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 121: Wait, What?

Last month, when salons and retail stores were open and playgrounds were still inexplicably closed, I started dropping hints to my daughter that I wouldn’t mind and it wouldn’t hurt to dabble around with the parks. Early in the morning we’d spot a renegade mom talking on the phone and a couple of toddlers climbing freely over the caution tape piled loosely on the ground, and I’d say, “I’m pretty sure the playground’s still closed, but we know it’s safer now.” Early evening, I’d nod at the neglected playground equipment, look over conspiratorially and ask, “You want to go down the slide?” She always said no. Had she outgrown the park, I wondered, her sense of childlike freedom and play another casualty of the coronavirus? Or was she just too young to cope with conflicting safety messages and peer-like pressure from a parent?

It must be the latter because the playgrounds have been open in Illinois for a little over three weeks now and play is back in a big way. It is, can I just say, a complete and utter delight to walk over to the park after dinner and set her loose. No more begging/bribing/cajoling her to leave the house! No more sad, contemplative laps around the neighborhood! Obviously, I still take plenty of those, but I’m not dragging my daughter with me anymore. Four months of shelter-in-place made my once “slow-to-warm-up” kid into someone willing to play just about anyone who asks, but the best is when our friends from the neighborhood are there. She loves seeing familiar faces and so do I! Hello, moms and the occasional dad! I never thought I’d miss you but I do!

Last week, we ran into one of D’s classmates from first grade with his parents. We didn’t get to know each other especially well during the school year, though perhaps we might have if not for (*gestures helplessly around*) all of this, but that didn’t’ stop it from feeling running into long lost friends! “D, look! Look who’s here! It’s ____ from school!” The kids quickly set up shop (literally–they started playing “stick store”) and I caught up with the parents. We talked about how the school year ended up (shitty) and how the summer was going (okay!) and how hard this has been on only children and how work is starting to feel normal and about how they are going all in on a pandemic puppy and how we all want to get away somewhere quiet in Michigan for a week in August. Eventually, the conversation turned what’s going to happen in the fall. I was still reeling from the options presented in the district survey and the then-realization we were likely facing a hybrid of virtual and in-person schooling. [Note: That was last week. This week, I suspect all-virtual is much more likely.] I shared my reservations about such a system and the other mom seemed to hesitate before responding. Maybe she has a different risk assessment. Maybe her kid is radically different than mine. Maybe she hasn’t heard. I tried to level set. “Did you see the survey from the district?” “Yeah,” she responded. “Yeah, I took it, and then I pulled ____ out of the district. We’re going back to Montessori.” The other mom went on, referencing her dissatisfaction with the school outside of its response to the pandemic, but she didn’t need to justify her choice to me.

The Montessori school is committed to reopening for in-person education five days a week. The Montessori school is installing an air filtration system. The Montessori school is making small class sizes even smaller. The Montessori school will hold class outside.

We stayed at the park for awhile after that and the conversation took different turns. We laughed a lot. We bought sticks from our kids. It was a lot of fun and I left thinking, “I really like that family.” When I got home I was bubbling over with the energy that comes from just the right amount of real life human interaction. “Guess what?!” I told my husband. “We ran into ____’s family! They’re getting ____ a dog! And they’re putting him in private school!”

Later that night, I tapped the impossible to spell name of the Montessori school into the search bar on my phone. I thought I’d clocked the tuition before, though I couldn’t remember why–we’re a public school family through-and-through–and I wanted to see if it was as high as I remembered. As I tried to navigate through the maze of promises and COVID pop-ups on the mobile site, I interrogated my actions. Was I counting other people’s money? Or was I counting our own? Finally, I found the tuition page. $20k for a year of lower elementary. About what I remembered. I clicked out of the browser, tossed my phone on my bed, went back to my real life.

The next day I woke up depressed. Depressive episodes aren’t unusual for me, but they still catch me off-guard every damn time. Talking it over in therapy, it wasn’t hard for me to chalk it up to uncertainty about what fall and winter are going to look like for my family. I hurried to reassure my therapist that things weren’t all bad. We’d had a great weekend. And that great playdate at the park, which I described in detail. I’m forever leaning into gratitude as the best DIY antidote for my particular mental twists.

“That must have been jarring for you,” my therapist said when I’d finished recounting our evening at the park, “to go from making all these connections with another person and then to realize that you weren’t in the same situation. How did that make you feel?” ‘

I paused, surprised. She was trying to connect the conversation at the playground to my low mood on Tuesday, when I started feeling so bleak about the future. I hadn’t thought about it that way. I tried to think about it, dig down beneath the gratitude. How did I feel? The answers came quick.

For one thing, I felt tricked. Here I was reserving judgment because I thought the district was doing everything it could to make the best of a bad situation. Here I was keeping an open mind because thought the options presented were the only ones available. Here I was setting aside worries about access and fairness and falling behind because I thought we were all in together. Here I was thinking my community was setting some kind of example simply having the conversation about about detracking math and removing police officers from the schools not realizing the locus of the fight for equity had already shifted to private schools and private tutors and co-ops. Here I was naive to the one maxim carried forward into every new world: money and privilege are power.

This week, all the parents online are weighing the pros and cons and putting out feelers to form their pandemic pods. Next week, the conversation will make its way to the playground and I’ll realize I’m behind in providing for my child again, though not as behind as the mom or dad who works longer hours than me, or the parent whose kid is disabled or neurodiverse, or the parent of black and brown kids facing segregation on a whole new front.

When I finally put it all together, I felt angry. I felt angry that I don’t have the option or ability to make school safer–or even to make sure school remains a possibility–for my child. I felt angry for the students whose options and abilities in this regard are more limited than mine. I felt angry when I realized that any parent who can is going to pull their children and influence from the district and leave the rest of us to to fight for…what, exactly? A few months ago I might have said equity or justice. It would have felt like overkill to say we’re fighting for our lives, but it’s clear now that’s exactly what all the anxiety is about.