My only memory of living through a pandemic comes from the 2009 swine flu outbreak in the U.S. I was 10 years old, and I had no idea what was going on in the world besides what came over the Michigan Radio broadcasts my mom played in the car.
I remember lining up outside one of Toledo’s many, many Catholic schools with my dad, dreading what was about to come.
The school had been designated as a location to distribute the recently developed H1N1 vaccine. I hated needles. I still do to this day. But it went fine. I think some part of me knew how important it was, and that made the experience a little easier.
Over the last two weeks, I’ve been continually returning to that memory, as the world appears to be spiraling further and further out of control.
When news broke on March 12 that the Big Ten tournament would be played without fans, I was incredibly excited as a reporter. The opportunity to see top-level basketball in a nearly empty professional arena is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was even going to wear a suit.
And then more news broke the next day.
The Big Ten Conference announced that the remainder of the tournament would be canceled for player safety just six hours before I was due to leave for the game. I was heartbroken.
And then the NCAA canceled March Madness and the NIT.
And then the Big Ten canceled sports altogether.
Like a popping bubble, all of my responsibility had just vanished. In that moment, I felt what everybody else had been feeling since the original “no fans” announcements. After the wildest 48 hours I’d experienced since becoming a journalist, it was as if life was calling in my sadness debt, saying, “You’ve had your fun with this situation, now pay up.”
In this column, I was going to make observations about the atmosphere of the game, joke about hearing Matt Painter yell his head off and look forward to seeing other games played under these unusual circumstances. But now I can’t.
My disappointment is like getting that swine flu shot. I know it had to happen. But I’m still not happy about it.
I’m fascinated by kenopsia, a feeling defined in the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows as “the eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that’s usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet.”
The memory of that day in 2009 is buried in the haze of childhood and summer heat, but I remember the people. The line nearly hit the sidewalk outside the school gate. The cafeteria inside had been converted into rows and rows of vaccination tables.
Inside, it felt empty except for me, my dad and the nurse. The most I can remember of that part is the relief I felt after. It was as if the sky had cleared. It’s the feeling I keep looking forward to when I see updates on the infection spread or the unprecedented measures governments and organizations are taking to slow everything down.
That game was supposed to be a reprieve from the spiral, a moment of levity in the sea of fear and uncertainty we’re navigating. It didn’t turn out that way, but it makes me think that there’s gonna be something like it down the road.