I sat in my orthotics appointment, the cool linoleum seeping through my socks and into the soles of my feet, I looked at my well-worn, black shoes. The buzzing of the overhead light that had gone unheard when I first entered the room seemingly had grown louder as I sat there in silence. It had been years since I could get an appointment for new orthotics and shoes. COVID had made sure of that, but all I could do now was look at my beaten shoes. The flood of emotion took me by surprise. The realization that this pair of shoes had been through every step of COVID with me. How many times had the shoes gone into COVID-positive rooms? How many of those times was I petrified of becoming sick?
Once that thought passed through my mind, the tears began to fall. Silently the images of patient after patient rolled through my consciousness. The ringing of alarms, the crying of families and the prayers of patients flooded my ears. It seemed all at once that every single emotion I had been suppressing through the last two and a half years came crashing down onto me.
I sat there, immobilized by memories, and stared at the shoes. The brilliant black that they had been initially having faded with the constant washing of them. Something that I had never done with any shoes before them, never feeling the need before the threat of COVID. The decorative checkmark on the side also faded, worn and looked as tired as I felt in that moment.
How could I be getting so emotional over a pair of shoes? They were shoes! They were just a part of my uniform, my every day.
It was at that moment that the enormity of the weight those shoes had carried over the last few years hit me.
They had been with me every step of the way as I struggled through the emotional, physical, and spiritual costs of COVID. The fear of death that had been ever so present in the beginning, then slowly ebbing away as the death tolls lowered with each passing variant. They were there when I got the call that I had won the “lottery” that allowed me to have access to one of the first sets of vaccines — a miracle at the time.
How many of my tears had spilled onto their meshed tops? How many tears of others had they been exposed to? How many people had died, and those shoes were there for me in my grief for the family’s loss? I had worn them out, caring for others and, ever so slowly, learning to care for myself.
I came back to reality as the cold floor continued to make its way into my feet, alerting me to the fact that I still only had socks on. It was all I could do to stare and the shoes and not have a flood of pain and sorrow rack my body.
It was then that the door to the small office opened, and I was jolted back into reality. I was quickly fitted for my new shoes and orthotics, wishing to leave the bright new shoes on. The brilliance of the neon pink laces damn near blinded me with their bright newness. The cheerful new bright blue/teal shoes left me with the feeling of hope and starting anew.
“Do you want me to pack your old shoes so you can bring them home?” The face of the kind orthotics technician was looking at me and awaiting an answer and not knowing the inner turmoil that question had instantly caused me. A beat, then two, passed between us — the question hanging in the air and lingering there, awaiting my decision. I couldn’t bring myself to throw them out, but I couldn’t bring them home either.
“No,” I said, the hesitation in my voice more than audible. “No, I’m sorry, but I can’t bring them home. They’ve served their purpose.” I said without thinking. All that rang in my head was, and I served mine.
“No worries, I can take care of them.” The sweet man said.
Neither one of us made a move to reach for the shoes. We both just stared at them — another beat passed before he motioned to reach for the shoes. It seemed to happen in slow motion that he grabbed the shoes and put them under his desk by the garbage but didn’t put them in. I was thankful for the gesture, unsure if he knew just how monumental this moment was for me. How could he? To him, they were just another pair of well-worn shoes, but to me, they were angst, wrapped in terror and fear, with a core of heartache and tears.
As the tech finished the appointment, he gave me the box for my new shoes and wished me a good day as I stood and made my way to the door. Purposefully opening the door, not looking back, and walking the long hall outside, I let the fear and sadness wash over me. I grieved the loss of innocence that those shoes had carried me through. I had survived thus far and felt the need to start anew. The bright new shoes mirrored the sense of the blossoming brightness that had begun to shine through me with every passing day. Every day inching closer to the bright, bubbly person I was before COVID. I knew she was gone, but there were aspects of her that could be reimagined as I dealt with the trauma of the past years.
A new pair of shoes for a new start, I thought to myself as I walked out into the bright warm sunlight, letting the moment and the warmth of the sun warm my heart. The heat felt like the hug I needed to continue with the day.
Jennifer Johnson is a Registered Nurse. Published Author. True believer in the power of talking about the hard stuff.