Quarantine Diary Day 62: Yes, Still

As other states start to open up while Illinois residents remain under a stay-at-home order through the end of May, I’m starting to field questions from my friends and family in less densely populated areas.

  • “You’re still working from home?”
  • “You’re still getting your groceries delivered?”
  • “You’re still homeschooling?”
  • “You don’t think you’ll want to travel this summer?”

The questions are new, but the sentiment–“Is this all really still necessary?” & “Don’t you think you’re taking things a little too far?”–is not. It’s the same tone people take when they find out that I still go to AA meetings after years of sobriety.

  • “You’re still doing that AA thing?”
  • “You still go to how many meetings a week?”
  • “Exactly how long does it take to work the steps?”
  • “You haven’t had a drink in how long?”

Though the questions are different, the answer is the same.

  • Yes, I’m still sheltering-in-place/going to meetings. We’re talking about a deadly disease. As long as it’s still out there, I’m going to do what it takes to keep people safe, and I’m not just talking about myself.

Speaking of deadly diseases, some of the questions people are asking about coronavirus are the same questions I reckoned with when I first started trying to get sober:

  • How bad is this really?
  • How long is this going to last?
  • Will things ever go back to normal?

As it turns out, the answers are the same whether we’re talking about the coronavirus or alcoholism:

  • It’s bad.
  • It’s going to last a long time.
  • Your life will never be the same again.

It’s not all bad news, though. If tearing down and rebuilding my whole life taught me anything it’s that we’re going to come out of this better than we were before.

Quarantine Diary Day 60: How I Got My Kid To Go Back To Sleep

Let’s talk about the nightmares. Not the waking nightmare that is life in a pandemic, but the regular sleeping kind, and not my nightmares (though they are wild these days), but my kid’s. Pre-COVID, my seven-year-old went to bed easily after an involved but mostly pleasant bedtime routine, sweetly sang and chattered to herself for fifteen minutes or so after I left the room, and then promptly passed out. She slept through the night, every night, and generally didn’t disturb the household until she popped out of bed refreshed and ready to play at 6:30 the next morning. She averaged maybe a nightmare a year.

A few weeks into COVID, that all changed. First she had one bad dream: I had given her an owl for a pet and she kept it in a cage in her room, and after a week she realized it was dead, that it had been dead the whole time. We got her back to bed without too much drama, but the memory of it lingered, and scared her off sleep for the next week. Just as the fear was starting to dissipate, she had another , and then another a few days after that, and then it was three nightmares three nights in a row, and then there was one hideous night where she had three separate nightmares, each necessitating a trip to my room, my husband and I trading off increasingly drawn-out and unsuccessful attempts to comfort her, and much begging to just sleep in our room. Bedtime became an anxious, pleading affair. She desperately wanted to sleep in our room or us to sleep in hers. I tried to be her soft place. I held her in my arms, sang songs, prayed, breathed deeply, and talked her through guided meditations, but turned to stone when she tried to disrupt the family sleeping arrangements. I am the jealous guardian of sleep: of my own, my daughter’s, and everybody else’s. I know about kids climbing into bed and never getting out, and wasn’t about to let that happen on my watch. Even with me policing the parental bed, none of us were sleeping much. Most nights I spent hours lying in bed, wired with adrenaline, just waiting for the next scream.

The nightmares were all variations on that first bad dream: dead owls, dead squirrels, a dead guinea pig, a dead anthropomorphic fried egg named Gudetama. It was the animals that threw me off, made me slow on the uptake. That and the exhaustion. What is going on??? I fumed. Why is this happening to us now??? How can we make it stop???

It wasn’t until the specter of the nightmares manifested in the middle of our daylight hours that I realized. D had been resisting taking walks outside with me for days. I knew she had seen a dead squirrel in the park with her dad and was afraid of seeing another one, so we kept strictly to the sidewalks. Still, every time we saw a squirrel scamper in the distance, she flinched. “The squirrels aren’t going to hurt you, kiddo. They’re more scared of you than you are of them.” She looked up at me with fear in her eyes: “What if a squirrel runs up to us and dies?” I started to respond—“Why would a squirrel run up to us and d_____”—and then trailed off when it hit me. She knew all about the virus. She knew she wasn’t allowed to touch anything outside because it lingered on surfaces. She knew we had to cross to the street when we saw the neighbors coming because it traveled through the air. For all she knew, coronavirus was everywhere, all the time, infecting all the animals she ever loved, and probably all the people too.

This, of course, was the result of us trying to keep our kid informed while shielding her from the worst truths about the pandemic. We didn’t talk about the death toll. We reassured her that most people who got sick got better. But kids aren’t stupid. They know life doesn’t shut down for a bad cold. I asked my therapist what to do. “It might be time to talk to her about death.”

I did start talking to my kid about death, but those conversations are complicated and controversial so I’m not going to get into it now. Instead, I’m going to tell you the bedtime hack for anxious kids that I discovered while I was trying to sort out what I could possibly say to my daughter about death that would provide her with comfort and security given that my belief system has been abstracted to the point of being unrecognizable to believers and non-believers alike.

This is how I tricked my daughter into going to bed relaxed and happy instead of working herself into the kind of fearful frenzy that only breeds bad dreams–i.e., how I taught my daughter to stop worrying and learn to love bedtime:

Every night, the moment I hear the words start to come out of her mouth–“Mama, I’m scared I’m going to have a bad dream”–I shush her and say, “Echo: play music by the Beach Boys.”

Every night, without fail, the lush harmonies and dulcet tones of “Good Vibrations” and “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Sloop John B,” which now form the soundtrack for entire evenings in our house, sometimes beginning right after dinner, lull her my daughter into a sense of well-being better than any drug I’ve ever taken. She dances and sings and climbs into bed at ease. I promise to stay outside her room for five minutes in case she needs me and listen to her chatter herself to sleep. If I stay longer than five minutes it’s only because I’m writing these diary entries. She hasn’t had a nightmare in about two weeks now. I’m still having freaky dreams on the reg, but can’t complaint. At least we’re all sleeping through the night.

sunrise sunset

Quarantine Diary Day 2

The first weekend of quarantine went better than expected. After our initial panic in the wake of school shutting down and the run on the grocery stores, our first Sunday at home was surprisingly peaceful, even beautiful. We slept in, ate a late, leisurely breakfast, read the paper, streamed church services, played board games, baked challah, walked around the neighborhood, spent some quiet time reading and napping, straightened up, and shared a family dinner. We were just finishing dessert and about to head upstairs for an early bedtime, when my daughter reached around and rubbed her neck, and pulled her hand back, puzzled. “Hey mama,” she said quizzically. “I found a bug on my head.”

I jumped out of my chair, ran around to my daughter’s side of the table, and started picking through her long, curly hair. Sure enough, there they were: dozens, maybe more, of little white nits. 

LICE.

FUCK. 

After all our hard work to get our house in order so we could stay there, I found myself driving back to the same downtown Target where I’d had a panic attack a few days earlier with no mask, no gloves, and no practical experience or understanding of how to practice social distancing. This was still early on. We were still reluctant to purchase PPE that was in short supply. The idea of homemade masks had not occurred to us. We’d only heard of social distancing a few days ago, and had yet to see it implemented in essential businesses. I had no idea where the lice medicine would be. I lingered at the top of relevant-seeming aisles until they emptied out. I studied the shelves. Eventually I gave up and asked an employee for help. She looked it up on her handheld computer while I hung back, hoping I looked more apologetic than guilty and desperate. When she found thrust her computer toward me so I could verify that she had found the right product, I recoiled. This was when I was still more worried about getting the disease than spreading it.  

Back at home, we stayed up late into the night, treating my daughter’s hair, combing out nits, and washing laundry.

The next day, I was scheduled to do a bunch of back-to-back witness interviews for a case that was still in the investigation stage. We were supposed to meet on-site at the client’s office in the Chicago suburbs, but decided to do video interviews at the last minute. Before we started, I mentioned to my boss how relieved I was not to have had to wake up early to drive out to Schaumburg after my stressful night. The interviews went all day, and it was fascinating to see everybody working from home, in their whatever clothes. I felt grateful that I’d been working remotely for over a year, that I still had an office I could go into, that I was wearing a suit. It was only after the day was done, when my boss called and asked, with sympathy in her voice, “How’s the lice situation?” that I realized I’d been picking at my hair on camera the entire day. 

I ran into the bathroom, got close to the mirror, and started frantically examining my hair at the roots. Sure enough, there they were: nits. 

I HAD LICE.

FUCKING FUCK. 

Back at home, we had another late night, re-combing my daughter’s hair, treating my own, finishing the laundry.

The rest of that week passed in a blur. Every night stretched on for hours with no promise of rest, a whole day’s worth of responsibilities tacked onto the end of the regular day. More lice treatments, hours of combing, hours of blow drying and flat ironing, hours of laundry, hours of research. I made my scalp bleed, my daughter’s hair sizzle. We washed and re-washed every sheet and stuffed animal and towel in the house. 

I hit up every mom I know for advice. At some point, somebody suggested that the lice might be helping us cope with the pandemic by allowing us to focus on something within our control.

FUCKING FALSE. 

The lice were uncontrollable. Every night I found crawling bugs and fresh eggs. And still, every night I found crawling lice and fresh nits. The treatments didn’t work. The worst part was that with lice inside the house and coronavirus outside, nowhere was safe, not my home, not even my own body. I was already neurotic, a picker, and now I spent hours leaning over the sink pulling at my hair and obsessively eyed my daughter’s hair. Hugs became fraught. My daughter needed me to comfort probably more than any time since infancy but I was afraid of passing bugs back and forth and had to fight the urge to socially distance myself from my family. 

I looked forward to the day that the the only thing we had to worry about was COVID-19.  This was before I knew that a mild case could still mean serious illness. This was before I knew that not everybody I loved would take the threat seriously. This was before I knew about the economic impact. I was myopic in my misery.

On my phone, I toggled between reading the news and personal experiences with lice. In each case I was looking for good news but kept getting hit over the head with worst case scenarios. One night, I was sitting on my bed reading about a family who dealt with lice for months on end–every time they thought they had it beat the bugs came back stronger–when my husband came into our room with the latest coronavirus projection: up to 2.2 million Americans, dead. I clawed my head, fell into the fetal position, and sobbed. 

By the end of the week, we were ready to try anything, even the insecticide solution available by prescription only that Google told us was for gardens and animals. Given the public health crisis, it took days to get the doctor to call in the right prescription and even longer to track it down at a pharmacy. I was careful not to use too much on my daughter, but I soaked my hair and left it on for twice the recommended time. The next day my brain hurt. It worked, though. It would take me several more days and increasingly acute outburst from my daughter for me to stop picking at her hair, and a few more weeks to stop checking mine, but the lice are gone.  

A mom I know said, if it comes back, I should talk to her. Her kids had it a lot. You get used to it, she said. I shuddered, refusing to even wrap my mind around that. 

More recently, my boss, the one who watched me pick lice out of my hair for six hours of video calls, called to check in. “How’s the lice?” “Oh that! It feels like a million years ago.” My daughter and I laugh about it now, too. “Remember how freaked out we were? Remember how we cried? Remember I couldn’t stop combing your hair? Remember how all we needed was the right medicine and it went away? Remember how we thought you’d be going back to school in three weeks? Remember how we thought we were going on a spring break trip? Remember how we thought you would still get to have a birthday party? Remember when we could still go to playgrounds? Remember when we didn’t have to wear masks? Remember how we thought the doctors would find a vaccine within the year? Those were the good old days.”

Quarantine Diary: Day 39

Like pretty much anybody lucky enough to still have a living grandparent, I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandma lately. She’s 86. I keep deleting that, and writing instead that she will turn 87 next month, and then deleting that too because, well, I don’t know if she will. I want to add another year to her age, to reach for the quadruple rings of 88, for the power of infinity times two. I want the balance of eight, amplified into an angel number. I want more time.

I would be embarrassed to talk about numerology with my grandma. She is a practical person. She is also a staunch atheist. When I was a kid, I was certain my grandma was the smartest person in the world on account of the fact that she could finish a crossword puzzle, spot eight letter words in Boggle, and was never without a book. As my grandma told it, she didn’t get a date all through high school because she was too tall for all the boys and, in her opinion, too smart. At her first office job, she got in trouble for correcting the boss’s grammar. She graduated from Penn State in the fifties She worked as an English teacher before she had my uncle and my dad.

If my grandma turns 88–wait, no, 87–it will be the day before I turn 35, and we will talk on the phone, about the family, the books we are reading, and the news. We will almost certainly talk about Trump. Grandma is the only other reliable Democrat in my family, and I am the only other reliable Democrat in her life, a bond forged circa 2003 over a mutual delight in collecting and mocking Bushisms. Back then, Grandma used to get in arguments with my mom–her daughter-in-law, also a mother of sons–about the draft. The problem with America, my grandma said, was that we had lost all sense of duty and sacrifice. She was no flag-brandishing war hawk, though, and I never heard her peddle the myth of the good war. She just knew that the occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq would not end unless we all had something to lose.

I don’t have much patience for the way things were, but this view of my grandma’s has weighed on me my entire adult life. I opposed those wars from the outset, too, but never did anything more than march. Nobody ever asked me to.

This new war is different. These last few weeks, each of my four siblings and I have retreated into our homes, along with virtually everyone we know. We’ve pulled ourselves and our kids out of every activity. We’re homeschooling on the fly. We’re not seeing our parents or neighbors or friends. We are standing in long lines for food and medicine. We are wearing masks. We aren’t doing this for ourselves. We are healthy. We are doing this for our country. We’re doing it because America asked us to.

My grandma is healthy, too, but she’s lived a long life and says she doesn’t care if COVID-19 takes her out. I care. I want to see her again. I want my daughter to see her again, to know her long enough to remember her. If we don’t see her again, I want my grandma to see us, to see my generation showing up and sitting down for this lesson in sacrifice. I want her to be proud of us.

Quarantine Diary: Day -1

I’m not the grocery shopper in my family, or the meal planner, or the cook, or a person who really cares to come down from the high drama in my head to pay much attention to what’s going on in such material realms as the kitchen cabinet or the produce drawer. So, when my husband dares to disrupt my reverie with impossible questions like “What we need?” and “What do you want?” because he’s “going to the store,” it is a Herculean task for me to rack my brain and come up with a list things people eat, much less things my particular people like to eat. Full minutes pass and when I offer up the fruits of my effort–bananas, baby carrots, cereal, oat milk, tea–my husband is, in a word, unimpressed. He tosses my contribution aside with a huffy, eye-rolling, “Nevermind.” He already has the basics covered, a skill I am still not even trying to learn.

On March 12, 2020, chatter about the supply chain and an impending shelter-in-place order and word from my husband that our fridge was empty, yanked me down to earth. Realizing I had to change my ways and take responsibility for feeding my family, I took an hour out of my work day to read up on how to shop for more than four meals at a time, and put together the best damn grocery list I’ve ever seen, just row after row of healthful, efficient, easy meals that we could take turns whipping up for the next few weeks, until this whole thing blew over. I sent the list off to my husband and went back to mainlining coronavirus updates work. A few hours later, I got a text back: “Sooo…grocery shopping not going so great.” My conversion to helpful homemaker was too little, too late.

shelves-1

I knew I wouldn’t be able to work until we had food, so I offered to check the stores near my office. “Should I see what I can find around here?” “Don’t worry about it. I’ll order groceries online.” Obviously, I ignored him. I work within walking distance of a Whole Foods, a downtown Target, and a CVS. I decided to hit them all.

And so it came to pass that I found myself wandering the aisles of a Target in miniature in the middle of the work day, marveling at how quickly the world had gone bleak. The rumors, it turned out, were true: no toilet paper, no sanitizer, no bleach. Also, the men and women to whom preparedness come naturally had already cleared the shelves of all the pantry staples on my beautiful shopping list. No pasta, no rice, no beans, no canned goods, no frozen meals, no flour, no yeast. I grabbed a jar of peanut butter and two bottles of Drano, because it seemed bleach-adjacent. I watched young couples move slowly through the aisles, huddled together, looking for food. I watched people shy away from each other. Everybody seemed lost.

With each empty aisle and averted gaze, I grew increasingly panicky and despondent. This is not a new sensation. I am a highly emotional person, prone to bouts of anxiety, depression, and drama. I have fallen apart in public more times than I can count. Usually, the collapse is internal, a crushing of the soul while my body goes through the motions of putting shampoo in the cart, holding onto my purse, running my card. Nobody knows I am barely keeping it together; I am just some lady shopping. Sometimes the system breaks down, the insides come spilling out, teary, bloody, scary, wet. I scream at the bank teller, tell off the cashier. I make demands. I cry and cry and cry. People see me for who I am.

So, no, there is nothing new about coming unglued in Target. What’s novel is this: this time, I know I am not alone. Every single person I see–stalled out staring at cleaning supplies, puzzling over dwindling options in the pantry, grasping their partner’s hand, frantically texting, all in the middle of a goddamn weekday–they’re all right there with me. We are all anxious and afraid of the exact same thing.

This is the most connected I have ever felt.

I still have no idea that in two days we will be cut off.