A couple of years ago, the flu came through our household. My son contracted it first, showing up at my bedside at three in the morning and promptly vomiting all over my sheets. He was burning up, and a test the next morning showed him to be positive. My daughter was the second to become sick, showing symptoms two days later and slowly progressing from lethargy and unusual tiredness to a frighteningly high fever. She would end up being hospitalized shortly into her battle with the flu after suddenly becoming immobile one morning. Try as I might, I will never forget the sight of her emerging from her bedroom in an army crawl and very calmly telling me that her legs aren’t working. When I tried to stand her up, she collapsed into a pretzel-legged pile on the floor. We rushed her to the emergency room where she would be hospitalized with complications from influenza.
I remember those days in the hospital, masked up and exhausted, holding my daughter down for more blood or an IV as she would scream and reach her arms out for me to save her. The days felt like they were unending, as if extra hours had been packed into each day somehow. Eventually, they ended. Of course, children are resilient. While I remain traumatized by those days of fevers and vomit and hospitalizations, my children have both likely forgotten them. Those memories, for them, have faded into the background of a life that boasted playgrounds and playdates and museums and art classes and skateboarding lessons and all the saccharine, carefree moments that children get to fill their days with. Unburdened by dread and backaches and exhaustion and responsibilities, children get to move on from things quicker, protected by the coziness of childhood.
Perhaps this is why I find myself so lost in a sea of pandemic despair. Our children have, more or less, been stripped of the pre-pandemic padding of innocence and sunshine and laughter. They are lonely now. They are without their peers, routines and even over-scheduled extracurriculars. We, as parents, cannot tell them that it’ll all be okay and the world will get better soon – or at least, we cannot mean it when we do say it. I find myself saying it often.
When my son was turning nine three months into our quarantine, he accepted with a surprising level of joy that in lieu of a birthday party he would have a parade in which he would sit in a lawn chair and wave to the people he loves as they drove by the front of our house. He was all smiles still when proposing we host a Zoom call so that family could sing him happy birthday, too, as he blows out his candles. I found the entire thing both heartwarming and depressing, but he faced it with the same resilience children typically do. He was confident that it was just one birthday done differently. One little blip in the big picture of a life that he remains so confident will one day return to how it was – a mess of school dances and book fairs and laughing until you can’t breathe as you run across play structures with friends at a park.
I wish I shared that optimism, or even a fraction of that blindingly bright childhood radiance. The truth is, I don’t. I see the devastation not only broadcast on the nightly news reports but in talking to friends who are fearful, who have been sick, who have buried loved ones, who are closing the doors on businesses they’ve built from the ground up. I see the lack of action from lawmakers who deny science at its core with as much fervor as they go on to deny responsibility for the death toll left behind in the wake of their indifference. I feel as if the worst hasn’t happened yet, as evidenced by the case count – and death toll – in Florida and the number of my former classmates and peers who have been pulled into the belly of a pandemic in a country that considers turning the other cheek to be a good strategic plan in a time of crisis. If you pretend it’s not there …
The other morning, my four year old daughter and I were on a walk and she asked me if we should mail Santa Claus a mask to the North Pole so that he could still bring their gifts when Christmas comes. I assured her that I’m sure Santa already has one. “We won’t be able to sit with him and take pictures, though,” she said. She was still smiling as she said it, and her smile didn’t fade even as she realized out loud that he probably couldn’t eat our cookies this year because of germs. “Next year, he can.”
It is this resilience that is the last to go for our children. They are able to see this pandemic as something minor, a short term inconvenience. For older children like my son, they rationalize that they are safe because they are following all of the rules – and aren’t those what rules are for? To keep them safe? But I wonder how long this will last. I wonder when the heaviness of it all becomes too much. When it no longer seems like a life as they knew it is still lurking around the corner, waiting for them to run into it with open arms. When the change, the transitions, the worry and the loss suddenly begin to feel like they’re closing the walls in and there’s not adequate room enough to breathe as free as they once did? My heart breaks in anticipation.
But we aren’t there yet.
“When this is all over, I wonder if Mardi will still recognize me,” says my son about the alligator who lives at our local zoo. This is the longest we have stayed away from the zoo since he was an infant. He convinces himself that, yes, Mardi will still recognize him when he returns. I tell him he’s probably right, even though it’s ludicrous to assume the alligator at the zoo recognized him in the first place. “He’s going to be so happy to see me soon, when the virus is over.”
I’m bitter. I’m bitter about the year – or years – our children will have lost as the President stokes the flames of racism and politicizes a deadly virus with no attempts to save a single life in the process. I’m bitter about the milestones our children will miss out of necessity because breath and life far outweigh walking across a preschool graduation stage, but the grief still tugs at your bones. I’m bitter about the states, including my own, who refuse to implement mask mandates or stay at home orders and shrug off death tolls with an unfeelingness that makes you wonder if they realize each number is a human being with a family who is then engulfed in grief. I’m bitter about the time our children won’t get back or the way it feels like their lives are suddenly so fragile, as if they’re being marched over rotting, splintered bridges and we are unable to protect them with a promise big enough to convince us, their parents, that everything really will be okay — even if we follow all of the rules. We as adults know that isn’t always enough.
I’m bitter for the stresses and losses that we, as parents, wear stacked upon our backs to protect our children from the weight of it all. We wince and ache under the heaviness. Some days, I don’t feel like my bones are strong enough to carry it all without cracking. But we do. We carry the burden and we continue marching forward, because what choice do we really have?
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