Jesse Nichols is a video producer at Grist.


It’s strange to look back at the moments before your life changed forever. Last month was the 10-year anniversary of my dad’s death, which followed a yearlong fight with leukemia. A decade later, I’m struck by the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has given me a sense of déjà vu.

In June 2009, my dad visited the doctor for some seemingly minor symptoms, like fatigue and gum swelling. After a few days and some blood work, he got the news: He had leukemia. If untreated, it would probably kill him in a matter of months.

Everything changed in an instant. The next 11 months brought a series of in-patient chemotherapy sessions and a stem cell transplant in Seattle. Both my parents had to quit working. My dad became a full-time patient, leaving his cabinet business to his employees, and my mom left her nursing job to be his full-time caretaker. I was just starting high school, and I decided to stay at our home in rural Washington while they were in Seattle for treatment. I stayed with my brother or slept over at friends’ houses during the week. On weekends, I commuted to the city to see my parents.

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Mundane memories from before the diagnosis suddenly felt more transfixing. I still savor those recollections — of just going to restaurants or running errands with my family — like postcards from a different world. After a few failed rounds of chemotherapy, the next course of action was a stem cell transplant. This began with a cloudy pink bag of new life from a stranger, which was eventually supposed to grow and become my dad’s new cancer-free immune system. But this left a four-month gap where he didn’t have a functional immune system.

Coronavirus would’ve been a death sentence for him. Even the common cold was risky: When I woke up with a sore throat one day that winter, I had to stay with my brother to keep my dad from getting sick. To keep him safe, we adopted habits that are becoming familiar to us all: excessive hand washing and so much hand sanitizer!

During the stem cell transplant, my parents moved into a little apartment in the city. Besides medical appointments, we didn’t get out a lot. Those months were filled with a lot of simple activities that are once again familiar: walks around the neighborhood, Scrabble, movies, and Friday night takeout from the local Thai restaurant. I remember those weekends as slow and cozy, being close to my family without having to do a lot.

I’m guessing the world will eventually feel more normal when we emerge from the pandemic, just like it eventually did for me. But I know from experience that it will never feel quite the same. For better and worse, this will all become part of who we are from here on out.