Quarantine Diaries Day 365: Anniversaries Part 2

One year ago I went into lockdown with my family. It was scary and surreal. Do you remember that part of it? We were afraid to leave the house. We waved at neighbors through the glass. We were afraid to touch things other people had touched. There were long lines and short hours at the grocery store, and we were afraid the food chain would break. Almost everything else was closed. On the anniversary this weekend, I drove north to Lake County and went hiking by myself. I waved at strangers on the trail. I ran my hands on trees and tapped polypores with my feet. I went home and made an elaborate meal for my family. Life is hyperreal. I’m too tired to be scared.

I’ve been thinking about this post for a few weeks. What I can say about this last year, about what it’s meant to me, about what it’s done to me, about the lessons I’ve learned, and the kind of person I’ve become? I can’t. I can’t even. It’s too much, too big, too messy to write. The pandemic isn’t over. It’s not even almost over, not for me. Not for most people. Vaccines are trickling into my town, but I’m at the bottom of the list. I realize that’s a good thing. It means my life has been easier than most for the last year. It also means I’m still risking my life and trying to survive. I’m still becoming the person the world will spit out when the pandemic ends.

The truest thing I can say about the last year is this: I got older. That’s it! Hardly unexpected, but it’s still hitting me hard. I tiptoed into early middle age in the early days of the pandemic. I didn’t notice it at first, because I’m in the period of life that has been nudged back and stretched out to the point of being nearly unrecognizable as middle age, thanks to the millenials who didn’t want to grow up and the boomers who didn’t want to let go. The generations have more in common than we like to admit. It’s undeniable, though. At 35, I’m squarely in the middle of my life and last week when I saw a video of myself that just didn’t look right. How could a jawline so indistinct sit beneath smile lines that cut so deep? Like someone turned up the contrast on only half my face. The signs have been piling up all year. I’m softer around the middle and my knees screech at me when I pull myself up from crouching on the ground.

Of course, the last year aged us all in more than the usual ways. The number the pandemic did on my body is nothing to what it pulled on my insides. A year ago, I related more immediately to the girl I was when I was five, fifteen, twenty-five than to the grown up in the room I had to be that day. A year ago, parenting my daughter was like re-parenting a version of myself. COVID slammed down like a wall, cleaving my childhood from hers and severing me from the person I used to be. COVID grew me up.

COVID grew me in in relation to my parents. As a once wayward child, my best trick for making them pleased with me was spending too much on plane tickets and showing up on their doorstep with a suitcase in my hand. I couldn’t believe it when they asked me to travel this year, and I had to say no. Is there anything more adult than disappointing your family to protect the life you’ve built?

COVID grew me up at work. I used to feel restless, resentful that I didn’t have precisely the job I wanted, that my career didn’t travel in the direction I had planned. I couldn’t believe it when the city ordered me to move my legal practice into my home, but I had to say yes. It didn’t matter. I was just grateful to have work. Is there anything more adult than suiting up and showing up for the job you’re paid to do?

COVID gew me up in my marriage. We’ve always been good in a crisis, but day-to-day life could be hard on us, a series of battles over who was sacrificing more. In the year that asked the most of both of us, we acted like partners instead of combatants. Is there anything more adult than setting aside your pride?

COVID grew me up in my friendships. I missed the ease of seeing people around town and didn’t know how to sustain anything over a screen. I waited for the group chats and virtual book clubs to materialize or for somebody to at least check in. The loneliness almost did me in, until one day a friend brought donuts to my door and I realized people had been showing up for me all year long: with birthday signs for my daughter, with playdates outside, with plates of food and loaves of bread, with hand-me-down books and toys, with coffee in the front yard, and, yes, with phone calls and texts and “are you okays?” My friendships don’t exist behind screens, and my friends didn’t disappear during the pandemic; I did. They were there all along. I just had to pay attention and put in a little effort. Is there anything more adult than asking what you can give instead of what you can get?

COVID grew me up for my daughter. She needed me more this year than any point since infancy, and the need was so pressing that I had to gather up every part of myself of myself–the daydreamer child, the rebellious teen, the strident feminist, the serious lawyer, the tired wife–and coalesce them into a single being: mom, right here, right now. The presence of mind parenting demands in a pandemic is unlike anything I have ever known. Is there anything more adult than rising to the occasion?

That’s my anniversary post. It’s been a year. I got older, and so did you. I’m not complaining. When the thing we’ve spent the last year hiding from his death, another year is the most we can ask for. It’s more than what lots of us got.

Quarantine Diaries Day 362: Anniversary Part 1

This week I realized that people acknowledge the anniversary of the pandemic on different days: the day the WHO declared a pandemic, the day the US descended into a state of emergency, the day your town imposed stay-at-home orders, assuming you were ever subject to the them, the day the kids came home from school or, if it was spring break, the day they didn’t go back. The multiplicity of anniversaries is one more marker of the the pandemic’s differentiating effect. It his us at different times, in different ways, and to different degrees. The variances aren’t insignificant. They are overwhelming in their unfairness. My household will be acknowledging one year of sheltering in place with ice cream, because that’s what we stayed up late eating when we needed something that felt soft and good. Other households will be offering prayers over their dead.

Today marks the anniversary of the last time I took my daughter to church. We were there for choir practice. I sat in the back and listened to a friend whose wife is a teacher whisper that their district was having meetings where they were saying they were getting ready to close. A Catholic school on the Northshore had already shuttered, but this was the first I’d heard about public schools. I wasn’t worried, though. Their district was different than ours. Smaller. Wealthier. Whiter. I made my eyes big at her and, against medical advice, put my hands on my face. “Oh no. I’m so sorry.” She had a son in first grade and a preschooler at home. “I can’t imagine that will happen in Evanston, though. People don’t have the resources. All that childcare.”

On the way out of the church, my daughter stopped in front of a person-sized poster standing in the foyer. There was a picture of a cell phone and on the screen it said “God calling.” My daughter ran over to the poster and put her hand on the big green button. “Aw, good girl, you’re picking up.” “She doesn’t really have a choice,” our pastor pointed out from where she was standing nearby. There were two buttons on the phone, and both were green.

Today is also the anniversary of the last time we ate inside a restaurant. My daughter and I went out every week after choir practice. It was our decadent tradition, but it wasn’t sitting right with me. I knew people were panic-buying hand sanitizer and toilet paper, and I’d been reading about something called “social distancing” in the news the last few days, but I wasn’t really sure what it meant. I texted my husband.

Me: “Is it a good idea to take D to a restaurant tonight? Maybe we should just get takeout.”

Him: “We can’t change our whole lives.”

I took my daughter to Tsim Sha Tsu for hot pot and picked a table in the corner, away from the other guests. The dining room was tiny, but making the effort made me feel responsible. Was this social distancing? The other thing I’d been hearing a lot about was racist discrimination against Asians. A lot of it was coming from the mouth of our then-President, but it was also playing out in the streets. It seemed more important to keep eat inside a Chinese restaurant than to change my mind about eating inside a Chinese restaurant.

A year ago today I was in the shadows but not in the dark. I knew some, but not enough, and I didn’t know what to do with what I knew.

A year ago I was weeks away from covering my face and months away from buying proper masks for me and my daughter.

A year ago I was slammed at work.

A year ago I was in the best physical shape of my life.

A year ago I was spending my nights writing my life story because it wouldn’t stop screaming at me and I knew I needed to write it down or it would destroy me from the inside out.

A year ago I was in the middle of Lent. I think I gave up Instagram.

This year I gave up giving things up.

The pandemic took too much.

A year ago tomorrow I left work early to hunt down groceries and couldn’t find any. That’s when the pandemic became real; when I thought we might not eat. We ordered local takeout twice a week for a year and I traded meals and loaves of bread with my friends from Taiwan and Korea but that didn’t stop the restaurants from closing down or the violent hate crimes against Asians.

In two days we’ll mourn a full year of in-person education, lost. The pandemic came to Evanston and it came for our public schools, resources or not. When people assured me my daughter would be fine because of all that we have–an at-home parent, a steady internet connection and extra tablet, time to invest in helping her learn–I nodded and said, “You’re right.” When things started to break down at home and people suggested we just pull her out for a year, to even out the achievement gap, I rolled my eyes kept but my mouth shut. I wasn’t sticking her in front of a screen all day for the education. I wrote that off as lost a long time ago. Virtual school was the only interaction with other kids my daughter was having. The system was non-functional, but she’d be non-functional without it. When people came for the superintendent for saying he would take an equitable approach to reopening by prioritizing marginalized students, I defended the policy. It’s fair. It’s just. It’s the right thing to do. Privately, I was terrified there wouldn’t be enough space for my kid. When we got the email before winter break that she hadn’t made the cut to go back, I was terrified we wouldn’t make it through the rest of the year. I don’t know what I thought would happen, just that things had gotten so bad, I didn’t know how we would keep going. I emailed the principal. “I know it’s not just about us. I know other people need this more. But if there is space after all the other priority flags have been considered, will you also the mental health impacts of prolonged social isolation on children with no siblings, no extended family, no pod?” When the time came to go back to school on an impossible hybrid schedule (two hours and twenty minutes a day, four times a week), enough families pulled out and a spot opened up for my daughter.

A year in, I know more. I know better. But I still don’t think I’m doing anything right.

Quarantine Diary Day 167: Breakfast for Dinner Part V

Like the breakfast in bed our seven year old made us this morning, our marriage was doomed from the start. My church taught me that that we would be “unequally yoked,” righteous and unrighteous, light and dark, because I was Mormon and you were not, and I never could shake the image of you and I, two beasts burdened with a plow we’d never be able to drag. The bishop said he’d marry us in a church but not in the temple. The bishop said he’d marry us for time but not eternity. A church leader’s wife asked, pity shining on the surface of her eyes, “What about your poor kids?” The internet said you’d never convert and we’d end up divorced.

We are so unalike it’s a wonder we ever manage to haul anything in the same direction.

I am a lawyer who’d rather be an artist. You are a stay at home dad who should be an artist but won’t admit it. We both work our asses off for our family but manage to fight about who does more.

Your are non-religious, agnostic, a technical Catholic, less lapsed than never really get started. I’m a former Mormon cultural Christian universalist more spiritual than religious but also still weirdly religious.

You like clean lines and modern, minimal aesthetics. I want to live in an old bookstore with piles of rugs and a cat (you know I don’t like cats, but that’s just the kind of old hole I want to cozy up in, maybe throw in a pot of beans for your mom).

You spend all your internet time in subreddits. I spend all of mine on Instagram.

You are a skeptic, a cynic, and a news junkie. I am a believer, a truster, and a social justice warrior.

You’ve wished COVID on more than one Republican politician but bristle when I talk about the prison industrial complex and these are just two ways our political and moral compasses diverge.

We may not see eye to eye, but we sure as hell have a lot talk about.

On the other hand, there’s also this: during her wedding toast, my sister said she couldn’t think of two people more perfectly suited for each other, and she wasn’t wrong.

When we were getting to know each other over AIM we kept trading answers on those stupid personality quizzes and we both answered trapezoid for our favorite shape, west our favorite direction, and you and I both know these are not meaningless preferences. Trapezoid is a way of being in the world. West is a state of mind.

These days you ride centuries and I run marathons for fun. The shared value is not physical fitness but going as far as we can and leaving it all on the road.

We go all out on every holiday, vacation, special occasion. April Fools’, Festivus, and weddings and birthdays for all of our daughter’s stuffed animals are all cause for celebration. The shared value is not pleasure but family.

When people come to visit you get stressed out cleaning the whole house and I lose my mind planning the perfect itinerary. The shared value is not perfection but hospitality.

We are both voting for a Biden/Harris ticket. The shared value is not Democratic politics but love of country.

You trusted me to raise our daughter in a church you didn’t believe in and I trusted us enough to leave the church of my childhood the moment I realized it would drive a wedge into our family. The shared value is faith in each other.

You’d kill to protect me, our marriage, our daughter. I’d walk through fire to save us all. The shared value is love.

Last year, one of our shared friends claimed he figured it out, the glue that binds us fast, two people who are so remarkably different from each other. “You’re both nerds who think you’re smarter than other people, but it’s okay because you are.” I look around at the comic books and records and Lego bins stacking up against our walls and I think he might not be wrong about the first part, and if we’re not smarter than anyone else at least we have better taste. He also observed, “You live in your own world. It’s hard for anyone else to get in there with you.” That’s true, too.

We’d both do anything to sit down at a diner again, wolf some hash browns, pick at some carrot cake, sip bottomless coffee. Breakfast is not a value but it is a shared language. I’d drive a long way with you to eat a real brunch these days. Bryn Mawr Breakfast Club. Publican. M. Henry. Tweet. It could be any diner, though. I’d risk COVID to eat at one of our places that closed. Duke’s. Melrose. That greasy spoon in Tucson with the pictures of John Wayne on the wall. It doesn’t have to be good. Those meals were never about the food. We just liked each other’s company and the idea of a shared life.

Like the breakfast in bed our seven year old made us this morning, our marriage works because we want it to. It runs on creativity and resourcefulness and a willingness to help each other out. I picked up the croissants at Bennison’s yesterday, and D woke up early to stuff them with melted chocolate, honey, and pepitas. I could have bought croissants with chocolate already inside them, but D insisted on plain so she could doctor them up herself and now she knows how to use the microwave. You ordered the fruit with a grocery delivery last night and D sliced the berries herself this morning and drizzled them with more honey, plus powdered sugar. I’ve never had berries so sweet but now she knows how to use the sifter. We both wondered how she’d manage the big pitcher of sun tea and the heavy tray with everybody’s plates but she delivered a perfect breakfast and a pile of gifts to the foot of our bed at 7:30, which means we got to sleep in, the greatest gift of all.

The miracle isn’t that we found each other. Since the beginning, we were drawn to each other like honey to D’s little hands. The miracle is that ten years ago we decided to make a family and every day since then we’ve made it stick.

Happy Anniversary, Love.

This post is the fifth in a series. See Parts I, II, III, and IV.