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Dec. 7, 2021

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Pandemic perspectives from Clark County

Readers share impact of COVID while museum, students document stories

By , Columbian staff writer
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Martha Wiley of Vancouver honors those who have died in Clark County of COVID-19 by hanging a compact disc for each.
Martha Wiley of Vancouver honors those who have died in Clark County of COVID-19 by hanging a compact disc for each. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Martha Wiley decided early in the pandemic to create a memorial. On a tree in front of her Vancouver home, she hangs a colored compact disc for each Clark County COVID-19 death.

“I became incensed with people who refused to wear masks and keep distant, who complained so much, who refused to see how much people’s lives depended on others to do the right thing,” Wiley said. “I remember thinking, when I put up the 100th disc, it couldn’t go on much longer. Now we’re past 300 deaths and there isn’t much more room on the tree.”

Like Wiley, many of us are trying to make sense of the pandemic even as we continue living through it. The Columbian asked for readers’ personal reflections. Meanwhile, the Clark County Historical Museum, and high-schoolers working on a senior project, are also exploring the pandemic’s local impact on people’s lives.

“People may only just be getting some perspective,” said Brad Richardson, the museum’s executive director.

Pain, silver linings

While Wiley and others expressed pain, isolation, rage and loss, some told us about silver linings.

In Their Own Words

Here are edited excerpts from Karen Mulholland and Julia Knight’s “Vancouver COVID-19 Living History Document,” which they are creating for a Columbia River High School senior project. You can view the complete document at sites.google.com/view/vancouvercovid-19lhd/home.

Chasm

I have asthma.

My housemates didn’t take the pandemic seriously, and all of them worked high-contact retail jobs. One of them lost her job and began throwing keggers like it was college again. Complete strangers would come over. My housemates teased and mocked me and told me I needed to chill.

I stayed in my room. I had my groceries delivered. I woke. I ate. I worked. I slept. I woke. I ate. I worked. I slept. I cried. I cried. I cried. I spent every hour of my day locked in that room. It was my personal hell, my prison, for two months, before I abandoned my lease.

COVID is this chasm that opened up and swallowed me. I had struggled with suicidal ideation and depression my whole life, but this was beyond that. The feeling of utter isolation and despair, and the physical pain it brought with it. The loss of any sense of time and meaning in existence. It changed me.

— “RT,” graphic artist

How little it takes

Multiple family members, both immediate and extended, contracted the virus. Multiple family members were hospitalized within an inch of their lives, with an immediate family member … on a ventilator for two weeks.

I work as a caregiver at a nursing home and saw the physical and mental health effects that COVID had on the staff and the residents. COVID has made me realize how cushy many Americans had it, including myself. Even with all of my problems before, COVID has opened my eyes in terms of how little it takes to knock us down and how little we think of others.

—Anonymous, caregiver

Genuine selves

It was a deeply surreal experience to see how so many kids my age (high-schoolers) changed into what I believe to be more genuine versions of themselves. I strongly believe that forced isolation allowed people to genuinely reflect and spend time with themselves. Removing the constant day-to-day stigma of academics and athletics allowed teenagers the breathing room to become comfortable with who they are and live whatever life they want to live.

—Paul Enzo Simons, student

Tears of joy

After being locked down for a year we went to a mini get-together and it was magical. We were so happy to just be around other people. It was very emotional. It was a little upsetting, how happy we felt afterwards. Why should we be brought to tears just because we went to a barbecue?

—Anonymous

Distance and difference fragmented friendships, but new ones were born.

“What began as a gathering of neighborhood acquaintances became a daily greeting of good friends,” April Duvic said of her Vancouver cul de sac’s new, socially distanced happy-hour tradition. “We realized how fortunate we were.”

Students stayed home, but neighbors’ yards became playgrounds again.

“We hosted a weekday ‘recess’ for neighbor children,” said Pam Otton of West Hazel Dell. “The kids wrote a play based on ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and performed a talent show where we were treated to songs from ‘Hamilton.’ ”

Many people lost jobs and connections, but others found new directions. “There are now more than nine books that I’ve made for my friends’ grandchildren that are also distributed worldwide,” said Vancouver author and illustrator Sue Clancy.

Others reality-checked about what’s really important.

“The pandemic has taught me that there isn’t time to not get along with others. I no longer piss and moan about trivialities,” said Sarah Bozarth of Woodland. “I have decided to just get along with everyone as best I can. My life has been easier.”

Others made drastic lifestyle changes.

“After a couple weeks of pity parties that involved pizza and macaroni, I reached 201 pounds,” said Michelle Hersh of Camas. “I was also drinking and blacking out. I thought, is this what you’re going to be for the rest of your life?

Clark County historian Richardson piles up awards

Brad Richardson’s efforts to keep the Clark County Historical Museum engaged with the community during the coronavirus pandemic earned him a statewide award.

The Washington State Historical Society named Richardson, the museum’s executive director, winner of the 2021 David Douglas Award.

“Nominators spoke to Richardson’s leadership and the museum’s continued community engagement throughout the pandemic,” the award statement said. “When the museum was shuttered, the work was not. The staff worked tirelessly to ensure that exhibits were virtually available; educational efforts continued; and outreach to the community did not stop.”

Also, earlier in the year, the museum’s ongoing “Music, Movement and Sound: An exploration of Clark County’s Musical Roots” was recognized with an Exhibit of Excellence Award from the Washington Museum Association.

— Scott Hewitt

“It’s not for everybody, but I became a vegan,” Hersh said. “I lost 50 pounds. I stopped drinking by making a list of all the reasons to stop — the main one was my daughter.”

In June 2021, a rejuvenated Hersh triumphantly cycled the Tour de Blast bike ride up the road to Mount St. Helens. “I tried to lose weight before, I don’t know why it’s different this time,” she said. “I just needed to be positive at a time when COVID was so negative.”

Still underway

In spring 2020, the Clark County Historical Museum launched a project called Capture the Moment, inviting submissions of pandemic-life photos, stories, videos and more — anything and everything that memorializes this uniquely strange and sudden zigzag in local and world history.

That work is continuing, although Richardson said that he never could have imagined that Capture the Moment’s pandemic “moment” would still be underway today.

A quick preview for The Columbian included dark photos of plastic dividers in empty offices; colorful glimpses of last summer’s impromptu, quasi-rebellious car cruise-in event on Main Street; one teen’s video invective against adults who value political dogma over freedom of thought; screen shots of Zoom social gatherings; simple poetry about the fragility of life.

“It’s absolutely fascinating, and it shows people keep persevering,” Richardson said. “History is the instruction manual for society. We are providing the guideposts for people to look back on, should something like this ever happen again.”

Student project

A similar project is underway at Columbia River High School, where senior history students Karen Mulholland and Julia Knight reached out through social media and received dozens of anecdotes and stories for a living history website about Vancouver’s COVID-19 experience. It’s their senior project for history teacher Kassondra Young.

“A lot of kids … felt really changed by being alone for a year,” Mulholland said. “Some felt very isolated but some felt kind of relieved. We heard from both sides and I think those feelings go together. It was a very isolating year but the idea of going back to school is really overwhelming.”

A number of anonymous contributions are brutally frank about divided families and devastated lives, Mulholland noted.

“Stress brings out people’s true characters,” she said. “We had some great responses from people in health care who showed how that situation brought out the heroics in people. And we heard from people who had difficulties with family who didn’t have the same beliefs about COVID. Some people still don’t believe it’s real.”

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