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 67: Sightings, Part 1

A List of Things Seen at the Park During Quarantine:

  • Kids climbing on the playground equipment while parents look on nervously, darting furtive glances over their shoulders (Week 1)
  • City employees removing the nets from the tennis court
  • Basketball nets tied off to the rims so nothing can get through
  • A 10-inch hand-painted model rocket stuck in a tree
  • A man with a 12-foot ladder trying to climb a 50-foot tree
  • A man and little girl chucking rocks and sticks into the branches of a tree
  • A woman craning her neck, staring up into a tree, muttering about a man
  • Dozens of people lined up outside the community center, six feet apart, to pick up the breakfasts and lunches their kids would normally get at school, including a classmate of the little girl’s that she has yet to see on video calls with the class
  • Playground equipment standing empty, caution tape flapping in the wind (Weeks 2-8)
  • Countless dogs, often running through the park off-leash; for once, this does not bother the woman
  • Families playing catch, badly
  • Families playing soccer well
  • Families playing with brand new puppies
  • Kids playing basketball, having torn the nets down
  • An old man playing tennis with an orange against a wall
  • A kite shaped like a neon triceratops stuck in a tree
  • Little libraries stuffed full with books that no one wants to touch
  • A raccoon running around in broad daylight
  • Basketball hoops blocked off with wooden planks
  • A middle schooler turning head over heels on the basketball court in a human-sized hamster wheel
  • Teenagers with skateboards and no shirts jumping off of a DIY ramp in the middle of the basketball court; they have a boombox, like it’s the nineties
  • Something disemboweled in the soccer field, guts in a neat pile, perfectly intact
  • A teenage neighbor running sprints
  • An older neighbor jogging slowly
  • A family the woman knows a little walking with a stroller; they were supposed to get together for dinner before the pandemic, but now she doesn’t say hi because it feels too complicated
  • Kids climbing on the playground, over, under, and around the caution tape while parents watch on, unperturbed (Week 9)
  • The little girl blowing every dandelion she get her little hands on, wishing over and over again for a dog
  • A tween chasing a pure white hedgehog through the grass
  • So many people the man, the woman, and the little girl know, all waving eagerly, eyes crinkling as they smile behind their masks

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Quarantine Diary Day 52

A few years ago my husband and I tried to rescue a dog, a short-legged long-bodied lil’ tough guy with the face of a lab and the broad chest of a bully breed. He’d made his way to Chicago by way of kill shelter in Alabama and somewhere en route the name on his papers changed from Studley to Study. Stupidly, we brought our then three-year-old to the rescue to meet him and she fell in love.

We brought Study home knowing he had separation anxiety and having a sense that it could be pretty bad but committed to doing whatever it took to welcome him into our family. The first time we left him home, for maybe an hour tops, he tore the doorframe to shreds he was so scared. We hired the best trainer in Chicagoland who gave us a system she all but guaranteed would cure him. The only problem was that we couldn’t leave Study home alone for even one minute a day until he was ready, a point that could be weeks or even months away.

We worked the separation anxiety protocols for months, eventually building up to being able to leave him for 45 minutes, at least during the training sessions. During the months leading up to that point we stayed home. My husband and I took turns leaving the house to run errands or get some exercise. I took our daughter to church alone on Sunday mornings and ducked out of services early to be home in time for my husband to get to the last gym class of the day. While I was at work, my husband had to drive our daughter to her preschool, only half a mile away, because Study had to come with them. Because the preschool required parents to drop their kids off in the classroom, they couldn’t walk. The only option was to leave Study barking his head off in the car for five minutes and hope he didn’t hurt himself. For five months, except for walks with the dog, we only left the house as a family a handful of times, to celebrate my husband’s birthday or take our annual trip downtown for the Christmas market, each time dropping Study off at doggie daycare at $35 a pop. We didn’t mind spending the money. What we couldn’t handle was spending the day sick with worry that Study was scared or anxious or otherwise not okay when he was out of our sight. We stopped taking him when he threw up hard black plastic and we discovered that the daycare had been crating him during “nap time” against our instructions. Study had resorted to trying to eat his way out through the tray at the bottom of the kennel.

The same week that Study graduated to 45 minutes at home alone without panicking, Study bit someone, a friend visiting from out of town. The next day, Study bit him again. Study had been uneasy with people in our house since the beginning, sometimes barking from beginning to end of a visit from a friend, a babysitter, or even the trainer. Because of the separation anxiety, we couldn’t put him upstairs or downstairs or in a other room. So, we stopped inviting people over. Study had also begun lunging at dogs and people, snarling and barking, when we took him outside, so except for solitary walks, we’d stopped taking him out to parks and other public places.

After the bite, we called the trainer and shifted gears from separation anxiety to fear-based aggression. The trainer gave us more protocols, but no promises that they would work. We would need to acclimate Study to our friends and family over six to twelve carefully-controlled sessions each. We practiced with a few friends, but couldn’t figure out how it would work with our families and many friends who live out of state and visit not infrequently, or how we could safely allow other kids, our neighbors and our daughter’s friends into our house.

As hard as the last five months had been, we loved Study. He was part of our family. We spent our days training and playing and walking with him. At night we cuddled him on the couch. Our daughter adored him and he adored her. We knew he would never harm a hair on the head of any of the three of us. We loved him so much that we seriously considered how we could make it work: a life in which we could not leave the house and in which nobody else could come in. Eventually, we realized, that was hardly a life at all, and not fair or what we wanted for our daughter. With broken hearts, we gave Study back to the shelter, and prayed that he would be okay. In what was surely the best possible turn of events, the family that had fostered Study before he came to us–a young couple with no kids and with another dog to keep Study company–offered to take him back. Not too long after that, they adopted him. We failed to rescue Study, but he found his forever family anyway.

Three years later, everybody who didn’t already have a dog is fostering or adopting a fluffy puppy or an adorable mutt and we are–to our dog-obsessed daughter’s chagrin–still without any pets at all. It is not lost on us that Study would have been the perfect quarantine pet. Indeed, here we are, living a life in which we do not leave the house and in which nobody else comes in. It is not fair or what we wanted for our daughter. Still, I can see that our initial assessment–that such a life would hardly be worth living–was wrong. Our new life may be being lived out in close quarters with little family, but it is not small, and it is not time wasted. Those five months at home with Study built us, made us solid. We worked together to solve a problem, to weather a hard time, to make an impossible decision, and to move through grief. These next five or ten or twenty or however many months at home with each other will see us growing still, already a forever family.