New Year’s Eve 2020

As this weird, often awful, sometimes wonderful year comes to a close, I had a few thoughts. The first is that I haven’t missed live events too often, but today found myself missing the roar of the crowd, the anticipation of a live show, the collective swell and rise to our feet when a playoff goal happens in hockey. A walk-off homerun. Singalongs at concerts. High fives with strangers.

We’ll get back to these things, of course. Maybe not ALL the way back in 2021, but slowly and surely. It’s human nature to want to connect with others, to share visceral experiences. There will likely be more caution and perhaps a decent amount of hesitation, especially in the short term. The vaccines will help, but not everyone will line up and the roll-out will be slow. I expect the American summer to be similar to last year’s, with more people venturing out, more collective toes dipping into the waters. This is presuming that things don’t get worse, which they very well could. However, I’m not sure why, but I expect attitudes to improve, with perhaps a slight uptick in appreciation for science and medicine and reason. This may be naively optimistic, but I don’t believe it to be unrealistic either.

It probably doesn’t do much good to dwell on what went wrong in 2020. They’ve all been well documented, anyway. So instead, let’s focus on the positives and what is still to come. First and foremost, my nephew, Luke, has kicked cancer to the curb. The kid, who is only 7, has gone through and beaten leukemia.

To a large extent, I’ve been removed from all of this. I live four hours away, so I haven’t been exposed to the day-to-day. I haven’t dealt with what my sister-in-law, Jenny, has had to on the hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly basis. I can’t imagine how exhausting that must have been for her; the toll it’s taken. 3+ years of hospital visits and lengthy stays, the multitude of doctors, the poking and prodding and ports. Moreover, there has been more than one move, uplifting the family from Falls Church to Staunton, VA, to be closer to her family. So my hat goes off to Jenny, and to my brother, Adam, and to my other nephew, Tommy, who has had to live in the shadow of his older brother’s illness. Somehow, they’ve all gotten through it and in the process, they added another member to the family! Janie, my only niece, was born on 8/14/20, the same day as my parents’ 49th wedding anniversary.

She is the first McIlwain girl born since my grandfather Ed’s sister, Janet, and if my math is correct, not only the first female McIlwain of her generation, but the first in NINE generations. I am so proud of all of them and send so much love to Adam and Jenny and Luke and Tommy and Janie and I can’t wait to see them and spend time with them in the new year.

In Adam’s words, “In total, this was one of the best years for me personally.  Janie, Luke’s end of treatment, major upgrade in my home and my budget, and the worst President* of my life died.  Well, lost anyway.  Plus I still have a great job for a great employer.”

My brother Josh continued to impress, as well. Winter, spring, summer and fall, he climbed 13ers and 14ers in Colorado, traveled to Devil’s Tower and Utah and visited parts of the American west, filled with glorious splendor. Regarding the mountain climbing, Josh writes, “10 new/unique 14ers this year, some requiring multiple attempts. 13ers are harder to track because they don’t all have peak names and sometimes, like when summiting Huron, a 14er, you can do three 13ers on the way. They also make rules about what qualifies as a “peak” because the prominence has to be like 450’ higher from the saddle than the nearest peak. So it gets a little lame in my opinion when the spirit of the hike is to push oneself and one’s limitations, inside and out, and becomes less about keeping score on the 13ers. Plus the 14ers are just easier to remember. Ballpark guess on 13ers this year, 5-7.” No matter how you slice it, one truth remains: Josh’s accomplishments are remarkable. Professionally, he worked as hard as he always does, he battled and beat COVID-19, he found new ways to connect with his father while being a great role model to his son, Matthew.

And oh yeah, he fought the Cameron Peak Forest Fire:

In a year FILLED with trials and tribulations and lots of difficulties and death, why not throw the largest forest fire in Colorado state history on to the pile? In the efforts to protect our family’s home in Masonville, Josh rose to the challenge. Of course, he could only do so much and luck had to play a role. It turns out, the house and its surrounding land was a good spot to be a staging area for the heroic firefighters, so they dug in their collective heels and protected what they could. In the more forested foothills above my parents’ home, everything was lost and homes were destroyed. In the more grassy areas below them and closer to Masonville and civilization, most properties were spared. Their house was squarely on the line between destruction and salvation and their home survived.

Thanks to Josh, the home will be better prepared for future fires and our family will be better equipped to keep the home around for future generations.

My parents had to deal with all of these things, worrying about their own health and safety, while driving across the country to and from Colorado. They left Masonville before the fires got close to the house, so they were in relative safety back in Pennsylvania when Cameron Peak was at its worst and closest to the home. In a trying year for everyone, I think the pandemic took its toll on them the most; not necessarily in a physical way, but certainly from a mental health aspect and an emotional perspective. Our summer vacation plans (with Tom, Betsy, Josh, Matthew, Ben, Andrea and me) in Glacier National Park had to be scrapped. Time with friends and family had to be suspended. Visits to Big Bear had to be severely limited and were mostly only from Josh and Matthew. On the plus side, Ben and Andrea and I were able to have my parents over to our house for Thanksgiving, eating outside on our front patio, and during this Christmas break, we’ve been able to see them twice, exchanging presents and keeping our socially distanced and masked visits brief but enjoyable. We’re all glad to see 2020 come to an end, but I think my parents are the most relieved.

With relief comes optimism. I asked my mom to share her thoughts on 2020 and this is what she wrote: “When your father and I were married almost 50 years ago, the song that we danced to at our wedding reception was ‘As Time Goes By’ from Casablanca. A line from that song goes, ‘the fundamental things apply as time goes by.’ That is true. Fundamental things like love for family, closeness of friends, work that gives you joy, fine music, and art, and literature are all fundamentals. They have more application today is this time of confusion, this time of uncertainty. Remembering what is really important helps me stay centered.”

Life lessons from Rick, Ilsa, Sam, Louis and even Victor Laszlo.

So what will the future bring? If this year is any indication, Andrea’s business will continue to grow and prosper. To leave any job is a risk. To leave a job to become a full-time and independent artist? You gotta have balls. Courage alone only gets you so far. Mix in talent and drive and creativity and passion and sheer ability and a steady hand and maybe, just maybe, you’ll find success. She is her own CEO, CFO, marketing team, social media team, mail room, boss, employee and intern (although Mabel sometimes helps). And even if you’re a REALLY good artist, you still have to find ways to get your product in front of the right eyes and on top of that, you have to do it in a pandemic which has crunched the economy and taken its toll on our collective psyches. And yet, somehow, she continues to BE an artist, to surprise me, to be creative, and to use her talents to produce incredible art and yes, sell that art to the masses. I’m so impressed by her and so proud of her. I’m lucky to be in love with someone like that who loves me back. How could you not love this?!

Andrea and I missed out on traveling together this year, but are hopefully we can find ways to hit the road in 2021. When it’s safe and we feel ok to do so, we’ll get back on a plane, but if that doesn’t happen, the road trip itself is always an option. In 2020, I took my first long road trip in an RV since 1991 (long live the Minnie Winnie) as Ben and I set out for Maine and Acadia National Park. Though we missed having Andrea as our companion, the trip was an unqualified success. We rented the perfect size RV, drove from PA up through New Jersey and New York, through Connecticut (BOO!) and on to Massachusetts, where we visited with my friend, Chris Edwards and his wonderful family. From there, we headed north through New Hampshire and into Maine and up to Acadia, which is my 23rd National Park. There are 62, including the Gateway Arch, and before I die, I’d like to make it to all of them.

Ben has always been a great travel partner, never complaining, always willing to try something new, or go some place different. He makes it all incredibly easy. And this father-son road trip couldn’t have gone much more smoothly. He even tolerated our side trip to go see Buxton (lotta hayfields up in Buxton). I thoroughly enjoyed being in the RV with him and LOVED getting back to Maine and letting him experience it for the first time. Throughout Maine and New Hampshire, people were respectful and kind and courteous and visiting the National Park only whetted my appetite to explore Maine and get to more parks.

The kid is good at hiking, too!

There’s more, of course, but I’ve already prattled on too much. There were other short trips here and there, and some good times camping with Ben and Andrea and just Andrea and me, too. I look forward to more hiking, more time outdoors, more exploring in 2021. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get back out west, but even if we don’t, there’s plenty to see and do within driving distance!

I hope that despite all the difficulties, 2020 was ok for you. I was lucky. I kept working, my family and friends were all safe and relatively healthy, and I’m grateful to have made it through this year unscathed. I know it’s been so hard for so many, and if you’re reading this and it was a tough year for you, please know that I genuinely hope 2021 is a VAST improvement. I continue to be hopeful and be optimistic.

To borrow a line from my favorite movie (and the reason to go to Buxton, Maine), “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.”