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An anniversary of firsts and lasts

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — We were in a bar in Northeast Albuquerque on a sunny Sunday afternoon to raise a glass to a dear friend who had died.

The four of us have been friends and colleagues for years, as was our friend, yet we rarely found time anymore to get together like we had in our younger, less tethered days.

Taken on March 15, 2020, this photo at Gecko’s Bar and Grill marks the last time these friends could get together before New Mexico imposed COVID-19 restrictions on bars, restaurants and breweries and gathering in groups. From left are Ollie Reed Jr., Pamela Johnson, Joline Gutierrez Krueger and Scott Gullett. (Joline Gutierrez Krueger/Albuquerque Journal)

It took death to bring us together again. We regretted that.

It was March 15, 2020, and we were about to regret much more.

COVID-19 came with so much regret. It changed everything, took away people and things we had so carelessly taken for granted.

As we sat in that bar, an alert came across on my phone: Starting that next morning, the state was ordering restaurants, bars, breweries, eateries and other food establishments to operate at 50% capacity. More than six people could no longer sit at a single table, and those tables needed to be at least 6 feet apart.

“Well, it’s happening,” I recall telling my companions as I looked around the bar and imagined fewer tables, fewer people. Under the new order, the folks jovially chatting at the bar would not be allowed to sit there. I don’t think any of them knew that then.

Four days later, nobody would be sitting anywhere in that bar or any other bar, restaurant and brewery under an even stricter mandate issued March 19 by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham that all but shut down the state.

We had known it was coming. COVID-19 had begun seeping into the state by March 11 when three cases were identified: A husband and wife, both in their 60s, from Socorro County who had recently traveled to Egypt. A woman in her 70s from Bernalillo County who had recently returned from New York.

On the night of March 10 last year, I was contacted by friends of several of the 21 New Mexicans trapped for a week aboard the doomed Grand Princess, quarantined, docked and seemingly forgotten at the Port of Oakland after people aboard had tested positive for coronavirus.

One of them, Carolyn Wright of Santa Fe, sent me haunting photos of her fellow passengers during the 20 minutes they were allowed to leave their cabins each day. They were bundled up, wore masks, stood far apart as if they were avoiding each other, which they were. It all looked so bizarre, so otherworldly – then.

Cindy Rizzo of Los Lunas told me she was out of medication, her luggage was taken somewhere and nobody was telling her or her husband what came next. “We’re being treated like animals, like outcasts,” she said.

I relayed their urgent messages to Lujan Grisham’s people, but by March 12 it was obvious her staff was already feeling swamped by the first wave of the pandemic.

“Don’t you think we are trying to work on answers? We have not slept,” one spokesman wrote in a terse email. “This is a public health crisis.”

And it was just beginning.

On March 13 last year, many of us in the newsroom changed our voicemail greetings to let callers know we would be working from home for the duration. I haven’t set foot in the newsroom since.

These are among my memories of the Last Everything before COVID-19. You have your own – the last get-together with friends, the last day at the office, the last cruise, the last hug, the last roll of toilet paper on the shelf, the last time seeing a loved one alive, the last normal.

We also have our own memories of the First Everything – the first mask, the first curbside order, the first Zoom meeting, the first gray hair left alone, the first sting of hand sanitizer, the first missed birthday, the first case of COVID-19 in our circle of friends and family, the first death, the first day without someone we love.

The first week of the pandemic gave way to the first month, then the first season, then the first semester and, now, the first year.

“I can’t believe it’s only been a year,” Wright, one of the cruise ship passengers, wrote me this week. “Somehow it feels like it was a lifetime ago!”

She and her travel companion, Beryl Ward, finally made it back to New Mexico eight days after they were scheduled to, on the same day I had hung out with friends in that bar, as it happens.

Ward was terrified of catching COVID-19 and had not been in a store, restaurant or public building until a few days ago when she, Wright and two friends, all of whom have received their vaccines, went out to dinner.

It was a celebration, but an uneasy one.

“I think that it is really going to take some adjustment for many of us to be comfortable in a crowd again,” Wright said.

Her travails on what she calls the “plague ship” were the first COVID-19-related columns I wrote. But they weren’t the last. Over the months, I sought to capture how you’ve weathered the pandemic, from learning to bake bread, sew masks, paint rocks, cut hair, hold drive-by parades and teddy bear scavenger hunts, how you have grieved over the loss of a loved one, a job, a business, a dream.

I have tried to chronicle the ways you have cheered on health care workers, supported front-line workers, how you have found new ways of shopping and celebrating and visiting and surviving.

I have especially been grateful to write about the way you have triumphed. You have gotten married, found love, found ways out of loneliness, found ways to carry on the memories of those you have lost, found ways to be kinder to each other through this most unkind time.

I’ve had plenty to write about, thanks to you.

On this anniversary of Last and First, it’s time to look to the Next, bravely and clear-eyed, our memories as lessons of the worst. Let us embrace it with no regrets.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column.