Quarantine Diary Day 117: Day at the Park

EXT. MASON PARK, CENTRAL EVANSTON — EARLY EVENING

The playground is open but still as empty as it was when the pandemic shut everything down in March. A leaf bug skitters up an empty slide. A hot wind blows a leaf across the mulch. A few boys bounce a basketball on the court way on the other side of the park but we can’t hear them. We can’t hear anything. A MOM AND HER YOUNG DAUGHTER are sitting on separate spring rockers about 50 feet apart. GIRL, 7, faces away from MOM, 35, and hurls herself violently back on a plastic motorcycle. The metal spring screams as GIRL tips all the way back, body parallel to the ground, golden curls dragging in the dirt. MOM sits backward on a submarine, legs splayed, heels digging into the ground, staring into the middle distance and refusing to rock.

Out of nowhere, GIRL whips around.

GIRL

(shrilly)

MAMA! I caught you! I caught you red handed!

Mom jerks her head up, visibly startled.

MOM

Huh? Caught me doing what?

GIRL

(accusatory)

I caught you not. having. fun.

Quarantine Diary Day 82: No More Pencils No More Books

Today was the last day of school, for my daughter and for my husband who was conscripted into being a homeschooling parent. All three of us are feeling the absence of fanfare that ordinarily comes from the school. There was no fun run or field day or end-of-year picnic or class party. It’s bittersweet to watch my daughter try to navigate the transition by creating her own rituals: specifically, a special meal, a party with confetti and balloons, posed pictures, and a certificate for her favorite stuffed dog, who totally coincidentally “graduated from obedience school” the same week that she finished first grade. “Golden is so excited to be done with school!” she’s been saying all week, over and over again.Last night before bed, she got quiet and I wondered if she was feeling sad that her dad and I weren’t making a big a deal of her last day of school. “Hey, D,” I said as I tucked her into bed, “What do you want for your special dinner tomorrow? Pizza? Burgers? Sushi?” “I don’t know,” she mumbled. A moment later, she burst into tears “I’m just going to miss having papa as my teacher.” I didn’t even know what to say. I’ve been so worried that she is sick of her parents and suffering from the absence of any meaningful interaction with other adults and kids that it didn’t occur to me that this time has been as much a gift for her as it is for us. I thought about pointing out that she has a long summer ahead of her at home with no camps and the decent odds that she won’t get to go back to school in the fall, but thought better of it. Rites of passage exist for a reason; the least I can do is not yank her through them just because I’m uncomfortable. “You and papa had a really special time together, didn’t you? You’re a pretty lucky kid.” My words were cold comfort. After I left the room, I stood outside her door and listened to her cry herself to sleep.Somehow, even without having set foot in a classroom for almost three months or a clear idea of what summer will like this year, she woke up today as exuberant any other kid the last day of school. She put on a pretty summer dress without any parental pleading to please change out of her pajamas already. She picked out all the letters to spell out “D’s last day of first grade” lightening fast. Oddly (or not) She put on her backpack, the one that’s been hanging empty by the front door since March, and wore it while she skipped and jumped around the neighborhood on our morning walk. At least a dozen times I told her, “I’m so proud of you” and every time she responded, “I know. I’m proud of me too.”Her dad and I did try to import a little ritual into the day. He printed out a certificate and presented it to her while I played pomp and circumstance on YouTube and clapped. We took pictures and she posed with a real smile. We did order a special dinner (pizza). The best part of the day was wholly impromptu, though. After dinner, we headed outside with a soccer ball and some candy and found a bunch of kids from the neighborhood running around, all buzzy from being cooped up for so many months and the prospect of being released for the summer. We stayed outside, playing near enough but not-quite-next-to other families for an hour and a half. I chatted with the other parents, asking everybody, “What are your plans this summer?” and nodding as all of them answered in the same way. “None. Nothing. We’ll be here.” I wondered if, against all odds and expectations, if this could be the best summer ever, for a kid at least, with nothing to do and nowhere to go and a bunch of neighborhood kids in the same boat.

Quarantine Diary Day 69: The Upside

Spring in Chicago

Our daughter didn’t cry the day we gave our rescue dog back. We were expecting tears, had been bracing for them for over a month, since the day the dog bit a family friend and we knew that we might not be able to keep him. We only kept Study for six months, but that half year was huge to our four-year-old, almost as big as “forever” which is how long we thought we thought he’d be part of her family. Heartbreak doesn’t always look the way we expect it to, though. Our daughter was crushed, but she didn’t cry. Instead, she quickly constructed a vaguely dog-shaped structure using pieces from a magnetic building set and cradled it in her arms. I admired her creativity and complimented her skill and tried, urgently, to get her to put the “dog” down before her dad returned from delivering the dog back to the family that fostered him. Of course she refused, and I spent the next few hours trying to turn my own heartbreak into comedy. “It’s so weird,” I told anybody who would listen. “The dog is made of magnetic tiles. It’s not even soft, and it falls to pieces if you handle it wrong, but she won’t stop loving on it. We really fucked up.”

It’s been a few years now, and our daughter still adores critters and creatures don’t love her back, can’t even emote. She set up a sprawling “slug garden” on our back porch and begged us to let her spend her own money on a second basil plant intended exclusively to attract and feed slugs. Her goal this summer is to see a snail. She cradles rolly polly potato bugs and admires spiders. She even likes centipedes. We can’t take a walk in the rain without staging a worm rescue operation; it stresses her out to see them inching along in the wrong direction, away from mud, or toward a sewer, and she likes to pick them up and put them back in the dirt. And just last week, I walked in on a Zoom session with her class just in time to hear her announce, “I have a tamagotchi, which is kind of like a brother! And these are my stuffed dogs, which are kind of like pets!”

A month ago, we stopped to watch a worm work its way across the sidewalk for a solid fifteen minutes. It was raining hard and the worm looked pretty ordinary to me, but my daughter was smitten. She bent down low and cooed things like, “It’s such a cuuuuutttieeee” and “What a cutie lil’ adorable lil’ worm.” On the outside, I melt. She’s such an adorable little weirdo, and I love her. Inside I recoil, as I always do at shows of affection that put my failings on display, that make me relive the day with the Magformer dog and curse myself for not giving her something better to love.

Needing new eyes, I pull out my phone to take a video. At first I focus on my daughter, and then I zoom in close on the worm. The worm is taking me for a ride, too, and the journey is compelling. The longer we stand there, the closer I get to seeing what my daughter sees, which is, of course, a life. It occurs to me, for the first time, that maybe the trauma of loving a difficult pet and then having it taking away under even more difficult circumstances gave my daughter something good–a tremendous capacity for love and empathy.

I turn this over in my mind for a few weeks, meaning to write about it but not knowing how. I don’t know how to articulate my deepest fear in a way that’s respectful of my daughter, in a way that’s meaningful to others, in a way that’s more palatable than the truth: I’m afraid I will fuck it all up. I’m afraid I already did. I want to write about it, though, because the worm the depth of my daughter’s love for the worm gives me hope that she will be okay.

The worm gives me hope, too, that the trauma of COVID-19 will leave its own gifts behind. Perhaps, having had half a year or more of life as she knows it stolen away, being forced to shelter at home with her crazy parents, won’t fuck my daughter up. Maybe she will emerge into the world so ready to engage that she never knows my social anxiety, my reluctance to participate, my reliance on substances for connection. Maybe the looseness of schooling at home, of playing with Lego bricks for hours at a time, of staying up late dancing around the living room and hitting a balloon back and forth will free her to become the person she was meant to be. Maybe bearing witness to so much suffering at such a young age will buttress that tremendous capacity for love and empathy.

Please don’t take this as a long-winded way of saying everything happens for a reason, that other people died so we could thrive. If I could give my daughter back her dog I would. If I could go back in time and wipe out coronavirus I would. What I’m saying is that I’ve lived my whole life waiting for the other shoe to drop. Is that a Mormon thing? A religious thing? A human thing? What I’m saying is when I find myself with entire swaths of time with nothing to do but watch my girl tenderly care for creepy crawlies that make me want to run and hide I wonder if maybe it doesn’t have to be like that. Maybe we will be okay.

 

 

Quarantine Diary Day 66: Down In The Valley

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The first thing I wrote yesterday morning was “Today the rain is falling, as it did all night and as it promises to do all day.” The rain did come down all day yesterday, in buckets, dumping all over everything. I didn’t mind it so much in the morning, waking up to the sound of it splattering against my bedroom window, feeling safe from the gray of it around the kitchen table with my family and a stack of waffles and the crossword. I got out once for a walk during a lull in the early afternoon, but I stayed out too long and came back drenched. “Why did you go so far?” my husband asked? “I read you the minutecast.” It’s true, he did tell me that the rain would be back in precisely twenty-three minutes, and I’d chirped, “Perfect!” like that was all I needed. It’s true, too, that twenty-three minutes is enough time for a walk. But what’s truer than true is that I needed more time. I wanted to stay out longer, walk farther, and feel freer, and I thought that the wanting and the acting on the waniting would be enough to hold the rain at bay until I made it back home. It wasn’t, and I got wet. It was a warm rain, though, and I arrived home to a warm home and dry clothes and my family already snuggled on the couch waiting for me with snack bowls and blankets and Toy Story all cued up. These were the high points of a hilly day.

Down in the valleys, I did battle with my character defects. In a low moment, I gave voice to my shrieking insecurity in the presence of my daughter and then desperately tried to claw it back, because there’s nothing I want more than for her baggage to be all her own. In another low moment, I gave airtime to my selfishness, begging everybody to just be quiet so that I could sit on the couch for an hour and read. The things I do in the valleys make me feel like a bad mom, and that’s a feeling that I drag with me all day. It doesn’t matter how high I get. I could be walking on clouds and I’d still hate the mom from down the hill.

Bedtime rolled around and I cracked. I cried and cried, buckets dumping all over everything. I saw my daughter’s lower lip shake because there’s nothing sadder than watching mama cry, and then I cried some more because there’s nothing sadder than watching your kid watching her mama cry. I pulled myself together, pulled her into my lap, and rubbed her arms and told what I’ve told her hundreds of times, “It’s going to be okay. Everything’s going to be okay.” When it felt like she might be starting to believe me, I asked her what she wanted for a bedtime story, and she told me that tonight she would read to me. We settled on the floor, her with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in her lap, and me curled up on my side, arms wrapped around myself, willing myself to believe the promises I keep making.

Quarantine Diary Day 58

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This is the time of year my husband runs the holiday gauntlet: Easter, daughter’s birthday, mother’s day, and my birthday all crammed into a three week period, each special day involving gifts and elaborate meals and tender feelings. This year, husband was a little nervous about mother’s day. He apologized preemptively. “I’m sorry,” he said, “we can’t do any of the things you like the most.” He was right. Illinois is still under lockdown until May 30 and mother’s day was slated to be 40 degrees and rainy. I told him it didn’t matter, I didn’t care, I understand the logistical and emotional challenges of making a day feel special when every day is the same.

On Sunday, husband and daughter let me sleep in before waking me up with breakfast in bed–a smashed cinnamon roll concoction with macerated strawberries, bacon, and coffee–flowers, homemade cards, and gifts. You know, the usual. Okay, maybe not quite the usual. Daughter drew me a picture of my favorite things: us taking a walk, chatting up a stranger, while it rained cheetos, beets roasted in a mysterious outdoor oven, and two narwhals (mama and baby) hovered in the sky. She also gave me a double-sided paper cutout of a whippet (inexplicably her favorite dog, not mine, never mine) and a polaroid picture of a plastic dog house from the animated series Puppy Dog Pals (a recent birthday present and her new favorite toy). Husband gave me a jar of melatonin gummies, a tin of sardines with lemon, a bright yellow cotton dress, and a polaroid of me and daughter he’d snapped a moment earlier. I ate in bed and red The Times and read a book to daughter and when I finally got up I thanked them profusely for my gifts, an embarrassment of riches. I had no idea the real gifts were yet to come.

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The first of these gifts arrived the moment I stepped out of bed, when husband informed me that he had planned the day so I could “watch” virtual church services or not, whichever I preferred. I come from a world where the security and stability hinge on religious sameness. Religious differences block whole families from being formed, and changed beliefs upend families ties that have stood for generations. God forbid you lose your belief; you might just lose your whole family. The gift that made my family possible, that saves my family every day, is probably the gift I most often overlook: the freedom to believe what I want, and the freedom to change my mind. I opted to go to church, if you’re curious. My weekends need the structure these days.

The next gift came when church services wrapped up, and husband asked if I wanted to go for a walk or a drive. It was drizzling pretty hard, so I chose drive. When I climbed into the passenger seat, I saw two bags of David’s sunflower seeds in the middle console and, at my feet, two cases of CDs, 96 sleeves each, the same two cases I hauled around for for all of high school, college, and law school as I drove thousands and thousands of miles on Arizona highways and cross-country road trips. We popped in the first mix that husband ever made me fifteen years ago in 2005. We popped shells in our mouths. We wound our way up the north shore and tried to explain to daughter what it was like to live in a time when you had to work to hear the music that you loved. This is the most thoughtful gift of quarantine: the gift of being known.

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The next gift came the moment we got home, when husband handed me a bag of cheetos and a bottle of sparkling craft tea and told me I had an hour to do whatever I wanted, because he and daughter were leaving. He didn’t tell me where they were going and I didn’t ask. I haven’t been home alone in over eight weeks. I read. I called my mom. I ate half the bag. Later, I found out that husband and daughter spent the hour sitting in the car in the parking lot of Home Depot watching episodes of Puppy Dog Pals on husband’s phone. This is the most precious gift of quarantine: the gift of being alone.

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I won’t bore you with the details from the rest of my day except to say that it continued to be beautiful and delicious and relaxing in every way. Did daughter start to lose her mind from the boredom of being cooped up with her parents and the pressure of having to be on her best behavior for mother’s day and the struggle of missing her routine and the emotional turmoil of being seven years old? Obviously. But that’s when I got the greatest gift of all, the one husband doesn’t even know he gave me because he does it every day, and that is the gift of being an infinitely loving and incredibly capable co-parent in the best and worst of times.

The last gift was a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food, which we ate after the tarts we shared with our daughter earlier in the night and after she went to bed, while binge-watching Fleabag. This is the gift of second dessert.

Quarantine Diary Day 45

My daughter has always been a kid that preferred the company of adults, or at least the company of me, to that of other kids. Typical oldest daughter, maybe. Maybe a typical only child. Of course, nothing about our own children ever feels typical. Most days, our bond feels special. I love how clearly she prefers me when it looks the way I want love to feel: sweet and easy. I’m talking mama-daughter dates at the museum, sushi dinners, and endless walks around the neighborhood. I worry and chafe when her attachment demands what love actually requires, which is to say, patience and sacrifice. When the neighborhood kids graduated from their parents’ arms to side-by-side play to careening around outside in a big, bonded pack, I longed to send her off with them so I could talk freely with the other moms. All through preschool, my girl stayed glued to my side, whined when I paid more attention to other adults than her, and cried when other kids came too close, touched her toys, or asked me a question.

When she started kindergarten, her world exploded. I was still her sun, but now she was crossing paths with dozens of other little planets. The planets were other kids, and she resisted their pull. She puzzled over their varied atmospheres, their rings, their moons, always too many or too few, their very existence. By the time she realized she might actually like the other planets, they were all spinning in time and she didn’t know how to sync up. We spent a lot of time at parks, her surreptitiously watching other kids play, me gently encouraging her to join, and both of us pretending we didn’t care when it didn’t happen.

Last summer, in the grassy common area between our houses, one of my more brutally honest friends put me on the spot: “Why doesn’t D play with the other kids?” Inside, I jerked at the pain of being found out. Outside, I answered honestly, nonchalantly: “She has a hard time working up the courage to join them. She is waiting for them to invite her in.” My friend dropped her chin and looked at me in disbelief, like I was asking for the moon. “But…kids don’t do that. They just…play.” “I know,” I shrugged. “She’ll figure it out.”

In the fall, my daughter started first grade in a new classroom, at a new school, and her world blew open again, and this time the pieces landed just right. After just a few weeks of trepidation about being the new kid, she settled into her new orbit, and she thrived. She ran around with a pack of kids on the playground, led a friendly war against the boys in her classroom, and came home everyday bubbling over with stories about her day. When she told me her favorite subject at school was recess I about died with pride and relief at the normalcy of it all. Kids without friends never like recess.

By the time winter rolled around, she was planning her own playdates and I breathed another sigh of relief. My only child would not be lonely. The playdates did not go perfectly smoothly. She would have a terrific time for two, three, even four hour stretches, but when it was time to go home, she would break down, devastated that the fun had to end. It was like preschool social interactions in reverse: she cried when I came too close, touched her arm, or asked a question. If I tried to grab her hand, or nudge her toward the door, she’d go alternately boneless or stiff as a board. Eventually we’d make it out the front door, but she’d be inconsolable the whole way home.

After a few of these scenes, I figured out what was going on. Having friends was still so new to her, she didn’t know if she could count on it to last. On our way home from a classmates’ house one evening, I tried to reassure her: “Honey, this is just the beginning. You’re going to get to play with M again.” She wasn’t so sure. She sniffed and tearfully asked, “Do you promise?” I take promises seriously, so I took my time before responding. When I felt sure, I said, “Of course. You’re going to have lots of playdates with lots of friends. I cannot think of any reason in the world you wouldn’t play with M again. We’ll invite her over next week. I promise.”

That was Monday, March 9. By Thursday, school was cancelled through April 12. On March 31, the district announced that schools were closed through April 30. On April 17, we got notice that schools are closed through the end of the year.

We hung D’s class picture on the wall next to the kitchen table where she does her schoolwork now. The first week of quarantine, I’d catch her staring at it throughout the day. Sometimes she’d climb up on her knees in the middle of a meal and start reading her classmates names out loud. Sometimes she’d touch their faces. Six weeks in, she’s hardened. She’s still willing to admit that she misses school and church and choir and swim, but when I ask her who she misses, she says “No one.”

Quarantine Diary: Day 40

Pastor Grace says 40 is no ordinary number. In the Bible, 40 is less a measure of time than it is a clue that God is up to something. 40 years in the wilderness before the Jews reached the promised land. Nothing but manna to eat. 40 days on Mount Sinai for Moses to come down with the Law. 40 days and 40 nights in the Judean desert before Jesus began his public ministry. Temptation under every rock. No food at all. 40 days with his disciples after throwing open the doors of death. 40 days before being restored to God.

40 days is a really long time. It is time enough to be lost and found, time enough to be tested and tried, time enough to come to an understanding, time enough to prepare and come out the other side.

When the men who wrote the Bible tell us something lasted 40 minutes, days, or years, they are telling us that God is behind whatever happened next.

And so it is that 40 days into quarantine, we are celebrating a birth. Seven years ago, I pulled my daughter into the world. Seven is a God number, too, it turns out. I didn’t learn that from Pastor Grace, or the Bible, but from Frank Black singing This monkey’s gone to heaven.

My daughter is my promised land but my waiting was not 40 years of wilderness. In the most literal of ways, I didn’t have to wait at all. I had her at 27. She was conceived the first month we tried. Still, her coming to us was not as easy as all that. The idea of a daughter was seven years in the making, conceived in New Orleans as her dad and I sheltered-in-place during a hurricane. “What if I get pregnant?” I whispered. We were children ourselves, only 20 years old. “We’ll have a baby and we’ll name her Dylan.” We did wander after that. We had to. We crossed religious differences that spread like a chasm to find a land hospitable to us both, to the believer and the skeptic alike, a place that would be safe for our interfaith family. Eventually, we found a way.
Dylan turns seven today.

The second wandering came after Dylan was born. We waited two years after she was born and then tried for four more to have another that never came. This makes people sad. “I’m so sorry,” they say. “I know you wanted another baby. At one point that might have been the case, but I am so far removed from that wanting it’s hard to know if it was really mine. What I know now: every passing month and year shined a light on the gold I already had. Dylan is everything I could ever want in a kid. Any heartbreak I have is for not being able to give her a sibling. Luckily for all of us, she never wanted one, and still doesn’t, even after a 40 days of being the only kid in quarantine.

Every year, but especially this year, I’ve been anticipating Dylan’s birthday like it was my own. The anticipation is ingrained. I didn’t wait to have Dylan but she made me wait to have her, through 30 hours of labor, eight days after she was due. That long week before she decided to join us on this plane of existence was its own kind of probationary period. We were prepared for an April 15 delivery. I’d had my hospital bag packed since Braxton Hicks kicked in around week 35. I’d taken the week off of work. My husband had checked our little dog into a very fancy overnight kennel. There was nothing left to do except wait and walk and wonder what life would be like on the other side.

I’m not waiting anymore, not for a miracle, not for a sign. For me, the miracle happened seven years ago, after 30 hours of labor, eight days after she was due. The miracle is every day I’ve spent with her since.

8 Minute Memoir – Day 5 – Little Things

The thing is, the thing about having a kid, is that it’s the little things that break your heart. The little pants and socks and shoes. I used to wash and fold giant-sized loads of baby-sized clothes and marvel. Isn’t it weird? I’d say to my husband, that we have such a tiny roommate? That we live with such a little person? The irony is, kids can’t play with little toys until they’re big, on account of they might try to eat the toys and die. As my baby grew bigger, her toys got smaller. We showered her in whole families of Calico Critters, rabbits and badgers and goats and bears with little hammocks to sleep in and little produce to eat. DUPLO became LEGO Friends became a million tiny bricks that fuck up my feet. My daughter is still little, just in first grade, but somehow also very big. She is more than half as long as my husband. He holds her still because we didn’t have another little and wraps her monkey arms in a stranglehold around his neck, her long hobbit feet dangling somewhere around his knees. She is too heavy for me to lift for more than a minute, so I can’t do that. Instead, I hold her little hand.

Mom

Maybe the mom who took to her room / who took to her bed / who sighed and slept and shut the door / maybe she just needed a god(dess)damn minute / to lose her shit out of sight / little pitchers pouring out their eyes / And besides it’s not like / she turned the lock

Fix Me I Hate This

I am desperate to slap a strong label on my emotions, something weighty enough to justify the heft of what I feel. I Google: grief, trauma, loss, SAD, what to do when I am too depressed to work. I wonder: borderline personality disorder, bipolar 2. I dismiss: alcoholism, anxiety, change. I consider: suicide, relapse. I grasp to blame: secondary infertility, Mormonism (and the leaving thereof). I reject: God. I fear: divorce. I fear: hurting D, D already hurt, D hurting, scaring D, D scared, D sad, D unspeakably, unstoppably sad, breaking D, her mind, her spirit, her okayness, crushing/sapping this precious, perfect person who loves me more than life itself, improbably, inexplicably, more than I deserve. I know: I’m just sad. A little anxious. Insecure. Powerless, angry, afraid. A person. A mom. I know: this will pass and I will forget I ever felt like this, or I will remember and think thank God that’s gone forever. I know: these winds will cycle back and sweep me up again and toss me around before depositing me back onto the charred and scarred and fertile ground to pick up where I left off, if I’m lucky, if I don’t have to rebuild first, if I don’t have to find my way back home.