I am sitting upstairs, looking out the window, and in the distance I can see WallyBen playing catch with his friend. Every time they catch the ball, I feel myself closer and closer to tears.

I should back up. Over the course of the last year, Husband Wally and I spent a lot of time discussing one question: If you could fast forward right now to the end of COVID times, would you? His answer was mostly a yes. He’s a worrier by nature, and the weight of everything hung heavy for him. I, on the other hand, was always a hard no.

First, the observation factor was fascinating to me. I was constantly surprised and amazed by the way society shifted and changed. If I could separate myself from the pain of it all, and the grief and the loss, and the toll it was taking on everything around it, I was amazed. The difference in our answers probably tells you why I am the one who pulls slivers out when my kids have a particularly deep, scream-worthy shard in their hand or foot. I can take on a robotic ambivalence—which in a way is a super power, and in a way is super concerning for the question of whether I:

1. And on a nicer level, have a heart. I check sometimes, in these moments. It’s always there, beating.

2. Am a serial killer. I have not killed anyone yet. So there is that.

Truly, though, now that we are seeing the sun rising, the leaves greening, the unicorns emerging from their clouds, I am making my way through my icy heart fog—I picture myself surrounded by thick white smokey clouds, arming my way through, pushing it away, blinking my eyes open as it clears. And as I do that, I feel the stress that was layered over the past year, that still is layered there—but that is lifting.

I turned 40 years old today. That means that the pandemic wrapped up my 30s. And it has me thinking about age, and my kids growing up—another huge reason I would not fast forward through troubles. Our kids were a great age for this pandemic. They are independent enough to work their way through remote school, which we were set up to do because we both were able to work from home. They are at the kind of boring elementary school ages, where school is happening and friends exist, but not at the critical social years of middle school and high school, where the only thing that feels like it matters are friends and activities. They like us, and want to be around us, which is worth treasuring and might not last. In fact, they do things just to entertain us, like this beautiful winter moment, when I was just minding my own business, watching the Downton Abbey movie in my room, classical music blaring from my screen, and I looked up to see this:

They both did remote school this year, which means I learned a lot about both of them. Wally is a chatty magoo in class—the kid does not stop talking. From the first day, his teacher was making him the host so he could solve technical problems and keep the class moving. By the end of the year, his teacher was asking him what page they were on, and saying, “Oh Wally, what would I do without you?” Vivvi, who I always thought of as quiet in public, jumps into her class conversations pretty often, and especially loves to throw in little zingers to get a laugh. This, I should have known, considering that the above little stunt is pretty typical.

With both kids in remote school, it has been a transition to reemerge and see the world again. I feel a little like a COVID 19 cicada—in our family cocoon, digging our way up through the dirt. Vivvi, in 3rd grade, is willing to reemerge happily—to see friends again, go back into activities.

Wally, 5th grade, is having a more difficult time. He is a thinking age, and to go from protection to life again feels extreme for him. I attribute this to the fact that he is a super rule follower. Once several years ago, we were at the zoo at closing time, and had an awesome view of a wolf. A worker on a golf cart came by to let us know to work our way to the exit in the next 10 minutes or so. Wally immediately started walking toward the exit. I stayed where I was. He stood 20 feet away from me yelling, “Come on, Mom! Come on!” I told him I was going to enjoy my last 10 minutes of seeing this wolf. He stood, red in the face, urging me to go.

“Wally, let’s go through this. What will happen if we are still here in 10 minutes when the lady comes by again? She will tell us to leave.”

He shook his head, stomped his foot. “Let’s go!”

“Now let’s imagine we refuse. Then what happens? She’s not going to wrestle us into her golf cart. She’s going to call or send for backup. That is at least another 10 or 15 minutes, if we really want to keep watching this wolf.”

He continued to stare.

“Now let’s say, back up shows up. The zoo security still aren’t going to have cuffs or force me to leave. They are going to give me a talking to. They will have to call the city police if they want to make an actual arrest.”

“Mom!” He growled.

“So then let’s say the police show up, and they decide to take me into the station. They aren’t going to arrest you. You’re a kid. They’ll call your dad or someone to come pick you up. That’s at least an hour of wolf watching time, if you really wanted it.”

By this time, our five minutes are up. I say goodbye to our wolf friend and start walking to the exit with him. “Do you get it?” I asked.

He sighed. “I just don’t want to go to juvey.”

Try to get that kid to see people again after a year of mostly not seeing people. Even though adults are getting vaccinated, and risks are lowering, Wally doesn’t have a vaccine yet. He has a hard time imagining life going back to anything other than the cave we have been in. Although this is a small loss compared to most COVID losses, it feels like a loss worth grieving—a year of missing out on friends, for a kid who used to come home from school and immediately run over to the field in our backyard to play with some of his neighborhood buddies.

Since full day school is on the horizon in a few months, potentially without a vaccine for him, he’s going to have to get back to it. We planned a family vacation to break him in and enrolled him in tons of sports camps over the summer. And one day several weeks ago, he worked up the courage to walk the few blocks to his friend’s house and ask him if he wants to play catch. Like the creepy stalker mom I am, I watched him from our driveway as he walked, feeling a loosening—some of that fog and smog lightening its bind from around me. I could breathe again. I then watched from our second floor as they played—just 15 minutes of catch. They threw the ball back and forth, chatted. I creepy-stalker-mom watched from the window, and I cried. A reminder that my dumb softie heart is still there under all that binding fog, beating.

As I look back on the year, with the retroactive acknowledgement of what we as a globe have gone through, I am glad I lived it. It was collectively hard for the world, and personally hard for all of us in ways we probably haven’t processed.

But I believe life has become more precious. Maybe we can treasure the moments of life that happen every day. We are here, living this right now. We don’t know what the next day, year, or decade will bring. But we can play catch with our friends, we can make someone smile with a spontaneous comedy dance show, and we can stay just another minute to watch the wolves. We can be humans who are living and feeling and breathing. We can be friends and family members and connected. And we can just be—through tragedy and joy. We are here for it. And right now, as I look out from the beginning of 40, that is enough.