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 63: Birthdaze

I turned 35 last week and celebrated like all the other spring chickens, in quarantine. Upon rolling out of bed, my seven-year old generously handed over the 12×12 sheet of bubble wrap that she has been (rather greedily, in my honest opinion) keeping to herself and gave me permission to pop exactly 35 bubbles, which I proceeded to do with great satisfaction. It was rainy in the morning and we ate donuts and coffee from a place with curbside pickup in the car. I worked a little and husband homeschooled our daughter for a few hours before giving her a half day. Midday they called me up and started singing happy birthday, to my momentary confusion–it was too early for cake–until I noticed the pretty plate on the table and on top of the pretty plate a baked potato with a candle stuck in it. I clapped my hands in delight. Later, on the phone with my sister, I tried to explain. “You see, I’m always complaining that [husband] never makes me baked potatoes.” Sister cut me off. “But…they’re so easy to make. And not that good.” She finished with her strongest point: “I would cry if somebody gave me a baked potato for my birthday.” Come to think of it, I did cry a little when I saw the potato, and my daughter called me like she always does, announcing in her singsong voice, “Mama’s getting eeeeMOtionaaaal!”

In the afternoon, Chicago blessed us with the best weather, 75 and sunny. I went for a run by the lake, listened to Chance the Rapper, and we planted our little patio garden, just some herbs and two tomato plants, and let’s take a chance on growing some radishes and beets from seed. I strummed my guitar, and talked on the phone to my sister and mom. I put on a dress and put makeup on my seven-year-old. There was a time, not too long ago, when I refused to put makeup on either of us on feminist principle, but now I figure what what the hell.

We picked up family dinner from our favorite gastropub and ate it on the front porch. We chatted with neighbors and friends. One miracle worker dropped off a mug with the hot priest from Fleabag not two days after I posted about him here and someone else who knows me well enough to know what I like dropped off a four-pack of craft soda. Husband and daughter sang to me again, and I blew out more candles, these ones stuck into cupcakes from our new favorite bakery, the one we fell in love with when they made us a gorgeous cake with an easy contactless pickup for my daughter’s quarantine birthday just a few weeks ago. I unwrapped a set of watercolors from a bespoke art supply store that we stumbled into, stunned, last fall and then forgot about. There was a time, not too long ago, when I would have said that another solitary hobby was not something I required, but I would have been wrong. Daughter gave me a book she wrote and illustrated herself and I couldn’t have been more proud. After I tucked her into bed and thanked her for a beautiful day, husband and I crept out to the back porch, where we sat watching a fire crackle in the chiminea.

I like being 35. I like not being the youngest person in the conference room, at the party, on the block. I sprinted through my 20s, grasping at brass rings–career, marriage, baby, house–trying to haul myself into adulthood, only to resent the responsibility that came with each new prize. I fumbled my way through all of it, feeling like a teenager thrust unwillingly and unwittingly into my adult life. At 35, this is no longer true. I’m not in over my head. I’m not faking it. I am every inch the grownup I never thought I would be. This is no great accomplishment. I know I came late to this. My mom had five kids by 35. It is only by the grace of God that I started crawling out of adolescence a few years ago, when I got sober, when my daughter needed me to grow up. I still have a lot of growing up to do. I still dress like a teenager, and talk like one too, but I like myself anyway, and I like my life. I’m not trying to run the clock out on it anymore.

how to celebrate a birthday in quarantine

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.

8 Minute Memoir – Day 11 – Losing Things

Our first Christmas together, R gave me a pen, translucent titanium gray with polished gold trim and my full name etched on the conical panel cap. It was gorgeous. My grandmother was stunned. What kind of twenty-year-old boy gives his girlfriend such an old-fashioned gift? Of course, I lost the pen. I lost it many times, in fact, only to find it a few days or weeks later in the bottom of my backpack or buried deep in a rarely-carried purse or rolling around in the back of my car. The pen always came back to me, though, so often that I stopped worrying when it went missing. I knew I could count on it to stick with me. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen the pen. For a time, I suspected it disappeared into the crack between the cushions of my sponsor’s couch, where I sat every Sunday for almost two years, reading the big book and working the steps. For a time, I assumed that she would find it on her own and return it to me, but now I’m not so sure. I’m not worried, though. I know it will turn up when I least expect it. And if it doesn’t, that’s okay too. I don’t need to mourn the loss of the first really gorgeous gift R gave me because the pen is nothing compared to the many things he’s given me since.