First, there is the waiting... then comes the mourning. Dawn creeping up over the horizon (which I would see if I had the view I once had instead of where I sit now, with too close city homes obscuring the world's awakening): Waiting & watching the night sky overrun by the pinkpurpleredorange sun storm…. followed by the inevitable busy-ness of an overflowing life. Once the wait is over, the mourning for what is lost settles Waiting for adulthood and independence… but chasing wisps of half formed reconstructions from my questionable memory Waiting for health to return to my son… but always hearing the rapid breathing of a small, struggling body Waiting for breath to flow freely… but fearing the accidental feel of a stranger’s warmth or the gentle touch in a crowded room Waiting for satisfaction and contentment… but accepting the reality of concessions Sober recognition of what is -- juxtaposed with what once was. You would think that would give rise to embracing each moment, the epiphany of survivors. But no. It brings the permanence of mourning: parents die children are vulnerable viruses speak an unknown language and questioning past choices creates dangerous contemplation.
I have spent the past 5 days in a hospital room with my child, receiving constant reports of all the things that he does not have. Covid? Negative. (Repeat covid? Still negative.) Covid anti-body? Negative. Lyme? Negative. Mono? Parvo? Negative. Negative. Viruses and bacterias and diseases that seem to have more consonants than vowels? All negative. As the lab results trickle in, the doctors seem perplexed by the symptoms that keep him here. He is covered in a rash that comes and goes with no predictability and a fever that persists. His little eyes are beginning to show tell-tale signs of Kawasaki Syndrome, even though he doesn’t have all the markers to even be diagnosed confidently with Incomplete Kawasaki Syndrome. He has received not one but two infusions of immunoglobulins to help his body fight whatever infection or virus is battling inside of him. And still he lies here with the return of a rash and heat emanating from his skin. The doctors, of which there are many, have a plan. Their plan is about time windows and fever thresholds and includes a Team: general pediatricians, infectious disease doctors, rheumatologists, cardiologists…the list is long. It is, I presume, a thoughtful plan, based on their collective knowledge and experience. So I wait.
Here is what I know about being in the hospital with a child with an unclear diagnosis in the middle of a pandemic:
- No one knows enough about this. There is new information every day. Every hour. In fact, my son may be a part of a small cluster (he is the 5th child in this hospital) with similar symptoms that match nothing except each other. Could be coincidence….could be something else altogether. I have to stay away from all media and news reports.
- Despite being in a state-of-the-art children’s hospital with an amazing reputation for taking care of the whole child, I have been in this one room the entire time. I am not allowed to visit the fancy cafe. I cannot go to the solarium for a brief respite. My son cannot go to the playroom or the performance center or even to the aquarium. We were brought to this room in a silent parade of sick children from the emergency room, led by masked nurses. Once here, I was told that I could not leave for any reason. I had to remain inside and, please, when someone enters, wear a mask.
- The incredible nurses and medical technicians now have an expanded job description. If I need a cup of coffee? Call a nurse. My son’s water needs to be refilled? Call a nurse. My husband has brought a change of clothes and left a bag at security? Call a nurse. Dinner forgot to bring a fork for my salad? Call a nurse. They are now waiters and waitresses, messengers and couriers, in addition to medical professionals.
- Our child, who needs both of his parents, can only have one of us. For the entire time. Aaron and I had conversation before we were directed to the ER and we decided that I would come and he would stay home with our other kids. So I am here and he is there. Here, I have no space to break down and cry from exhaustion and fear. I have no privacy for conversations that spin down the rabbit hole of uncertainty. I am responsible for taking in all of the information and relaying it accurately. There, daily life continues with two kids who need all that he has to give and a dog that doesn’t seem to stop barking. He is answering questions and soothing fears and providing constant updates. We are connected only through the phone. He must trust that I am getting it right. I must trust that I am getting it right. He has to relinquish control and I have to stay in control. There is no opportunity for us to switch. We can’t balance each other.
While the din of cartoons competes with the constant beeps from the monitor (which I still haven’t completely figured out), I write, waiting for my coffee and scrutinizing our son for any changes or signs that this will be ending. My phone recharges, drained from an overnight of texts and reassurances. I need a shower. I need answers. Having a child in the hospital is a brand of hell that I didn’t know existed. Having a child in the hospital during a pandemic is beyond comprehension.
Yesterday, I took our 9 year old son to the doctor. He had a fever and a rash that had persisted for three days and when my husband and I called Monday morning, there was no hesitation from the voice on the other end.
“Can you make a 9:30 appointment?”
No questions about symptoms or our home treatments. No questions about temperatures or exposures or analgesics. An instant appointment. When was the last time that happened? Less than an hour to get food (and coffee) into our systems, dress for the outside world and make our way to the office. Not nearly enough time for me to wrap my head around what was really happening. Not even a moment for Aaron and I to silently communicate the thousands of parental fears that immediately came to our respective minds.
“Yes, we’ll be there. Thank you.”
Arriving at the office, I adjust my mask, and then my son’s. I take a deep breath through the thin fabric and immediately feel claustrophobic. This is only my second time out since the Mandatory Mask Directive and I panic. My ancient 8th grade science knowledge pops, uninvited, into my head, and I remember random facts about carbon dioxide and oxygen and what I am exhaling and inhaling. I look at a tree and wonder if I am going to pass out. Desperately, I pull the mask down, taking a few deep breaths, relishing the unobstructed air. And then I see my son’s eyes take in the change. This is one of those parenting moments…he is watching and my fears were going to have to crawl back to the shadows for the time being.
Getting inside is the first of many apocalypse moments. Sign says to call when we arrive. Are we wearing masks? Yes. Door mysteriously unlocks. Nurse in full gear aims thermometer at our heads and then silently escorts us inside. Another nurse, also masked and gowned and entirely unidentifiable, comes in and takes information. Our beloved pediatrician arrives, protected with mask, gown, plastic shield…we know her eyes and her Mickey Mouse stethoscope. No jokes, no laughs. Just the exam. In the end? Referral to state hospital for covid test.
We leave, removing our masks as we make our way quietly to the car. He is quiet, focused only on the green apple lollipop. I am quiet, focused only on the papers in my hand. In the car, I sit, momentarily sifting through all of the information in my head. I plug the address into Google Maps and start driving.
The hospital center is scary to me; I can’t imagine what it looks like to my son. Everyone is masked. Hospital staff are masked and gowned with gloves and shields. An ambulance leaves and another arrives. We aren’t allowed to touch anything. Temperatures are taken at several checkpoints and there are no other patients on the pediatric floor. It is eerily silent and incredibly strained. Again, we are transferred from one person to another with few words. The doctor arrives, kind eyes, but a perfect stranger. No Mickey Mouse stethoscope. Exam. Painful test for me to watch and my son to take. No way to prepare and it is over before the discomfort registers, leaving my son reacting as we are being shuffled out, more papers in hand.
Outside, he crumples a bit, asking when it will stop hurting. I don’t have a good answer. Driving home, I wonder about the future. Once again, we just have to wait.
In a world of uncertainty, I feel like it is critical to add this footnote: 24 hours later we received the call from our county health department…test negative.
On Turning Fifty I think in bell curves lately wondering about the peak the length of the plateau the speed of the descent From this height I can see the jagged line rising (with small corrections along the way) and the faded projections that didn’t come to fruition By definition, a halfway point: fifty percent of what has come to pass. The future is a jumble of multicolored lines none bolder than any other each dependent on factors still unknown still an aggregate of hypotheses and hope I want the questions of the future to balance the answers of the past a simple scale in perfect equilibrium the plotted points forming a clear picture but the data is still being collected.
Without a thing party meeting date night there can be no anticipation Neglect the false sense of community reaching through digital screens and voices without faces Without potential surprise there are no butterflies fluttering no scenarios played out no choose-your-own-adventure daydreams Negate the surprise closings the surprise news & its associated graphics the surprise details that come each day With nothing to anticipate there is nothing to expect with nothing to expect time almost stands still Almost.
“Balance? It’s overrated.” –Adam Ezra
It used to be that I could rely on at least a few things strong, bitter coffee with scavenged creamer at least one gut busting laugh at adolescent antics shared understanding without the need for words I try to recreate some of it I try to find familiarity I try to connect without connection Reality check: It wasn't always easy It didn't always work I didn't always like it but it was predictably unpredictable and I knew the hours I have lost all sense of balance I am no longer drifting easily but am yanked suddenly and often without warning back and forth back and forth It is not the gentle roll of a yo-yo but the sharp snap of a rubber band extended just to the brink and then... back again The elasticity will wear over time ultimately breaking
Connections. Elusive and present at every turn. That is the thing with this new reality: even though we are no longer physically connected, we are communicating. The communication is intense–faces filling up my screen, phone buzzing at all hours, emails within emails within emails–and while the communication is often convoluted and bewildering, it is constant.
In the movie Ralph Breaks The Internet, the characters move through the wires and out into the great World Wide Web. Their little bright blue lights shoot down from the video game, through the wire and out into the expanse of the internet. I feel like that when I sit down to write. As soon as I click “publish” I feel like my words fly through the wires and out into the great beyond; my words find your eyes and we connect.
I am not a fan of my new relationship to my digital devices. It seems that my phone & my computer are never out of arm’s reach…and if they are, when I return to them, the “catch up” is enough to elevate my stress to levels that make me think the disconnect isn’t worth the cost of the reconnect. But I also cling to the connection that these hold. In our new world of isolation, the connection is all predicated on the digital.
I know that the time will come when I will know that disconnecting means connecting. I will put my phone down for dinners with friends, leave it in the car at a concert and silenced in my desk when I teach. My family will return to our “screen free” hours and days and I will forget my phone more often than I remember it. But for now, the connections are purposeful and I am grateful.
**Inspired by the brilliant women of my “book club”
Denial: Waking up to the sound of rain, I wonder if the dog can wait just a bit longer. Giving in to the inevitable, I make my way into the day, recalculating my plans given the extra hour I slept. Dog outside, coffee brewing, youngest accommodated, I find my space on the couch and begin my “work” for the day. Posting plans, answering emails, responding to student comments…I think I can figure out how to make this work for the next few weeks! I schedule my zoom meetings, rework our family calendar to make space for all the zooming, and reach out to a few colleagues who have been heavy on my mind. I head for another cup of coffee and to help wake the rest of the house so that we can all venture forth.
Anger: I start to read some of the responses and feelings of frustration begin to build. I am misunderstood. I am not communicating well. Messages are received, but ideas are lost. What will happen if we don’t go back? How will I do this for another month? Two? Why can’t anyone give a straight answer? One leader (and I use that term loosely) gives one version and another tells a different tale. Fake news is a thing of the past; now we just have uncertainty and projections and apexes (is that the correct plural?) that roll and move. How can no one know what is going on? I am seething and there is no escape because I am locked inside and it is pouring rain.
Bargaining: Heading to the basement to my faithful treadmill, I promise my kids time and attention. Later. I promise my husband time and attention. Later. Right now, I have to take care of myself. If I take care of myself, I will be able to do this. Whatever this is, I will be able to do it…if I take care of myself. I know I’m not really trying to cut a deal with the universe, just with myself. I walk and run and debate the many ways I can spend my time productively, the many silver linings that I can find in this whole catastrophe.
Depression: I can’t. I just can’t today. The plans from early this morning make no sense. Will the kids even see any of it? And what about the kids we don’t reach…are they okay? I have names running through my head, students that I would, on a normal day, make sure I got my eyes on at some point, to make sure they knew I was seeking them out. But they don’t know. And I don’t know. It’s all a big unknown. And, because I am going down this road, does any of it even matter?
Acceptance: I finish up yet another zoom meeting and then, almost immediately, call my co-teacher (who is also one of my closest friends). Plans are becoming clearer and I think I can see the progression. I think we can actually do it…we can develop something that meets the criteria set forth by my district and aligns with my education philosophy. I see the scope and sequence and I think I can figure out the details. It may even transfer to this new alternate reality. I close my computer, silence my phone and open my door. I prioritize time with my family over another zoom meeting, recognizing that tomorrow is, indeed, another day.
I wonder when rocks begin to settle? When do they sink far enough into the earth that a shuffling shoe or even a determined kick cannot alter this final resting point? I recognize that rocks (probably) do not have much choice in this ultimate placement, but I do wonder if there is a moment when they just give in to their destiny.
I am not a gardener. My husband is the one who somehow transforms corners of our yard into spots of beauty and finds a way to coax food from packages of seeds. When we first moved into our house, I watched as he pulled rock after rock out of the soil, before finally giving up on the natural land and building raised beds that would become our gardens for years to come. The rocks were too big. The rocks were too stubborn. The rocks were just too many. But he didn’t give up; he just accepted that the rocks had a permanent space and worked around it.
I thrive on routine, but only because that routine gives me a bit of control. I rarely try to control the uncontrollable but I hold tight to the things that I can control. I have usually been able to tell the difference. Until now. Now I am missing the spontaneity and vibrancy and change and all of the things that define a middle school life. I need to exercise my flexibility and make sure that my response muscles still work. But without something to flex around or respond to, I am stagnant. I didn’t know that this was missing until today…this is what my students and my “school world” always provided and now they are gone.
As much as I try to move…around the house, around the neighborhood, around my own busy mind…I worry that I have begun to settle. Tomorrow I will till my proverbial soil and try to loosen my grip on stagnation. I know that I am not a rock, nor am I in danger of becoming permanently embedded in the soil, but I do fear that without the energy of the unpredictable, I will begin to sink.
Occasionally, I move the furniture around in my classroom. I say occasionally, but my students (and definitely my colleagues) would use the word often. Regardless, I feel the need to move around the physical space of my classroom several times throughout the school year. I do it to accommodate small groups for upcoming book club discussions; to find as much quiet space for serious, independent writing as possible; to make room for a new student or to allow a specific student the opportunity to safely hide. I also rearrange when one of my many old, gently used chairs finally needs to make its final exit to the dumpster. But I do respect the physical space of my classroom and I give a lot of thought to the impact of that space on my students. A lot of thought.
But I haven’t thought enough about helping them to find their space at home. I am not equipped to give this advice…I am currently holed up in my bedroom while my husband and three kids find a way to reorganize our living room. We live in a small (just over 900 square feet) home with our overactive, overgrown 6 year old puppy and our postage stamp fenced-in yard. Survival is the name of the game here, at least when it comes to finding your own space. I read wherever I can find some quiet; I write in the early morning before anyone is awake. I do not have an office or even a chair designated as mine. Move your feet, lose your seat is not the law of the land, but it definitely sets the tone.
About 15 years ago, I stopped assigning any homework. Along with some members of my department, we agreed that the 80 minutes of class we had each day was enough and that the only “homework” that was necessary was independent reading. When students fell behind on their writing, they would work with me during the school day; working from home was always a last resort because I didn’t want them to try to navigate the writing process without the resources and support that they had in our classroom workshop. School was enough.
A few years later, I stopped bringing my work home. We had our second child and it was clear that bringing home papers or trying to plan from home was almost impossible, so instead I stayed at school until my work was done, or went in at the crack of dawn. I would rather log 10 or 11 hours a day at school than try to carve out the time at home. School was for school and home was for home. It was as simple as that. I had drawn the line and it was clear.
And now? I have no control over their environment. I have made the master bedroom my command center, working from the warmth of my bed, away from the distraction and energy of the rest of the house. I am giving them only homework. Work to do at home. My time is split sometimes hour by hour and even minute by minute…parenting, partnering, dog wrangling and teaching.
All lines have been erased.