by Cheyenne Vargas
photography by Shira O’Neal-Abend
If I could go back to March 12, 2020, and live my life as if the pandemic never happened and forget the people and memories that crossed my life from that day to Aug. 16, my answer would have been “yes.” But now that I am back on campus, I have accepted that the pandemic had to happen. I believe that things happen for a reason, and for months I didn’t see the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. Nevertheless, now that the “nature” in my life is beginning to heal, I can accept that I am where I’m supposed to be.
For months, the hardest thing for me to accept was never getting in my last goodbye. My grandfather’s rapidly declining health took me out of state so when it was announced that we had to leave the University of La Verne campus, I sat hundreds of miles away from my friends. The next time I was on campus several days later, most of the school was closed, my roommate was gone, and I was left to pack up my now old dorm room. Even though we thought my grandfather’s condition was improving, he suddenly passed away when we were at home in Fontana. I knew that was “it” for this chapter of my life. But this was necessary.
I lost a loved one at the start of the pandemic, and, looking back, I don’t think I could have fully coped with the loss while having to be at school. The pandemic let me spend time with my family that I don’t think I would have had. At the time it was hard—being kicked off campus and losing a loved one—and I felt alone, like I was the only person in the world who felt like this. But the disruption was necessary. Out of it, I learned to deal with my emotions fully and realized I usually had just pushed them away when something felt like an inconvenience. I know my friends would have been there for me without a second thought, but the lockdown let me handle it in private and in a way that I needed to handle it.
For the next four months, I stayed at home and would re-watch old memories—Snapchat videos and pictures—on my phone. They would remind me that my life was very different one year ago. I wouldn’t go as far to say that I was depressed, but I was definitely sad every day and hardly texted my friends because I saw no point in talking to them if I couldn’t go see them. That was a big change for me since I experienced a year and a half of complete freedom.
Being at home again felt like being in high school again. I did miss being with my family, but I felt that I wouldn’t be able to grow as a person if I were stuck where I grew up. I feel you aren’t able to grow if you’re in the same environment your whole life. I was finally out in the world doing whatever I wanted, and I took it for granted. It was more disheartening knowing that when I would eventually go back, it would not be the same. I would be in a different room with different experiences and with different friends.
After four months of living in a COVID-19 world, I worked my first real world job. Working retail while in the pandemic was a struggle, with new rules and having to deal with customers who weren’t understanding. I’m happy now that I pushed myself to work there for as long as I did and even got promoted. When I started working, the customer interactions I experienced were a first for me. Previously, I had just interacted with my family.
If the lockdown had never happened, I wouldn’t have ever had the opportunity to work in a Fontana clothing store and realize that I didn’t want to stay in my hometown forever. So many of my co-workers lived in the same town they grew up in and would talk to me about how they wished they could have done more or even just moved to another city.
Of course, I learned about customer service, but in the end my biggest lesson was that I wasn’t OK with the idea of staying there. At a certain point, I felt like I was being pulled into their drowning lives, which made working difficult because all I wanted to do was leave. I worked for as long as I could handle it, but when an opportunity to quit came up, it was like a hand reaching down to pull me out of the water. I felt an anchor attached to my ankle when I was asked to stay past the date I gave for my two weeks’ notice. I finally set myself free when I told them “no.” My coworkers were great, and my managers were nice, but I did not let myself build relationships because I knew I would never see them again after I left.
In a way, it’s sad to think that the biggest lesson I learned from working retail was that I needed to get out of my hometown. I know that I work too hard in school to not have the life I want in the future. Being around people who wished they could do what I was doing was difficult. My moment of realization came from a customer asking me what I wanted to do in the future. The first words she spoke were, “So since you won’t be working here forever. …” That three-minute conversation led me to putting in my two-week notice the very next day.
The last three months of what I consider my “personal pandemic” showed me every day that I was closer to having the freedom I first experienced in my freshman year of college. For the entire month of June, I was in Las Vegas, able to spend time with my family. My aunt just had her second daughter, and I knew I wouldn’t have quality time to see my baby cousin grow up once school started, so I spent every moment I could with her and her sister. My older 9-year-old cousin is the only other child in the house, and, being in the pandemic, she wasn’t able to socialize much. I played dolls and board games with her and “dressed up” with her to fill in as a best friend for the time being.
When I got back from Las Vegas, I spent a week at home, and then went on vacation with my brother. We acted on impulse and flew to Indianapolis, Indiana for the sole reason that we just never been there. It was my first plane ride, our first vacation without our parents, and the first time we really got to spend quality time together. Our whole trip felt like a dream that I knew I would wake up from…but didn’t want to. Today, thinking back to our trip, I feel so sad. I want to go back to the places that I visited in Indianapolis, but I know I may never go back because I want to travel everywhere else before going back. That trip changed my whole context of the old “me.” I longed for adventure, freedom and control of my life again.
Now that I am back on campus at the University of La Verne, I have resumed my college life. This new life is not the one I left behind in 2020. I served as an orientation week leader my first days back. I have a renewed faith in discovering my public relations major to the fullest. I am a different me. The pandemic was the start of my winter season with dark skies and rain that began to kill my “nature.” But now it’s slowly starting to feel as though spring is starting with grass turning green, flowers starting to blossom and sunshine peeking through clouds. The “nature” in my life is healing because I’m starting my normal life pre-COVID. My answer to whether I could go back to March 12, 2020, and forget all my memories up until Aug. 16, 2021—it would be a resounding “no.” I feel I have found myself and made life choices accordingly to put me back here where I belong. The pandemic showed me who I am, and what I could become. There is no greater revelation. ■