A nurse volunteering with the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps waits for patients at a free testing site in Richmond. She identified herself as Melissa, but her last name was inaudible at a distance through the protective masks she was wearing. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

History will remember 2020 as the year that kept on taking.

I could fill this column enumerating all that this hell-beast of a leap year has robbed from us and still have enough left over for a multi-part series, but I doubt The Mercury budgeted for that.

A virus no one had heard of last Thanksgiving is killing about 1,500 Americans a day and getting worse.

We watched Main Street and Wall Street nose-dive in late winter, taking our nest eggs with them and shaking our faith in the future. Wall Street rebounded; Main Street has not. 

We saw our White House abdicate leadership on the pandemic response, insisting repeatedly, in defiance of science, that it would miraculously disappear as states scrambled to cobble together a disparate patchwork of responses.

America (and the rest of the world) watched in unbelieving horror as a policeman used his knee to crush a subdued black man’s neck into the asphalt of a Minneapolis street for nearly nine minutes, unmoved by pleas from aghast onlookers and George Floyd himself that he was dying.

The angry, sometimes violent and wholly predictable backlash to Floyd’s curbside lynching and other videotaped killings of black people at the hands of law enforcement has ripped the nation’s societal fabric and left Americans at one another’s throats in ways not seen since the ’60s – the 1860s.

And it all played out in the most savage political season in modern U.S. history headlined by a presidential election that delivered a damning judgment against a sitting president. Donald Trump refuses to acknowledge his defeat or affect an orderly transfer of power to the victor, Joe Biden. He has commenced a dangerous scorched-earth campaign of national and global wreckage on his way out that Biden will have to address beginning Jan. 20 without the benefit of a coordinated transition.

It’s hard to imagine a much bleaker tableau as we slide toward the winter solstice – the year’s darkest day.

But we are not without a couple of undimmed and enduring blessings and reasons to give thanks Thursday on the uniquely American holiday Abraham Lincoln reserved for that specific purpose.

American democracy

For all the lying, anger and caustic rhetoric this year’s campaigns engendered, we had a clean and fair election. That has been the consensus of top election administrators of both parties in every state, by numerous courts that have rejected Trump’s vote fraud claims for lack of evidence, and by the president’s own election security czar before his candor got him fired last week.

How do we know it was clean? Because neither side got everything it wanted. The president’s legions of lawyers allege fraud in the presidential election as Republicans extoll their strong showing in congressional races for candidates who shared the ballot with Trump. Nor will anyone soon forget the split-screen irony of pro-Trump throngs massed outside central election offices in Pennsylvania and Michigan chanting “Stop the count!” while pro-Trump crowds in Phoenix, where tabulations showed Trump was gaining votes and eating away at Biden’s lead, chanted “Count the votes!”

In a Kafkaesque spectacle unique in modern history, an increasingly desperate president has made it clear he will exhaust his options – legal and otherwise – to cling to power. Trump’s Senate majority Republican allies rushed his appointee to succeed the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg onto the U.S. Supreme Court before the election, cynically hoping that the dispositive vote in his favor will be 5-4, the same vote by which the court settled the 2000 election for George W. Bush. For Trump, however, one unsupported legal claim after another has disintegrated when the president’s attorneys appear before judges sans evidence.

Meanwhile, election officials continue quietly, earnestly, evenhandedly and dispassionately doing their jobs of ensuring that the election is fair and valid, just as they do outside the media microscope year after year. So far, their virtue and the soundness of American elections has stood tall.

American resolve

It’s been a while since Americans were put to the test the way  we have by this pandemic. It has made demands of us in ways that only our most senior Americans – those who grew up in the Great Depression and World War II – could understand.

That’s not to say there have not been hardships. We sacrificed nearly 60,000 American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines over 17⅓ years of warfare in Vietnam. The attacks on New York’s Twin Towers, Virginia’s Pentagon and the airliner that crashed in Pennsylvania as passengers foiled hijackers’ plans on Sept. 11, 2001, killed nearly 3,000 people and forever changed the way America views the world.

But the coronavirus – the ease with which it is spread, the random way it kills some, critically sickens many and scarcely affects others – is a defining historical hardship, a world war on the microbial level. In less than 10 months, it has killed 4,000 in Virginia, a small slice of the more than 250,000 it has killed nationally (or more than quadruple all the U.S. military personnel who died through two decades in Vietnam) and the 1.4 million dead worldwide. Nationally, infections are surging unchecked, obliterating records from the worst days of last spring, and the epidemiological consensus calls for worse over the winter before it abates.

Who knew forfeiting life’s ordinary patterns and comforts could cause such profound disruption? Well, now we do.

Family businesses, grown over generations, have closed forever. COVID-19 patients in nursing homes and hospitals pass away unattended by loved ones. Morgues overflow and refrigerator trucks are conscripted to handle the demand. Weddings and anniversaries are downscaled, celebrated over shaky Internet video conferences. Jobs disappear. Schools go dark and go virtual. Teens who’ve grown up together graduate from high school apart without pomp or circumstance. An evening out – dinner and a movie – may as well be a weekend on the Galapagos Islands.

Mortgages fall into arrears. Rent payments are missed and eviction notices arrive. A sense of security melts away, taking confidence and a sense of self worth with it. Inky despair sets in.

Somehow, America and Americans not only endure, they prevail. They find a way. They take one step, then another and move forward, sometimes blindly and on faith alone, in the face of paralyzing fear because that’s what Americans do. Now, news of two effective, proven vaccines heading to market next year rewards us with that most fleeting and sustaining human need – hope.

Anyone can rock along in good times, a blessing that, on balance, my Boomer generation and each one since has inherited.

This year’s ordeals, however, taught us what the eldest among us – those who remember soup kitchens, runs on the banks, meatless and wheatless days, tent cities, scrap rubber and metal drives, fuel rationing stamps, internment camps for Japanese Americans, civil defense blackout drills, D-Day, Iwo Jima, Hiroshima and Nagasaki – learned long ago: that we are stronger than the hardships we face, and that the night is never so dark or as long as it may seem.