock to win (a lesson than I wish more people would keep in mind with this coming election), watching the returns come in on the eighth of November made me feel like the previous ten days had to be some kind of nightmare I couldn’t wake up from. Between those two events, the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series made everything feel even more unreal; my interest in sports may have waned over the years, but I couldn’t help pulling for the Cubs because of the story of their 108-year championship drought (and because Cleveland sports fans still wouldn’t shut up about the Cavaliers’ NBA championship that summer, so their baseball team winning another championship would have made the whole state of Ohio even more insufferable than it already is). Leonard Cohen’s sudden passing later that month — if you were to make a Venn diagram of the musicians that Mom and I loved the most, Cohen and Joni Mitchell would be smack dab in the middle — was like the exclamation point on the hardest month of my enitre life.
I’d been thinking for a while here that marking the fourth anniversary of Mom’s passing later this month wouldn’t be quite so difficult for me. The first anniversary was excruciating, of course, but my move to Wisconsin before the second anniversary, and the benefits I’ve reaped from that, have made the last two anniversaries somewhat easier. I thought that streak would continue this year, but as that day draws closer and closer, I realize that the similarities between this year and 2016 — especially the feeling that so much of my life feels unreal as we careen into another presidential election — have me thinking much more about how I felt nearly four years ago than I’ve done for a long, long time, and that’s not a good thing.
Beyond the insanity of the political sphere right now, I’m still catching myself wondering if I’m just imagining a pandemic that’s already claimed more than a million lives around the world. As much as I’ve gotten used to the constrictions being caused by the pandemic, there’s still a part of me that wants to think that this is something I’ve made up, one of my silly what-if games that I’m always playing to generate ideas for stories to write later. Maybe all the things I’ve had to do since the start of the pandemic — prepare to move my courses online, alter so much of my daily life, retool my summer plans, get ready to teach via Zoom this semester, all the research I’ve been doing for my next book — prevented me from really thinking about how everything is feeling so surreal again.
I’ve noticed that feeling from time to time over the past few months, but it never seemed to get as strong as it did in those awful weeks after Mom’s passing. As that anniversary (and the presidential election that will follow it) comes closer, though, that feeling is getting stronger, and it’s becoming harder for me to do the things I’ve been doing here since the pandemic started. I haven’t been sleeping well, I’m becoming more forgetful, and as often as I’ve used meditation lately to try to clear my head, it just doesn’t seem to be as effective for me as it usually is. With all the stakes I’m dealing with currently, especially the responsibility of teaching a whole lot of students who need more help than usual as they navigate their own struggles with the pandemic, this is pretty much the worst time for me to start flaking out here, and while I haven’t had any serious problems yet, I know I can’t count on that lasting, especially with a month to go before I likely hit peak awfulness.
There was some talk on the news about the pandemic this past 29th of February, and I think I was mentioning it in my classes around that time, but I had no clue then of what the following months would bring. Even if I couldn’t have known just how bad things would get with COVID-19 around that time, I still wish I would have known how much more difficult this upcoming anniversary of Mom’s passing would be, so I could have done more to prepare myself for the emotional burden of this coming month. All I can do now is just take things as I did after Mom passed away, day by day and moment by moment, and hope to get through the challenges ahead like I did the challenges I faced four years ago.