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Saying hello to 2021, and goodbye to the weirdest year ever

As she prepared to spend New Year’s Eve with her parents and brother, and — perhaps more important in this uncommonly pro-Crimson Tide family — New Year’s Day with the televised sights of the Alabama-Notre Dame national championship semifinal football game, Cameron Foley reflected on the final lingering fumes of 2020.

“If that’s the most life can throw at me in a year and I can come out the other side,” Foley said, “I can do a lot.”

It’s a common sentiment following nearly 10 months of pandemic, economic implosion, massive street protests, wildfires, smoke, power outages and the most contentious presidential election in modern U.S. history. But Foley, 20, has more reason to breathe a sigh of relief than the average Sonoma County citizen. She tested positive for the coronavirus in June, soon after completing her sophomore year at the University of Alabama.

Foley’s age made her a good candidate for a swift recovery. Her asthma did not. More than half a year later, she still experiences pain and tightness in her chest. And her original diagnosis, she said, came at a time when she was weathering some serious personal issues, which she chose not to discuss.

“Everything kind of hit a perfect storm for me,” Foley said. “When I got COVID, I just knew it was the cherry on top.”

Then her younger brother, Jack, was infected. He had joined her in Tuscaloosa, as a freshman. In contrast to many universities, Alabama put students in dorms and held many classes in person. Jack Foley wound up recovering much more quickly than his sister, escaping the long-haul conditions that have dogged Cameron – and perhaps the mental challenge, too.

“I think it’s inflicted a deep sense of paranoia, really,” Cameron Foley said. “I know so many people who got it, who had zero symptoms or barely any symptoms. Me, having this feeling of fighting an uphill battle, it makes me fear I’m susceptible to more things in life than others.”

Foley doesn’t live within a fantasy. She has known all along that Jan. 1 wouldn’t look much different than Dec. 31. But you can understand her eagerness to flip the calendar to a number that doesn’t read “2020.”

She is not alone. All over our flame-blackened, debt-ridden, socially distanced terrain, people are hoping for something better.

Ray Martignoli sure is. The 89-year-old and his wife, Rose Marie, both live at Arbol Residences, a continuing care retirement community on Fountaingrove Parkway. But Ray is in an Assisted Living apartment. Rose Marie, who has Alzheimer’s dementia, is in Memory Care. Because of the perils of COVID-19, the couple spends no more than 30 minutes a day together. In February, they will celebrate their 69th wedding anniversary.

“I would like to spend that evening with her,” Ray Martignoli said. “It will be very traumatic for me if I can’t, but I probably can’t. You live with it.”

Short of someone who experienced a loss of life in 2020, it’s hard to imagine anyone more impacted by the virus than Martignoli. He misses the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras parties he used to organize at Arbol, and the luau the community put on there. Mostly, though, he misses spending the other 23½ hours a day with Rose Marie, a separation made harder by knowing he could soothe her with the touch of a hand or photos of the great-grandchildren.

But Martignoli is managing to draw positives from this cursed year, proving to himself that, even at 89, it’s possible to experience personal growth. During his career working in prisons, he could never understand why inmates signed up to work for pennies per hour.

“Now I understand,” Martignoli said. “They want to get out of their cells and do something productive. One thing I’ve learned is to try to wear the other person’s shoes for a while. Try to understand why people are doing what they’re doing.”

Empathy was a common theme in conversations looking back on 2020 and ahead to what the new year might bring.

Cody Brown said 2020 showed him that no matter how much you lose, you can always find someone who has less. He cited a report on global hunger he just saw, perhaps UNICEF’s assessment that COVID-19 could push another 142 million children into poverty by the end of this year in developing nations.

“I think to myself, ‘I have a girlfriend, I have a family, I have a house where right now I can pay rent. I can get food from a gas station or store,’” Brown said. “Wow. Everybody who lives in this country has a privilege that so many people in the world don’t, because we can see a full meal. It humbles me.”

That’s quite an expression of altruism when you consider everything 2020 threw at Brown. The owner of The Dirty tavern and co-owner of Crooks Coffee in downtown Santa Rosa, he began the year on a roll. Then came the first in a series of state and county stay-at-home orders on March 18. The coffee shop has done all right, Brown said. But the pandemic has been a disaster for the bar.

The Dirty has been open for limited indoor seating for only a short time since March. Brown said he sank $11,000 into creating a welcoming outdoor area, but had to close entirely shortly thereafter. As it stands, he has taken on debt of about $70,000 this year. He worries he and his girlfriend, or even his 60-year-old mother, could wind up homeless.

Despite his pluck, Brown is pessimistic about 2021. He believes California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Sonoma County officials have abandoned small business owners, or have even worked against them in favor of chain stores.

“If the lockdowns go on much longer, we’ll be another statistic, like so many small businesses in California,” Brown said.

At least those battered by the pandemic can hold out hope of a widespread and effective vaccine, a development that could ease restrictions on social gatherings and commerce. That isn’t really the case for Sonia Nuss, because you can’t vaccinate against fire season. Nuss and her husband, Paul, lost their home in the Glass fire.

The couple had lived in the house on Vaughn Court for 28 years, had raised four children and made a happy life there. She watched it burn the morning of Sept. 27, via a live video being broadcast by a Press Democrat reporter. A fourth-grade teacher at J.X. Wilson Elementary School, she had just started a Zoom lesson with her class.

The fire wasn’t the end of the Nusses’ troubles. Someone looted their still-standing garage in the aftermath, and the couple has wrangled with their insurance company. Two weeks ago, they learned they might have been exposed to COVID. They have since tested negative twice.

Sonia Nuss said the disruption affected her ability to concentrate before she settled back into a routine. But 2020 brought her joy, too. She found her religious faith strengthened, for example. Also, her daughter had moved home two days before the Glass fire, and has followed the parents to a rented town house off of Calistoga Road. Their time together has been a blessing.

Nuss was thrilled by the national election results, too, having grown sick of the “negativity in the White House.” Most of all, maybe, is the satisfaction Sonia and Paul have derived from the kindness of friends, neighbors and even government liaisons.

“I hate these fires,” Nuss said. “I hate to evacuate. I hated the days we lost power. But then we don’t know anything else. We’d go back to the house and sift through stuff, and like four different people would come up and talk. After a while it would be like, ‘We’ve been here three hours and we haven’t done anything.’”

That sense of community, as much of anything, is why she and her husband are planning to rebuild on their property.

They know it won’t be the same, and not just because of the possessions they lost. Sonia Nuss just retired from teaching. Her last day was Dec. 18. It wasn’t how she planned to go out, but working and managing their disaster recovery proved too stressful.

Nuss said New Year’s Eve would be quiet at the town house. But she has definite plans for Monday. That would have been her first day back at J.X. Wilson. Remembering all the times she drove to school via Hwy. 12 and thought, “I could just keep going, all the way to the coast,” she’s planning to do just that. She and a friend, Debra Agee Burton, will head out Monday morning, stop at Wild Flour Bread along the way and stroll the beach with their coffees. And Sonia will look back one more time at a disorienting, devastating, empowering year.

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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