Last week I went back to Arizona to see my family. Fucking finally. This trip was supposed to happen over the holidays, but my whole family in AZ, seriously, the lot of them, tested positive for COVID less than twenty-four hours before we were supposed to fly out. We had already checked-in for the flight and pulled the suitcases up out of the garage. It was so disappointing. My husband and I debated for an hour whether there was some way, any way, some sort of hidden loophole, that would let us see them them, but if there’s one thing that’s clear two years into pandemic living, it’s that you can’t fly to the COVID. My daughter sobbed for hours. Not too long ago, I would have cried too, but my own tears don’t flow like they used to since I started taking an SSRI in October. These days, my intense emotions manifest more often as exhaustion. We spent the week between Christmas and New Year at home. I’d already taken the time off of work and I slept in every day. We played a lot of video games on the Nintendo Switch my husband managed to snag at the last minute from a GameStop at the mall.
It’s possible my lack of emotional response was not entirely due to the meds. It’s possible that after two years of tragedy, I recognize missing out on a family holiday for what it is: not that big a deal. At least my family’s still alive. Not for any great amount of trying on their part. When they all came down with COVID, it came out that adults in my family had passed on vaccinating large swaths of their eligible children, and not one single member of my family (aside from my husband and myself) had gone in for a booster. It’s hard to cry over disappointments that don’t rise to the level of tragedy, especially if they were preventable.
It’s also possible that after two years of tragedy, I no longer recognize trauma with a “little t”. So we haven’t seen my husband’s family in over three years. So my parents are getting old. So my grandma’s hearing is so bad we can barely talk on the phone. So my conversations with my brother are reduced to arguments about the vaccine. So my daughter is growing up without her grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. So whatever sense of community we once had fell apart and all of us (husband, daughter, me) are still trying to figure out how to cope with the social-emotional fallout of isolation. Maybe these are all tragedies and I’m too tired to cry.
We finally made it back to Arizona as a family last week. The two year anniversary of shut down came and went while we were out of state. When I realized we’d missed the date, I couldn’t believe it. How could my body let me move on without acknowledging everything we’ve lost? Well it didn’t. I came back to this space to write about our most recent trip to Arizona, but the only words I could find were for the trip we didn’t take.
It’s early November, and I find myself with nothing to do on a surprisingly, stunningly perfect fall day. After a couple of weeks of gray days and temperatures dipping down into the forties, the sun is out and the air feels as warm as the leaves coloring the trees and crunching under feet. It is a golden afternoon, drenched in goodness. I already spent time outside sitting and sipping coffee and chatting with folks after church while kids ran around on the lawn, but it is too nice to go back inside. I decide to visit the Chicago Botanic Gardens. I haven’t been since last year when it opened back up in the middle of that first pandemic summer.
In July 2020, I was desperate to visit the Gardens–one of Chicago’s most beloved cultural attractions–to get out of the house and give my daughter something nice to do, yes, but also to remind myself that there was still something worthwhile to be found in large cities. On the whole, the trip was disappointing. It was a muggy Midwestern summer day, air so heavy we could hardly breathe through our cloth masks, and my chest tightened every time my daughter asked if she could pull hers down. The paths were crawling with people, making it impossible to maintain six feet of distance, and my anxiety spiked every time she strayed near another family. I was not worried about us getting sick, only about doing something wrong. Year 1 of COVID was a hard time to be a people-pleasing perfectionist because everybody seemed to want something different and the rules were never clear. The day was so at odds with what it means to be in nature that I didn’t go back to the Gardens for over a year.
I am optimistic that things will be different in fall 2021. The Gardens has dropped the mask mandate for the outdoor parts and no longer requires members to book appointments ahead of time. Also, the Gardens are no longer the only place to go. Museums and shops and sports and concerts are all back. Surely, Chicagoans will be doing other things. Surely the Gardens’ nearly 400 acres and six miles of shoreline will offer something in the way of respite, of space.
I’m antsy on the drive up. I pass a cannabis dispensary in the northern suburbs, a shiny building with elegantly curved architectural details that emits distinct wellness vibes, the antithesis of the seedy unfinished warehouse-like space where I bought my weed during the six months or so I dabbled last year. The alluring storefront makes me want to go inside and it is such a gorgeous day, I can’t help but want to get high. People think it’s the bad days that trigger relapse but in my experience it’s the good ones that will get you. I’ve played the tape forward enough times to know that when I’m really in the shit, a drink or a drug is not going to help. When things are bad, I can’t afford to make them worse. Good days are another story. It’s that top-of-the-world feeling that’s dangerous because that’s when I feel invincible. When Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, I doubled down on 12-step meetings. When he lost in 2020, I wanted to pop champagne. On perfect afternoons, all I want to do is get stoned.
On this day, I have a little more than 30 days clean, so I keep driving and don’t stop until I make it to the Gardens. The parking lot is jammed and so are the paths near the entrance. As usual, the crowds here blow my mind, in both size and constitution. People walk in packs. Every group seems to be at least three generations deep and speaking two languages. I stick headphones in my ears and try to focus on the plants. Happy families are my holy grail and my kryptonite. They remind me of everything I don’t have. To me, every couple walking hand-in-hand, every dad swinging a kid up on his back, looks intensely present and engaged in their lives. I wonder how many of them are sober. Most of them, if I had to guess. I wonder how they all manage it. I still want to get high. Later, I’ll mention this to my therapist and ask her how people get through their lives without wanting to change the way they feel. How do you know they don’t? she’ll volley back.
I’m not really afraid of COVID anymore, but I need to get away from all those happy-seeming people. I peel off from the crowd and find myself on an almost empty path that winds around the back edge of the Gardens. There is a chain of ponds to my left and the highway is to my right. Meadowlands unfurl up ahead. I pull the earbuds out. Ah. Quiet. For a minute anyway. My mind starts chattering right away. I can’t stop thinking about how much better this walk would be if I had something, anything, to enhance the experience. They sell wine in the cafe. Maybe I could knock back a couple of mini bottles and see the leaves through sauvignon blanc colored glasses. The wine is expensive, though, and the glasses are small. Maybe I’d better just hit up the liquor store on the way home.
I hate that I’m still thinking like this. It’s one of my greatest shames, being a sober person who still isn’t sure she wants to be sober. Everyone I know who got sober in a 12-step program swears the compulsion to drink just magically…lifts…like an elevator that only goes up. Everyone I know who got sober outside the rooms swears it’s easy because life really is that much better without booze. What is wrong with me that I still romanticize this thing that hurts me? I thought the problem was depression. I thought it was anxiety. I thought it was OCD. I thought it was bad habits I could unlearn. I thought it was addiction. I thought it was religious baggage. I thought it was childhood wounds. I put in the work, years of work, and my life is better for it but thinking about drinking is the thing I can’t let go.
In the back of the Gardens, I decide to dive headfirst into the thirst, into whatever the fuck is stopping me from being okay being with myself on this beautiful fucking day. I start muttering out loud to myself while I walk along staring at the ground. Ugh. Fine. Hi. Hello. Here I am. What do you want from me? What is this for? What am I supposed to take away from this? I’m here. I’m listening. I’m looking for answers. What I get is clear direction.
Look up. Keep moving.
I lift my head. The green meadow gave way to a dry grass prairie while my head was down and when I look up there’s a hill rising out of the earth in front of me. I want to race to the top but there’s no clear path so I stick to the trail I’m on. To the left I see a bridge that looks like it might lead back to the main part of the Gardens, but I’m not ready to go. The road I’m on looks like it will take me in a circle around the hill and I need to get a closer look. I can’t leave this hill alone. Eventually, an inclined trail curves out of the grass. It was impossible to see until I was on top of it. I climb to the top of the hill. Is this where I’ll find the answers I’m looking for? I drop to my knees and close my eyes as if to pray. I feel nothing, but hear the direction again as clear as day.
Open your eyes. Get up. Keep moving.
I bat my eyes open and take in the view. The acreage spills out around me, fields and forests and marshes and meadows and rocks and rivers and prairies and ponds and gardens and greenhouses all lined up in a row. I see a fuzzy caterpillar inching across the path. I examine it, take a video to show my daughter later. I see a family climbing up a trail I must have missed when I first laid eyes on the hill. They’ll be up here with me if I don’t get going. I pick my way down the hill like a mountain goat. The road up close is rockier than I thought. I end up in front of the bridge I saw before. I’m ready to cross. I end up following not far behind a mom and her young son. I try to lose them but the path takes us around in a little loop and I’m stuck moving at their slow pace. It’s a small island covered with the same prairie grasses I’ve been in for forty minutes. There’s nothing new for me here. I cross back over the bridge and get back on the path I was on before. I’m sure it will loop me back the main entrance. Instead it dumps me out in front of a chain link fence blocking off the staff entrance to the Gardens, a muddy bank, and a row of low office buildings. I’m lost. I heed the instruction I got before and turn around, get a move on. It takes me longer than I expect to find my way back.
By the time I’m back in my car, I don’t want to get high. What I’m thinking about is how drinking is like the little hill that I couldn’t help but climb, the bridge I needed to cross, the island that was smaller than I thought, the lonely path that dead-ended at an ugly, muddy fence. At every turn, the message for me was the same: keep moving. I could keep drinking and drugging, but I’m starting to see that I’ve exhausted my supply. It’s not the booze I’m missing, anyway. It’s the road not taken. I can’t tear my eyes away from all the little detours that might take me to the life I imagine other people are living. But getting stuck behind slow walkers on that that grassy little island in the Gardens reminded me that I’ve already been down that road, many times. Every time I drank over the last year, the last decade, it was variations on the same theme. A few minutes, maybe an hour, of flushed fun before it turned into too much or not enough. Keep moving. There’s nothing new for you here.
Every time I close my eyes and veer off road in pursuit of the fantasy that things will be different this time, I take my self out my real life. And the thing is, my life is good. I’m not trying to escape it so much as trying to live another one in parallel. But I’m starting to see that I can’t squeeze another life into the margins without shaving down the edges of the one I have. I can’t layer a new life on top without burying the one I’m living. I can’t move forward if I keep doubling back.
It’s true that sometimes this life feels too small for me, that I’m still suffering from the disease of more. I’m still working out whether this is a treatable affliction or just the human condition. In any case, I’m not going to find what I’m looking for retreading old ground.
It’s early November, and I find myself on a surprisingly, stunningly perfect fall day.
When you’re raised up on visions of the promised land, there are a couple of things you take for granted:
The promised land is a place that exists and you can get to; and
That you’ll know it when you arrive.
Leaving your childhood religion is an exercise in splitting. You want to smash the beliefs you once held dear; you need to keep them intact to hold on to a sense of self that’s no longer clear. You end up excising them from the body of your old belief system and grasping the quivering strands of what’s left. You relocate your vision of the promised land. You think it’s still there but you couldn’t find it on a map if you tried.
On Wednesdays, I take my daughter to choir practice. She’s in children’s choir at our church and they’re practicing for the annual Christmas pageant, which is in it’s 100th year. This week we are running late, so I pull up in front of the church and ask if she wants me to drop her off before looking for a place to park. She surprises me by saying yes. She’s never walked around the church by herself before. The staff has strict rules about parents signing their kids in and out of Sunday school and the building was locked down for the last year. I make her talk me through how she’ll get from the front door to the choir room and then let her go, watching from the car to make sure she doesn’t need help with the heavy hundred year old doors and, when she makes it inside, watching the top of her head through the window as she struggles with a second set of doors. She’s so big, I think. And she’s so little. With that, she opens the door to a new level of independence, for both of us.
I find a spot on the street, park the car, gather up my daughter’s hat and gloves, and make my way inside the church building. I offer a chipper hello to the gentleman who works the front desk during the week and he, per usual, buzzes me in without a word. I am still on the first floor when I hear the strains of Joy to the World floating down the stairs. I almost can’t believe it’s the children’s choir and not a recording of some different group altogether. They sound magnificent. And loud. The group doubled in size when we all came back after the pandemic and the kids are all almost two years older than the last time they sang together in person. The choir director is nothing short of a miracle worker. Last year, he stitched together a couple dozen videos to put together a surprisingly watchable virtual pageant. In person, he’s somehow coaxed them into not only singing all of the worlds but hitting most of the right notes.
I pick out my daughter’s voice as I make my way up the stairs and the tears come. I can’t believe we made it. I can’t believe we landed here. Nine years ago I was carrying her inside of me and coming to terms with the fact that I could not raise a daughter in the religion I grew up it, not as I knew it. Seven years ago I was driving my baby to churches all over the city wondering if we’d ever find one that worked for us. Six years ago I carried my toddler out of a chapel for what I swore was the last time. It was so scary. When I tried to picture life after Mormonism, I saw mists of darkness. I imagined my daughter lost and confused. I imagined myself miserable, knowing I’d made the worst mistake. I couldn’t imagine anything good or sweet. My imagination was lacking. The light was always waiting for us on the other side. I just needed to step into it.
These thoughts flash by in the time it takes to ascend two flights of stairs. The third floor is brightly lit against the early dusk outside. The choir lets loose with a series of glorious glorias. I duck my head into practice room to wave at my daughter and then I ease my body into a comfy chair in the room next door, where I will chat with the other choir parents. I think, after five years, I can call them friends.
I feel like I survived something. Like I fled a famished land, crossed a stormy sea, and abandoned a sinking ship to wash up here, in this ordinary life that feels extraordinary. I’ve been here for so long now, I can’t believe I didn’t see it. I’m already in the promised land.
COVID risk is manageable enough for me to do all the things I really want to do while remaining enough of a threat for me to skip out on the things I didn’t want to do anyway. Yeah, I understand people are still dying, but on my personal risk map, the levels are near perfect. In August, I passed up tickets to see the Mountain Goats at SPACE because I didn’t want to risk a breakthrough infection when Delta was peaking. We saw the Drive-By Truckers at an outdoor venue in September and I spent the next week two weeks second waiting for every tickle in my throat to morph into something worse. Somehow I stayed healthy; plenty of people didn’t. In recent weeks, my reticence is dropping with the case rates. Here’s what I am doing these days: working out at the gym, hosting indoor play dates, going to book club, going to church, eating in restaurants, getting massages, and going to the doctor. Here’s what I’m not doing: getting my hair done, shopping when I don’t need anything, traveling for work, traveling for the holidays, hosting dinners, going to the dentist, or seeking out crowds. COVID is a lot like religion, it turns out. A convenient excuse to live exactly as you were going to live, a way to justify decisions you were already going to make, and a source of moral high ground to judge anybody who’s doing it differently.
Life’s not exactly back to normal. Yesterday I dropped my daughter off at Sunday School and found myself with nowhere to go because the group I used to meet up with on Sunday mornings is still meeting virtually. They met weekly all through the pandemic and, from what I hear, became closer than ever. I wouldn’t know. I logged in all of twice. As my friend J says, Zoom is for the birds. I’m not about to complain about an hour to myself, though. I thought about settling into the pews early to do some writing and maybe strike up a conversation with church people but I really didn’t want to spend the rest of the morning sweating behind my mask while the radiators worked overtime to heat up the old stone building. Also, truth be told, I wanted to be with people, but didn’t really want to talk to them. I walked out the door, feeling brazen, and into the coffee ship across the street, where I ordered a small drip, parked myself in a seat by the window, and read a magazine mask- and guilt-free.
Last summer, my friend M stopped by for a few hours on her way from Michigan to Iowa. We sat outside in camp chairs, distanced and masked, and she told me what she’d been up to the last few months, which was a lot. Besides quitting her job and moving cross country she was planning a wedding and had gone home for a funeral. She told me about what it was like to fly during lock down. “Nobody wanted to wear masks for that long, so we bought food and took a really long time pretending to eat.” I loved that story. I laughed out loud when she said. It was so honest. And if I was being honest, I could relate. Wasn’t I on my third beverage of the night? Looking for loopholes, taking cues from people around you to see what you can get away with while staying with in the bounds of social acceptability, what could be more human? Acknowledging that the new restrictions were deeply shitty while making an 80% effort to adhere to them was a relief after striving for 100% and perpetually falling short. Yet when I shared my friend’s story with other people, they didn’t get it. To me it was an offering of absurdity and relatability. “That’s horrible,” they said, wagging their fingers. “That’s why I’m not flying. That’s why people keep getting sick.”
My god. Can we not admit that this sucks? Can we not talk about what’s going on without squeezing out every opportunity to shame somebody who made a different choice? Even if it was a morally questionable one? I used to get off on being morally impeccable too, but that way of living is not sustainable, especially if your values are not your own, and the rules keep changing. It’s also unbelievably isolating. You might think you’ve found a pack in the people who hate the same things you do, but they’ll turn on you as soon as you crack. And you will crack, believe me. You’ll find a way to live the way you want to live, and it might meet your standards, but if you’re honest about your motivations somebody else will shake their head.
On Sunday, I wanted a coffee but I also wanted to sit inside with other people without a mask. I reckon plenty of other people did, too. Actually, I know they did, because I saw them, and when I saw them I smiled.
I’m back in the Midwest after an epic eight-day excursion to the desert and I expect that I’ll be processing the experience of seeing my family for the first time in eighteen months for awhile. In the meantime, what I want to say about the trip is this: I’m so glad I waited.
I’m glad I waited until both my husband and I were fully vaccinated. I’m glad I waited until my daughter was done with school. I’m glad I waited until everyone in family who wanted a shot had the opportunity to get one. I’m glad I waited until Arizona fell off the orange list in Chicago’s travel advisory for people traveling stateside. I’m glad I waited until the CDC updated its guidance for vaccinated folks. I’m glad I waited until the country re-opened.
It was almost impossible to say no when my family asked me to fly out back in November to celebrate my dad’s sixtieth, and only slightly less difficult to say no when my sister asked if she could come visit in March. It killed me to watch my daughter turn seven and then eight without hugging her grandparents or playing with her cousins. I missed them all so much I re-visited the decision to raise my own family in Chicago–a decision I once held fast and firm and close to my heart–on a near-daily basis. I may have been a black sheep, but my family always wanted me around, and I hated being stranded on the other side of the country from them. I hated staying put. I hated being stuck at home. I spent every minute of the quarantine gnawing the bars of my self-imposed cage and now that the latch has been lifted, the only thing I can think is that it was worth it.
It was worth waiting so that I could sit with my 88-year-old grandma at her kitchen table instead of outside in the hundred-degree heat. It was worth it so we could huddle together over old family photo albums instead of passing them back and forth between lawn chairs spaced six feet apart. It was worth it so she didn’t have to nod along pretending to hear me while I tried to make myself heard through a mask. It was worth it watching my daughter approach her so tentatively, nervous in the way that kids often are, and lean in anyway for a hug.
It was worth waiting so that when my sister hesitantly asked if I was up for taking the kids to an outdoor pool, I could scream “YES!” before she finished her sentence. It was worth it so I could let all four kids cling onto me like sea monkeys without worrying about germs. It was worth it so we could crash around with our eyes closed playing Marco Polo with strangers. It was worth it so we could line up like sardines waiting for the tube slide and the high dive.
It was worth waiting so that when my brother made reservations in downtown Gilbert, I could go along and enjoy the meal instead of freaking out, forcing him to cancel, or staying home while everyone else dined inside. It was worth it getting dressed up in my dressiest shorts and squeezing around a too-small table to eat too much food with my too-big family.
It was worth waiting so that I could walk around the swap meet in Mesa without passing judgment on the maskless hordes. It was worth it so that instead of boiling over when I walked past the double-wide stall hawking Trump memorabilia, all I did was laugh.
It was worth waiting so that I could flip through records at Zia and play heirloom guitars at Acoustic Vibes without feeling like an asshole, without having to reassure myself “at least I’m shopping local.”
It was worth waiting so that I could say yes to an impromptu invitation to from a dear friend.
It was worth waiting so that I could stay as long as I wanted and stay up as late as I wanted night after night without feeling like I was pushing my luck.
It was worth waiting until the trip back home felt like a reunion instead of a calculated risk.
For all the havoc it wreaked on our lives over the last year and a half, except for the occasional mask in businesses that required them, the pandemic barely registered last week. June in Arizona may be scorching, but the trip wasn’t all sunny. When COVID cropped up in conversation it was for the worst reasons. An old family friend on a ventilator, for more than ten days, improving only incrementally, according to the text updates my mom read out loud throughout the week. She didn’t trust the vaccine. My dad’s colleague also in the hospital, and doing even worse. In his case, it was his wife that was anti-vax. It’s senselessly tragic that they are suffering in the final stages of the disease for no reason at all.
I’m glad I waited long enough to know I’m not contributing to any of that.
Tonight I’m flying to see my family for the first time in eighteen months. I’ve been dying for this day to come, cried buckets of tears over not seeing my grandma and parents and little brothers and sister and nephews for so long, and now that it’s here I’m uneasy.
I’m uneasy about leaving my town. I thought I’d grown to loathe it over the last year, but last night I took my daughter to the library to stock up on books for the plane and as we walked around downtown I felt a pang thinking of not seeing all the little restaurants and storefronts even for a week.
I’m uneasy about leaving my plants. It’s going to be hot as hell here next week. Will my husband remember to water the vegetables? Will he think to drag the hose all the way through the house to hit the decorative plants in the front? Will he know to move the impatiens into the shade when they wilt? Will be remember to sun the little cactus our daughter bought with four of her very own dollars (crusty with tooth fairy glitter, natch)? I iced the orchids, so they should be good for the week, but they’re precious and finicky enough that leaving them doesn’t feel quite right.
I’m uneasy about navigating the airport. We’re leaving absurdly early because it’s impossible to predict when Chicago will be a snarl of traffic and when it will clear shot. Will we be racing through security or will I be scraping the bottom of my bag for ways to entertain my kid for three-plus hours? Will we eat?
I’m uneasy about being out of my element. I poked fun at my daughter for packing ten stuffed animals and nary a sock for an eight day trip, but I packed three housecoats, three sets of joggers, a pile of soft shorts and tees, and every mask in the house. I considered the risks of flying with edibles–legal in the state I’m leaving and the one I’m flying too, but apparently still frowned on by TSA–from every angle. We’re both clinging to comfort.
As many times as I’ve wished I could uproot my life in the Midwest to rejoin my family in the desert, I’m uneasy about being with them again. Eight days is a long time. Will we remember how to act with each other? Will we have anything to say? Will they like the person I’ve become? Will I accept the ways they’ve changed or stayed the same? Am I prepare for the more likely scenario: that the week will fly by and I’ll find it impossible to leave.
Tomorrow, May 14, marks fourteen months since my city’s shelter in place order went into effect. My grandma will turn 88. I will turn 36 a day later and the world I’m being re-birthed into is bigger than the one I was sinking into. The time to start thinking about wrapping up this series is here, if not a bit overdue. I’m not exactly living like a monk anymore. In last few weeks alone I’ve been to my office twice, eaten in a restaurant, taken my family to the aquarium, taken myself to the art museum, shopped at Chicago Music Exchange, hosted a birthday party, attended a birthday party, been to multiple in-person medical appointments, had an energy healing session, taken my daughter to school, enrolled her in summer camp, walked maskless with a friend, stepped inside another friend’s house, and purchased plane tickets to see my family in June. All of it has been eventful, but not in the way that venturing out of my house last year was the height of drama. COVID protocols are only a minor irritation. Other people don’t freak me out. My challenges now are in helping my daughter navigate emotionally charged and socially challenging situations without projecting onto her my own baggage and fears, dealing with my physical and mental health, making time for my marriage, reconnecting with family and friends, taking my career to the next level, and figuring out what I want to write next. In other words, my problems are back to what they were before the virus dropped into our lives.
I get that the pandemic isn’t over yet. In the last few weeks that have seen me practically frolicking through town, I’ve also worked mostly from home, attended a virtual conference, pitched new clients on Teams, hosted birthday parties on Zoom, Facetimed with family, texted with friends, supervised my daughter during remote learning, felt awkward talking to people with different COVID risk profiles, been annoyed at people still wearing masks, been pissed at people not wearing masks, searched desperately for reasonable, science-based, non-alarmist guidance about COVID protocols for kids under twelve, fretted about what school will look like for my daughter next year, and zoomed right out of a store when I heard a wet, hacking cough. We’ll be living with COVID aftershocks for a long time, but I’m training myself to stop bracing for them, and to stop second guessing the ways I respond to each new wave. All I can do is what I learned over the last year, which is to make decisions that are consistent with my values and within my capabilities, even if they take me out of lockstep my friends, family, neighbors, and the amorphous crowd of peers and perceived authority figures of whom I used to live in fear.
It’s time to turn my creative mind to other topics. The way this blog goes, I’ll probably have something to say about life in what I hope will be COVID’s end-days the week after I close out the series, sort of the way I, embarrassingly, ironically, keep writing about spirits months after shedding the moniker Sober Mormon. When I started this series, I asked, “how many more identities I will take on and shed before this thing is over?” How much of what I claim to be today will fall by the wayside?” You could say I’ve changed a lot. I would say I’m fundamentally the same person except that I see and move through the world in fundamentally different ways. I also figured out I want to try my hand at fiction. I think it might be a way to tell even more of the truth. I’m sure I’ll be back here, though. I’ve been swearing I’ll stop writing on the internet for almost as long as I’ve been at it.
In a tarot deck, there are a handful of cards that have a bad reputation. Folks having their cards read see these babies in a spread and they get scared. A few of these cards derive their power over our imaginations from their objectively frightening names: Card 13, Death; Card 15, The Devil. Tarot readers tend not to be those cards, though, because the meanings they carry are not inherently bad. Death means change. The Devil means freedom and choice. There is one card that has the power to strike fear into the hearts of readers and querents alike, and that is Card 16, The Tower. The name is innocuous enough, though the imagery is generally upsetting. Traditional decks show lightening splicing a black sky, flames pouring from windows, a fallen crown, people tumbling headfirst toward a rocky ground, and, of course, the eponymous tower, cracking and crumbling down. The real trouble with this card is what it means in a reading, and that is destruction, disorientation, and shocking change. The card is not all ugly, though. Framing the chaos are dabs of yellow gold that could be flames but are actually golden yods–the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, signifying the presence of the divine. The crown, representing spiritual consciousness, is tipped over but still intact. The figures in the foreground are falling but they are not dead. The tower will burn but who’s to say what will be rebuilt in its place.
This last year was a Tower year. The pandemic ripped us from our lives and stripped our focus down to the barest essentials. Soap. Toilet paper. Daily breath and daily bread. For a time, everything that was deemed non-essential fell away. Businesses. Acquaintances. Routine physical maintenance.
My life certainly simplified in ways I didn’t expect it could. When I walked away from partnership at a traditional law firm to join a virtual firm in 2019, I insisted on still working out of an office. My new employer bought me a suite of all white office furniture–a large desk and bookcases and filing cabinets and multiple chairs–and all the IT I thought I’d need–a landline, a wide monitor, a printer/scanner, and a shredder for client PHI. I couldn’t imagine doing legal work without binders of documents, without stacks of paper, without a cup full of pens. I couldn’t imagine feeling like a lawyer without my law school textbooks lined up behind me and my diploma hanging over my head. I’ve been in my office exactly once since March 14, 2020. I take meetings at home. I print out nothing. And far from feeling like a pause, the last year saw me doing some of the most sophisticated, high impact work of my career. I don’t need the trappings of a traditional corporate job. All I need my brain, my training, my relationships, and time to work.
When my daughter was in preschool, we started throwing birthday parties. We don’t have family nearby, so we went all out to make her feel special and celebrated, renting party rooms at local play places and inviting every kid she knew. I found the whole event-planning experience–from selecting a date months in advance to plunking down a not insignificant chunk of cash, sending invites to parents I’d never met, tracking RSVPs, and acquiring snacks, cake, decorations, and favors all oriented around a theme–to be incredibly taxing, to the point that I was relieved when I realized that the COVID restrictions in place last April would make any sort of party impossible. When her birthday started to creep up on us this year, I was relieved again. Things had opened enough that we could probably get away with throwing a party, but certainly no one would expect it, least of all my daughter. Until my wonderfully thoughtful, generous, and unselfish husband opened his big genius mouth and suggested she invite a few of her friends over for cupcakes outside. April might seem like a reasonable month for an outdoor birthday party, but in Chicago it is not. In Chicago, April is cold, blustery, rainy, and, most importantly, wildly unpredictable. Without fail, it has snowed the week of her birthday every year since the year our daughter was born, sometimes a few flakes but usually a few inches. In other words, planning an outdoor party in April is an anxious person’s nightmare. Our daughter turned eight last week. We celebrated with family via Zoom on Friday and with friends outside on Saturday. In spite of my worst fears, it came together easily, if not entirely without effort. We invited all of the neighbor kids and a couple of friends from school and church. We scrapped paper and emailed invitations in favor of texts sent a week and a half out. We skipped serving any food other than cake. We briefly considered and then rejected a pinata. We were going to skip favors too, until my aforementioned thoughtful, generous, and genius husband scooped up some bouncy balls and finger skateboards at Target. We did not offer even try for a theme, or decorations. Rainstorms were on the radar, but we didn’t worry about the weather because outdoors was our only option. We didn’t worry about whether people would come because we understood if they didn’t want to. Day of, we put out bubbles and sidewalk chalk and kiddie corn hole and, what do you know, the sun came out and our friends showed up, and our daughter had the best time. She didn’t need the trappings of a traditional suburban birthday party. All she needed was her family, her friends, and time to play.
When the stay-at-home orders first went into place, I added new routines to my days to keep some structure in place, and keep myself sane. Mostly, I kept my body moving. A little yoga flow when I first woke up. A walk around the block before and after work, and a bigger loop around the neighborhood during lunch. Two minute planks and push-ups in the middle of the day. Running four to five days a week plus cross-training on the rower or with weights. This week, I had surgery to remove a precancerous mole from my leg and the most shocking thing about it, other than the size of the scar, was when the surgeon told me I wouldn’t be able to exercise for three weeks. Not even yoga! Not even walking! The version of me that clung to running as an identity and to fitness as a signifier of health and discipline as a hallmark of my self worth would not have coped well with this development. When I got the news, I felt around for that version of myself, for the anxious lady that I was certain was lurking just under my skin, and, to my surprise, I couldn’t find her. She died when Lauren died. She died when my doctor told me the mole in my leg might morph into melanoma. She died when the tower went down. Since the surgery, my days feel eerily like the early days of the pandemic in that I’m not really leaving my house, but this time around I’m not losing my mind. I don’t need a million routines. I don’t need to always be moving and doing. I don’t need to be the best, healthiest version of myself. All I need is to, you know, be. Is this enlightenment? Is this what it’s like to be distilled into the most essential version of yourself?
On April 6, 2021, my magnificent and magnetic friend Lauren and her dear husband Kamel were killed in a horrific car wreck. Lauren died less than a week before she turned 36. Kamel was 38. I met Lauren when I started writing about my life online in 2010. We never met in person, but it didn’t matter. I talked to her more than I talk to members of my own family, more than I talk to my best friends from high school and college combined. I watched her plan wedding and navigate the tricky early years of marriage and career and parenthood. I watched raise two babies into brilliant and beautiful kids. Her oldest was born a month before my daughter, and from what I can tell they are a lot a like. He turned eight weeks before his parents died. His little sister is five. I watched Lauren and Kamel build the kind of life that might have inspired envy except they were so warm and genuine that they only inspired me to live my best life. She inspired me to print out Instagram photos and frame them on my wall. She inspired me to go adventuring with my daughter almost every weekend. She inspired me to start up stay-at-home date nights during the pandemic. She inspired me to try out new recipes on Sunday afternoons. I still can’t wrap my mind around their absence, not from my life but from their own. What their children lost is devastating; as a parent, it’s almost beyond comprehension. But when I think about what Lauren and Kamel will miss it makes me sick. The woman who caused the accident was twenty-six years old, a mom with a toddler in the car, and drunk.
On April 8, 2021, I went to the dermatologist for what I thought was a routine exam and walked out with a biopsy wound the size of a dime.
On April 11, 2021, a police officer shot and killed Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, ten miles from where Derek Chauvin was standing trial for the murder of George Floyd. Daunte was twenty years old, a young man and a dad. His little boy is only two.
On April 12, 2021, I found out about Lauren and Kamel when I saw a link to a GoFundMe in someone’s Instagram profile. I saw their names and feared the worst: that something had happened to one of their kids. “Nononononono” I pleaded as I scoured the internet for information. When I realized they were gone I grabbed my own face and fell on the floor. “Nononononono.”
On April 15, 2021, a gunman walked into a FedEx facility in Indianapolis and opened fire, putting four people in the hospital and killing eight dead.
On April 15, 2021, city officials released video footage of a police officer shooting and killing Adam Toledo in Chicago. Adam was thirteen years old, in seventh grade, and lived in Little Village. Adam has a little brother, who is only eleven, and Adam liked to play with his littler cousins.
From April 12-16, 2021, I got high every day. I told myself I wasn’t avoiding anything. Devastation was an appropriate emotion. I just needed something to take the edge off.
On April 17, 2021, I stayed sober for date night. I felt stabs of happiness and even laughed out loud, but when I touched down everything still hurt.
On April 18, 2021, I made an overly ambitious meal, one with polenta, because that’s something Lauren made. I cooked the roast in red wine and the leeks in beer and got a little bit drunk.
On April 19, 2021, I called the dermatologist’s office. “It’s been a week and a half and I was just wondering if my results were in?” The receptionist was polite but firm. “Sometimes it can take the whole two weeks. Sometimes even longer.”
On April 19, 2021, a friend texted that her floofy dog, beloved to my family as well as to hers, was sick. Something is wrong with his kidneys. He has months to live. She hadn’t told her kids yet, so I’m sure as hell not going to tell mine.
On April 20, 2021, I was scheduled to get my second dose of the vaccine, but I had a low-grade fever. That, along with fatigue, achiness, and general malaise not infrequent for me these days. My heart rate went up and I dipped down into panic. What if they wouldn’t let me get the vaccine? What if I have cancer that’s already metastasized? That would explain why I’ve felt like shit all year. My Outlook calendar dinged, reminding me I was supposed to call a friend from work. My friend told me that ten days ago her dad was diagnosed with cancer, and it didn’t look good. He’s facing chemo, radiation, and possibly surgery. His tumors are terribly positioned. Her mom is disabled, so she has to take him to all his appointments. I had to get off the phone earlier than I wanted to to make my vaccine appointment. The pharm tech didn’t love my fever, but he didn’t turn me away. This time I didn’t talk to anybody else in line. I took a selfie, bought a Vitamin water and a birthday card for my daughter, and got out of there.
On April 20, 2021, police in Columbus, Ohio shot and killed Ma’Khia Bryant. Ma’Khia was sixteen. She liked doing hair and makeup and making videos on TikTok.
On April 20, 2021, the jury returned guilty verdicts across the board. I couldn’t figure out how to react. We already knew Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd.
On April 21, 2021, I waited for Pfizer’s side effects to swim over me. I waited for the dermatologist to call. I told my therapist I can’t see a world in which the news is good. The news is never good. I thought about writing in this blog. Instead, I took a nap in the middle of the day.
On April 22, 2021, I emailed the dermatologist. “It’s been two weeks.” She called me right away. “It’s not cancer but the abnormalities are severe. We have to go back in and cut deeper and wider and send it to the lab again to make sure it’s clear. It’s not cancer but it’s one step away.” “Well, what is it?” I asked. “Basal cell? Squamous?” The doctor took a breath. “It’s pre-melenoma. One step away. We caught it early.” I texted everybody who was waiting with me, but with fewer exclamation points than I’d been hoping to use. It was hard to feel hopeful when the doctor had sounded so serious. I thought I’d feel relieved, but I also thought the results would be more clear. More definitively not cancer or more definitively cancer but a less deadly kind. I was prepared for the worst but expecting the best: nothing at all or cancer that had already spread. I wasn’t ready for more waiting or for this stretched out middle ground
Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about the ways that I might die. I’ve been deathly afraid of car wrecks and guns and men in the dark. I’ve been afraid of neurodegenerative disease and, yes, COVID-19. I have been afraid of the police but not as afraid as if I were not white. I’ve been afraid of dying at my own hand and of dying from drugs. The biggest threat to me was always me. But I was an idiot kid who didn’t know what she had, or what it would look like to leave a family behind. When I think about what I’d miss it makes me sick. The dermatologist warned me that the scar would be big, even alarming. “I don’t care about scars,” I spat back. “That’s a death wish bubbling up under my skin. Cut as deep as you need.”
I am still half-vaccinated. I thought I’d feel a measure of freedom after dose 1, but now that I’m so close, I find I can’t justify changing things up until I reach what the CDC has deemed full protection. Is it just me or is the wait between doses interminable?
My husband got his shot last week. We don’t have the type of marriage where I make appointments for him, but I made an exception for the vaccine. He just wasn’t anxious enough about it for my liking. He was content not only to wait his turn but for appointments to become plentiful. He was sure he would get one eventually. What I wouldn’t give for that kind of confidence and trust in the system. I wasn’t about to gamble our family’s summer plans waiting for an appointment to drop into his lap, though. I pestered him into making an account on Walgreens.com and signing in on my phone and commenced with hitting refresh until I scored him a dose last week. Johnson & Johnson. One and done.
In a few weeks, we’ll both be breathing easier. In the meantime, I’m swatting off a new threat, this one coming from down the hall of my own body. I went to the dermatologist to get a mole checked last week. I figured it was nothing–it was pretty and pink and round with smooth edges–but it sprung up practically overnight (before I got vaccinated, to be clear), and what’s the point of having a dermatologist I can’t email her about mysterious new lumps and bumps? She told me to come in and I scheduled an appointment for a few weeks out, after spring break.
I was excited about the appointment because I thought of it as crossing something annoying off my list. I thought the doctor would glance at my mole and send me on my way with a pat on the back for my hypervigilance after concluding that this thing, like all the other things I’ve worked myself up about over the years, was nothing to worry about. Instead, she peered at it closely through what I can only describe as a doctor’s version of a jeweler’s loop and told me she wanted to do a biopsy. “The risks are scarring, infection, and bleeding. There will definitely be a scar. We will tell you what to do if it gets infected. There might be bleeding. Do you have any bleeding disorders or any blood thinning medication?” My voice must have wavered when I gave my informed consent, because the doctor looked up at me and asked, “Is this what you expected to happen today?” “Um, no. Because it just looks like a normal mole? Even the internet told me not to worry.” The doctor didn’t crack a smile. “Well I’m not sure it is a mole. We need to confirm none of the cells are cancerous.” The shape of the mole was not the root of my surprise, though. I was shocked because my experiences with doctors have largely been limited to them telling me the thing I’m worried about is either all in my head or there’s nothing that can be done. There’s a reason I’ve been beating the drum of mental health for so long on this blog. I’m not accustomed to having my fears validated, much less scraped off my body and sent to the lab.
Hearing the word cancer out of a doctor’s mouth made all my invisible conditions–the dragons I’ve been keeping at bay my entire adult life–seem imaginary, like a joke. The first thing I wanted when I walked out of the dermatology office was a drink, but after a year of COVID and years of sobriety before that, I didn’t know where to go, so I went to the dispensary instead. Oh, and I should have led with this: it was a dark and rainy day.
I’m sure it’s nothing, and even if it’s not, I’m sure I’ll be fine. The biopsy is more likely than not to come back normal. If it doesn’t, they’ll go back in and cut out whatever’s bad. The challenge is living in the space where things might not be fine. We know from the last year that fine was never guaranteed. I spent the day after the biopsy reading about all the skin cancers. I texted the worst-seeming one, Merkel cell carcinoma, to my mom, because some of the pictures on the internet looked just like mole papule on my leg, and because I knew she would indulge my worry. When she didn’t text back for a few hours, I wondered what was up and checked my phone again. Oh shit. I hadn’t sent the texts to my mom, but to a long-time friend who happens to be a doctor. She wasn’t having it. “Merkel cell is so rare!! I’ve only seen it with old men. You don’t have it.” I called my sister, who has skin like mine, and pulled a bossy older sibling move. “Go get your skin checked. We’re supposed to be doing it once a year.” Probably she already knew, but maybe not. I didn’t. I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for COVID. After I got sick last year and freaked out because I didn’t know where to go, I found a primary care doctor who took one look at my pale, freckly skin and my family history of cancer and told me to get to a dermatologist. She was so serious about it she referred me to a competing practice group in town so I could get in sooner.
The biopsy results should be back before I’m due for my second dose of the vaccine, which means I’m languishing in a wait within a wait. The four weeks between shots feels longer than the entire preceding year and the four days it’s been since my biopsy feels even longer than that. You’d think I’d be better at waiting by now. You’d think I’d be a pro at passing time, but this particular stretch is stretching me.