The Slow Down
Mid-March 2020: My husband and I went to Coleman’s just before everything closed. The restaurant possessed an eerie, desolate quality, like an old western town after a dangerous outlaw had arrived. The waitress approached the table with a brave smile.
Did she have COVID? Did we? Apparently, some people could be asymptomatic carriers. Everyone was suspect.
Should we let our boys, ages nine and eleven, go to a birthday party next weekend? We considered the facts: Half the guest list had already said no. But there were no confirmed cases in Syracuse yet and the virus reportedly didn’t affect kids. Let the kids be kids just a little while longer, we rationalized. I took out my phone and RSVP’d: Yes, feeling slightly reckless. Every decision lately seemed like a bet against the odds.
Did we need toilet paper? It had been the first thing to vanish from the supermarket shelves and people were said to be hoarding it. I told my husband how I’d seen a video of two women at a supermarket fighting over the last 8-pack of Charmin. What did this say about our society? The question could prompt a scholarly essay invoking Freud or launch a comedy routine. We traded memes from our social media feeds that week: Gollum from “Lord of the Rings” holding a roll of toilet paper, saying, My precious. A bathroom labeled “panic room” with hundreds of toilet paper holders mounted on the walls. When you paid online, you could choose three options: Visa, Mastercard, Toilet paper. People were now calling it, “white gold”. It helped to laugh.
What were the schools going to do? My husband had heard a rumor they’d all be closed by the end of the week, but would reopen after Spring Break. Regarding that last part I said, no way—a global pandemic wouldn’t just clear up in a matter of weeks. We were riding a wave that hadn’t even begun to crest. I didn’t know much, but I knew that.
I paid for dinner using my credit card. As I signed the receipt, I thought about the waitress’s pen, the microbes on its surface. I left a gigantic tip, hazard pay, then went to the restroom to wash my hands.
Awake: I’m usually too busy watching college basketball, drinking green beer, or doing the daily shuffle to notice the advent of spring. It took a pandemic.
One day it was winter, stark and silent. Then, just twenty-four hours later, I discovered green crowns pushing from the ground, nascent nubs adorning branches, a balm to the air, sweet birdsong.
The magnolia tree in the Ladd’s yard developed fat, torch-shaped buds with fuzzy, silver coats, soft as fleece. It wasn’t long before they cracked open, revealing a glimpse of their pale pink blossoms. Just a day later they were in full-bloom.
Things change quickly. Sometimes overnight.
An Anonymous Gift: Someone had put a Ziploc bag of four homemade masks in our neighborhood’s Little Free Library. You couldn’t find masks in stores at the time and I wasn’t handy with a sewing machine. My family wore them until they were threadbare.
Together, Apart: Fear for personal safety factored in, but most people understood we had to shelter in place to protect vulnerable populations and avoid overwhelming the hospitals. Staying at home and wearing a mask in public was an act of altruism.
Times Square in New York City was so empty you almost expected to see tumbleweeds.
If you turned off the news, you could hear car horns, announcing a birthday or a graduation. People met outside their doorsteps to bang pots, cheer, and clap for a “healthcare heroes” coming home from work. In Italy, a place hit hardest in the early days of the pandemic, neighbors met on their balconies at sunset to sing. These were the sounds of human resilience.
There was something profound knowing everyone in the world was experiencing this.
Thoughts Running Like a Stock Ticker Tape: When it’s safe to go out, revolution or resume course? Why care about the DOW when people are dying? Is this the end of capitalism? We have an opportunity here…Redistribution of wealth is key, but will it ever happen? How prepared should my family be for the collapse of society? Should we get a gun? Buy land? Stockpile food and water? Buy chickens?
After a bit of investigating, I came across an article in The New York Times: “America Stress-Bought All the Baby Chickens.” Turns out, I was not immune to panic-mentality.
Clear as Mud: A day of home-schooling was a success if I could get the boys to practice piano, read for thirty minutes, and make some kind of artwork.
When they drew, I drew, too. We found a YouTube channel that offered step-by-step instructions. I made a shark. A geranium. An owl. I spent hours shading my creations with colored pencils and outlining them in black ink. Completing one of these drawings felt like a major accomplishment.
The secret to happiness: Low expectations.
I mailed drawings to people I loved.
Different Strokes: I discovered a neighborhood nature trail where fallen trees bridged a stream. Arms horizontal, like a kid on a balance beam, I crossed from one side to the other. The bark beneath my feet had once been twenty feet in the air.
Meanwhile, my boys stayed indoors, stuck to their screens.
“Experience the joy of nature,” I said.
“No thanks,” they said.
They preferred virtual reality, carefully managing the appearance of their avatars, but refusing to clip their actual nails and brush their actual teeth.
Before the pandemic I had often wondered: Was there an evolutionary advantage to their obsessive gaming? Were they preparing for an apocalyptic future stuck in a bunker?
And now here we were, sheltering-in-place. They’d adapted beautifully.
When I asked them what they were doing in their pixilated worlds, their responses varied from “being an assassin” to “managing a McDonalds”. One time they said: Fishing.
“Would you like to go fishing in real life?” I asked.
“No thanks,” they said.
Memorial Day: Normally we jump from party to party. Uncle Bill’s house. My mom’s. Our neighbor’s house across the street.
All canceled, I did a puzzle.
There is a Zen only puzzle aficionados understand, where the boundary between puzzler and puzzle dissolves. Among hundreds of shapes, I see the one I’ve been looking for, distinguished by its lopsided head and skinny arms. Among the various shades of color, I’d catch a fleck of red and know instantly it belonged to the edge of Blanche’s blouse; a fleck of pink, the corner of Dorothy’s wry smile. Finding a piece often felt like a revelation. Fitting it brought an embarrassing amount of joy.
My 40th Trip Around the Sun: When I turned thirty (and was eight months pregnant), my husband threw me a surprise party. People thought it was funny when I screamed and made a beeline for the bathroom, but I was furious. He knows how much I hate being the center of attention. It’s why we eloped! He did this because HE likes surprise parties. It took a lot of self-talk in the mirror, but I managed to emerge and do what I had to do, mustering a new brand of enthusiasm for each person as I made my rounds. It was exhausting. My face hurt from smiling. Later, I made it very clear to my husband: Never, ever, do that to me again.
I really thought turning forty during a pandemic would save me.
The day began beautifully. My husband gave me the best present, a paddleboard. I took it out on Jamesville Reservoir and used it as a floating raft, lying on my back, the sun orange through my eyelids. When I got sufficiently hot, I rolled off into the water to swim.
That evening we went to my mom’s house for dinner, outside in her backyard. Soon after we got there, my husband called me to the driveway where he’d set up a laptop computer.
On the computer: Surprise! Surprise! Surprise! So many boxes, each containing a face—friends from childhood, high school, college, work. Small branches of the family tree—all focused on me. And that’s not even the worst part. I had to sing.
It was a Zoom Karaoke Surprise Party. And yes, it was as terrible as it sounds. I tried to be a good sport, even sang my rendition of “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane, but I was furious. The only saving grace was that my cheapskate husband used the free version of Zoom, which cut off at forty minutes.
Looking back, I have to laugh. What was he thinking? Probably: Do something she’ll never forget. Let her know how many people will show up to the lamest party in the world. Find a way to remind her that she is loved.
Not My Proudest Moment: Some days, I carved a spot into the couch and binge-watched television. As Minneapolis burned, I burned through entire seasons of shows, too paralyzed to protest. What could I do? Put a black square on my Facebook page? It seemed absurd. There was nothing I could do, so I did nothing.
One more episode. Just one more episode.
I felt jolts of panic when people on television got too close to each other, unmasked. Oh yeah, I’d remind myself. This is from before.
A Shift in Priorities: My husband is a teacher and I am a school nurse. We both had to report back to work in person in September; however, Syracuse City School District, where our kids attended school, was starting the year 100% virtual. There would be no one home to supervise. In mid-August, I backed my husband into a corner.
“I don’t want to talk about this right now,” he said.
“It’s not really a conversation. I’m just telling you what’s going to happen.”
“It goes against my principles. I believe in public-school education for our kids.”
“I’m employing Maslow’s Hierarchy,” I said. “Your principles take a backseat to safety during a pandemic.”
I enrolled our boys in Most Holy Rosary, a private Catholic school in our neighborhood where they could attend five days a week. Each class had ten students. The classrooms were spacious. They were following all the measures set by the state.
As the school year progressed, the boys developed a sense of belonging they’d never quite had at their old school.
Spoiler alert: Next year my youngest will continue at MHR and my oldest will be going to Bishop Ludden. It’s an odd trajectory, one we never would have expected. My husband no longer objects. He values their happiness and wellbeing above all else.
Our District’s COVID Protocol: Anyone with a headache, stuffy nose, cough, nausea, sore throat, muscle aches, feeling “tired”, (and obviously fever, diarrhea, vomiting)—was sent home and could not return to school without a negative PCR test or a note specifying a diagnosis from their doctor. There was a good chance any kid who walked into the health office was going home and wouldn’t be back for a while. As the school nurse, I had these conversations on a daily basis:
Parent: Seriously? You’re sending him home for a stuffy nose? He has seasonal allergies.
Nurse: If that’s the case we need a doctor’s note diagnosing this as allergies. (Very few doctors would write these notes—because how can you actually know without a test?)
Parent: Well, I can’t come get him.
Nurse: Your child cannot stay in school today. And he cannot come back until we have the necessary paperwork. I can transfer you to an administrator if you’d like.
I was sworn at nearly every single day.
Parent: The County texted me the COVID test results. You should have them. I forwarded a screenshot to your email address.
Nurse: I got the email, but there’s no name on the document and it was a rapid test, not a PCR.
Parent: But that’s all we have.
Nurse: Maybe call the county? Or your child’s doctor? Or get another test and make sure it’s a PCR? Unfortunately, you’ll have to pick your child up from school and she can’t come back until we have the necessary paperwork.
Parent: What if I can’t get the paperwork?
Nurse: She’ll have to quarantine fourteen days.
We also had to track attendance.
Nurse: I noticed your daughter was absent from school today.
Parent: She had a headache this morning, but she’s better. She’ll be back to school tomorrow.
Nurse: Unfortunately, we have to follow our COVID protocol…
Parent: But she has a history of migraines.
Nurse: We need a doctor’s note diagnosing her headache as a migraine. (Very few doctors would write these notes—because how can you actually know without a test?)
A pattern developed. Nearly every student had to be referred for testing. It took days to get an appointment, then several more days to get the results. Parents often opted to keep their kids home for the two-week quarantine just because the system was so hard to navigate. The county was overwhelmed. Doctors were overwhelmed. Everyone was overwhelmed.
My favorite part of being a school nurse used to be interacting with the kids, particularly the “frequent flyers” with chronic anxiety and difficult home lives who just need a bit of TLC to get through the school day. This year, I dreaded seeing them, knowing the second they uttered the word headache or complained of nausea, I’d be initiating the protocol. Work was no fun at all.
All I’m Going to Say About Politics: I needed a leader to acknowledge the uncertainty, the fear, the grief. I needed someone capable of empathy. Even an attempt would’ve sufficed.
But he-who-shall-not-be-named had the audacity to make jokes.
What’s scarier than COVID? Four more years.
Ironically, the voices of reason, the truth-tellers, the ones who possessed the most humanity were the comedians. On The Late Show, half the time Stephen Colbert just sipped whiskey and shook his head in disbelief. I can’t explain the relief this provided. I wasn’t losing my mind.
Nothing was funny. Nothing was okay.
Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas: spent around a backyard fire, our breath crystalizing in the outdoor air.
Lunch with Maggie: For a while it was the one thing on my calendar, the only reason to remember which day of the week it was. Something to look forward to.
Early on in the pandemic, we pushed two picnic tables together at Green Lakes and sat at opposite ends with our individual meals in Tupperware, a pitcher of mojitos between us.
For a time Maggie hosted lunch on her back deck. She served a mixture of wine and Sprite in long-stemmed glasses, delicious salads and frozen desserts.
When the restaurants opened, we ate outside and when it got cold, we became regulars at a restaurant where we could sit upstairs in an empty dining room, socially-distanced at a long banquet table.
We talked about our writing—current projects, future projects, our accomplishments, our failures, our goals. We talked about going back to work, our kids going back to school, the number of COVID cases, the protests, the president getting airlifted to Walter Reed, the election, the storming of the capital, the vaccine. We sorted through feelings. We shared facts.
There was uncertainty at every turn, but we ate, we drank, and for the most part, we were merry.
Happy New Year: There was a general sense we were turning a corner.
Divide and Conquer: One of my best friends participated in the storming of the United States Capitol on January 6th. Before this year, she was the least political person I knew. How does a person develop insurrection-level fervor in a matter of months?
Exhibit A: YouTube. When I visited her in North Carolina in 2019, I noticed she’d developed a YouTube habit. In her bedroom, in the bathroom, any time we weren’t together, I’d hear the drone of voices behind her closed door. Most of the videos had to do with astrology and non-western medicine, but the alternative slope is a slippery one.
Exhibit B: The Pandemic. Her business as a massage therapist came to a halt and she lived alone. She had all the time in the world to listen to YouTube, undistracted. By now, the primary voices were QAnon.
In August, I met up with her at her family’s house on Otisco Lake. Normally, it was heaven on earth—swimming at sunset with one of my best friends, easy conversation, easy laughter, easy. But this time it was hard. As we floated, she told me JFK Jr. was alive and well, ready to emerge as leader of the free world. A great plan was unfolding. “Just wait and see. All will be revealed.”
I tried to change the subject but she kept bringing it back to things that made my skin crawl, like “Masks are worse for your health than COVID.” Eventually I told her I just didn’t have the energy to listen anymore. There, in the water, we literally drifted apart.
I haven’t spoken to her since. Whenever I feel guilty, I remind myself that my phone isn’t ringing either. Perhaps our silence is salvaging a seed. Maybe, someday, if we find common ground our friendship can take root and blossom again.
I do love her. She has a wild imagination, an open and trusting heart, a mind that prefers intuition over logic. The perfect target. She’s gone down a rabbit hole, led by a dangled carrot of some Russian variety. It’s just a theory, but evidence is mounting. All will be revealed.
To the Mountain: I skied, maybe three or four times when I was fourteen. Last year I went with a friend a couple times, just to see if I still could. This year, I bought a season’s pass.
At least twice a week I’d throw on my snow pants and drive out to Song Mountain. Alone, on the lift, I enjoyed the cold. The silence. The suggestion of sun behind the clouds.
Initially, I played it safe, sticking to beginner trails, snaking slowly down the slopes. There were some instances of self-flagellation (I’m forty. What am I doing up here?) and some falls that made my life flash, but by the end of the season, I was an old dog with a new trick, zigzagging with confidence.
It was the best winter of my life.
Moderna: Being a nurse, I was one of the first people in the region eligible to receive the vaccine. I admit, I struggled a little with the decision. Part of me felt like a lemming, in line at the edge of a cliff—Has it been tested enough? Will it even work? On the other hand, it was my job to make sure students were immunized for school and I wanted to be part of the solution.
When we fly in a plane, we put our trust in a pilot. Similarly, I believed, we had to trust science.
The first shot went without a hitch, but twelve hours after the second I blazed with fever. I tended to my chills with a down comforter and an electric blanket, doubled up on half the bed. I tended to my sweats by rolling to the blanket-less side, whimpering with pain as I dragged my angry arm over with me. Just the force of gravity felt intolerable.
In the morning, I got up to use the bathroom. There, I caught a look of myself in the mirror—my face green, actually green. Racked with nausea, I lay on the cool, tiled floor, an act of sheer desperation, considering I shared the bathroom with two young boys who, let’s just say, haven’t perfected their aim.
Like clockwork, twelve hours after symptoms started, I felt fine. Sun after a day of rain. Two weeks later, my mom had me over for coffee, the first time I’d set foot in her house in a year.
By Easter more people in my family were able to get vaccinated. My eighty-four-year-old great-aunt (who defines the word jolly) drove down from Oswego. My uncle, who’d recently survived pancreatic cancer, joined us as well. We sat at my mom’s dining room table, played Pitch, and ate lemon meringue pie.
It was nice, not worrying I’d give anyone a disease that could kill them.
We’d reached our destination.
Back to “Normal”: I missed spring completely this year.
My boys’ extracurricular activities include piano (practice and lessons), soccer (practice and games), karate (twice a week), baseball (practice and games), and lacrosse. I race home from work to get dinner ready and it’s eaten on the go.
I miss my puzzles. I miss my walks. Everything is a blur. I don’t see the details. There is the vague sense life is passing me by. Have I learned nothing? Have we learned nothing?
In Real Life: My son makes an incredible play at second base. The crowd cheers. He smiles ear to ear.
“Did you see my play, mom?” He says.
“Yes,” I say. “You were magnificent.”
It really was a magnificent play.