I’m back in the Midwest after an epic eight-day excursion to the desert and I expect that I’ll be processing the experience of seeing my family for the first time in eighteen months for awhile. In the meantime, what I want to say about the trip is this: I’m so glad I waited.
I’m glad I waited until both my husband and I were fully vaccinated. I’m glad I waited until my daughter was done with school. I’m glad I waited until everyone in family who wanted a shot had the opportunity to get one. I’m glad I waited until Arizona fell off the orange list in Chicago’s travel advisory for people traveling stateside. I’m glad I waited until the CDC updated its guidance for vaccinated folks. I’m glad I waited until the country re-opened.
It was almost impossible to say no when my family asked me to fly out back in November to celebrate my dad’s sixtieth, and only slightly less difficult to say no when my sister asked if she could come visit in March. It killed me to watch my daughter turn seven and then eight without hugging her grandparents or playing with her cousins. I missed them all so much I re-visited the decision to raise my own family in Chicago–a decision I once held fast and firm and close to my heart–on a near-daily basis. I may have been a black sheep, but my family always wanted me around, and I hated being stranded on the other side of the country from them. I hated staying put. I hated being stuck at home. I spent every minute of the quarantine gnawing the bars of my self-imposed cage and now that the latch has been lifted, the only thing I can think is that it was worth it.
It was worth waiting so that I could sit with my 88-year-old grandma at her kitchen table instead of outside in the hundred-degree heat. It was worth it so we could huddle together over old family photo albums instead of passing them back and forth between lawn chairs spaced six feet apart. It was worth it so she didn’t have to nod along pretending to hear me while I tried to make myself heard through a mask. It was worth it watching my daughter approach her so tentatively, nervous in the way that kids often are, and lean in anyway for a hug.
It was worth waiting so that when my sister hesitantly asked if I was up for taking the kids to an outdoor pool, I could scream “YES!” before she finished her sentence. It was worth it so I could let all four kids cling onto me like sea monkeys without worrying about germs. It was worth it so we could crash around with our eyes closed playing Marco Polo with strangers. It was worth it so we could line up like sardines waiting for the tube slide and the high dive.
It was worth waiting so that when my brother made reservations in downtown Gilbert, I could go along and enjoy the meal instead of freaking out, forcing him to cancel, or staying home while everyone else dined inside. It was worth it getting dressed up in my dressiest shorts and squeezing around a too-small table to eat too much food with my too-big family.
It was worth waiting so that I could walk around the swap meet in Mesa without passing judgment on the maskless hordes. It was worth it so that instead of boiling over when I walked past the double-wide stall hawking Trump memorabilia, all I did was laugh.
It was worth waiting so that I could flip through records at Zia and play heirloom guitars at Acoustic Vibes without feeling like an asshole, without having to reassure myself “at least I’m shopping local.”
It was worth waiting so that I could say yes to an impromptu invitation to from a dear friend.
It was worth waiting so that I could stay as long as I wanted and stay up as late as I wanted night after night without feeling like I was pushing my luck.
It was worth waiting until the trip back home felt like a reunion instead of a calculated risk.
For all the havoc it wreaked on our lives over the last year and a half, except for the occasional mask in businesses that required them, the pandemic barely registered last week. June in Arizona may be scorching, but the trip wasn’t all sunny. When COVID cropped up in conversation it was for the worst reasons. An old family friend on a ventilator, for more than ten days, improving only incrementally, according to the text updates my mom read out loud throughout the week. She didn’t trust the vaccine. My dad’s colleague also in the hospital, and doing even worse. In his case, it was his wife that was anti-vax. It’s senselessly tragic that they are suffering in the final stages of the disease for no reason at all.
I’m glad I waited long enough to know I’m not contributing to any of that.
Tonight I’m flying to see my family for the first time in eighteen months. I’ve been dying for this day to come, cried buckets of tears over not seeing my grandma and parents and little brothers and sister and nephews for so long, and now that it’s here I’m uneasy.
I’m uneasy about leaving my town. I thought I’d grown to loathe it over the last year, but last night I took my daughter to the library to stock up on books for the plane and as we walked around downtown I felt a pang thinking of not seeing all the little restaurants and storefronts even for a week.
I’m uneasy about leaving my plants. It’s going to be hot as hell here next week. Will my husband remember to water the vegetables? Will he think to drag the hose all the way through the house to hit the decorative plants in the front? Will he know to move the impatiens into the shade when they wilt? Will be remember to sun the little cactus our daughter bought with four of her very own dollars (crusty with tooth fairy glitter, natch)? I iced the orchids, so they should be good for the week, but they’re precious and finicky enough that leaving them doesn’t feel quite right.
I’m uneasy about navigating the airport. We’re leaving absurdly early because it’s impossible to predict when Chicago will be a snarl of traffic and when it will clear shot. Will we be racing through security or will I be scraping the bottom of my bag for ways to entertain my kid for three-plus hours? Will we eat?
I’m uneasy about being out of my element. I poked fun at my daughter for packing ten stuffed animals and nary a sock for an eight day trip, but I packed three housecoats, three sets of joggers, a pile of soft shorts and tees, and every mask in the house. I considered the risks of flying with edibles–legal in the state I’m leaving and the one I’m flying too, but apparently still frowned on by TSA–from every angle. We’re both clinging to comfort.
As many times as I’ve wished I could uproot my life in the Midwest to rejoin my family in the desert, I’m uneasy about being with them again. Eight days is a long time. Will we remember how to act with each other? Will we have anything to say? Will they like the person I’ve become? Will I accept the ways they’ve changed or stayed the same? Am I prepare for the more likely scenario: that the week will fly by and I’ll find it impossible to leave.
This one hurts. My siblings are ridiculous. Talented. Intelligent. Hilarious. Successful. Good looking. Kind. Fundamentally GOOD people. They were my world when we were growing up. Who needs friends when you have siblings? Who needs neighbors? Who needs allies or even enemies? We were each other’s everythings. I’m not saying I didn’t literally, physically sit on top of my brother when he challenged my authority when mom left me in charge. I’m not saying I wasn’t a big bitch to my little sister. I’m not saying I didn’t overlook my littlest brothers when I when I was a teenager. I’m not saying I call them all the time now. We are spread too far and all of us too thin. What I’m saying, and what I never expected, is that over the years every complicated memory and twisty thread of emotion coalesced into thick rope of love and pride. I think of my siblings and it is all GOOD.
I carried my lunch to school in a square plastic box a few years after the other kids had switched to brown paper bags or hot lunch. My mom would make my lunch until I was a senior in high school and skipped lunch altogether so I could get out of school early. It was important to her. Her mom died when she was eleven and making lunches for his three girls was one of the many mom-tasks my grandpa took on after his wife died. My mom got a stepmom when she was sixteen and the stepmom accused my grandpa of spoiling his daughters. With the homemade lunches into their teens, you see. So you see why I couldn’t ask for the $2 to buy a hamburger or a sloppy joe or a crunchy taco from Taco Bell (because there was a Taco Bell inside my high school cafeteria). You see why I couldn’t complain about the warm mayonnaise or the stinky tuna or the slimy carrots or the brown apples the smushed bread or the thermos that smelled like old milk. You see why I couldn’t say anything about the days she wrapped everything in tinfoil because we were out of plastic baggies. You see why I couldn’t ask her to stop tucking little notes into the side of my lunchbox or drawing smiley faces on paper napkins. I wouldn’t have wanted her to stop anyway. The notes made me go all warm inside. Warm like the rest of the lunch, baking in a box in the Arizona sun.
Last week, I was telling my therapist how it feels before I fly off the handle at my family. “It’s like my threshold for any kind of stressful interaction has dropped so far that all it takes is for my spouse to disagree with my or my kid not to listen and that’s it.” I snap fingers. “I can’t cope, and it all goes down from there.” “Well that sounds like burnout,” she said, like it was obvious. I was surprised. I thought I knew burnout. Burnout is a work thing. Burnout, for me, has been a sports thing. I didn’t realize it could be a family thing. This whole time, I thought if I wasn’t happy at home, if the family wasn’t getting along, the problem was me, the fault somehow mine.
That day in therapy, I was so confident that burnout was not the issue that I bulldozed past the suggestion. It wasn’t until a few days later that–after fighting my kid through a too late, too long, and entirely too tedious bedtime routine and looking around at every toy-covered surface in our house–my therapists words came back to me, and this time they felt true. I got curious and typed the words into my search browser. “Family burnout during COVID.” Oh. It’s a whole thing that people have been writing about since last spring. Kids are feeling it too. I obsess over family dynamics because family dynamics are all there is.I get how I missed it. The symptoms mirror those of depression: exhaustion, lowered mood, poor sleep, addictive behaviors. One of the symptoms is depression. The other big sign is conflict with family members, and that’s the one that’s making me crazy. When we can’t leave the house because the world’s not safe, I need things to be okay at home, and when they’re not, I’m not.
I survived work burnout lowering the absurdly high bar I set for myself as an employee. I thought the standards I held out for myself as a parent were more reasonable. Is it not reasonable to expect that I will be able to meet my child’s physical, mental, social, and emotional need and do it perfectly every time? Is it not reasonable to expect that I’ll never screw it up, never do any harm? I can see that the rope of perfectionism winds its way through every aspect of my life, putting me in a double bind. I can’t make a mistake with my kid. I am going to make mistakes with my kid.
I survived work burnout my redefining what work meant to me; my job is no longer a place I go for identity or validation. I thought it was was reasonable, even admirable, to look for that kind of meaning at home. Is the work I do as a parent and a partner not the most important work I will do in this world? Is home not supposed to be a haven? I can see how that’s a lot of pressure to put on my family. I can see that my understanding of what a home is supposed to feel like needs to evolve now that we are living the entirety of our lives within walls of one small house.
I survived work burnout by expanding my mind. I stopped thinking about work outside of work. I immersed myself in my family life. I prioritized friends. I picked up some fun new hobbies. The problem with burning out on my entire life almost a year into COVID is there are no new inputs. I’ve taken all the walks, baked all the bread, watched all the Netflix, painted all the birds, done all the puzzles, played all the board games. Obviously, I’ve forced more family time than any of us can handle.
This weekend, after I realized what I was dealing with, I slowed waaaaay down. I claimed whole chunks of time in the daylight hours for myself and tried to give myself new inputs. I rowed instead of going for a run. I read a book about weird Mormon history instead of the newspaper. I actually watched the Superbowl, even the football parts. Did it work? I don’t know. It was a pretty peaceful weekend. I didn’t lose my patience or my temper or my mind. I don’t have anything I need to talk about at therapy tomorrow. That feels like a win, or like I’m at least on to something.
This is the only time of year I miss working at my old law firm. I hated the mad rush to meet deadlines–both the arbitrary internal ones and the hard dates set by courts and arbitration panels–and I hated not knowing if I would have to be in the office right up until 5 PM on the 23rd or if there would be pressure to work on Christmas Eve but the office was always a little more sparkly at the end of the year. I loved watching the snow flutter past the window in my office. I loved watching the partners make the rounds delivering annual reviews and bonus news. I loved jetting out at noon on a random Tuesday in mid-December for the company-wide holiday party in the big back room at Maggiano’s. I loved the treats that would show up in the kitchen from vendors and signing holiday cards for clients. I loved giving cash to my assistant and I loved her holiday sweaters. I loved having my husband’s gifts delivered to the office and carrying them home in a duffel bag from the firm. I loved walking to the train in the dark and seeing all the skyscrapers all lit up like Christmas trees.
I quit that job in 2019, so this isn’t the first year I’m missing corporate Christmas, but combined with the loss of my the winter party in my daughter’s classroom and the pageant at church and the Nutcracker and Christkindlmarket downtown, the season has felt decidedly dull. And that’s fine. People are getting evicted this month. People are losing contracts and jobs. They are lining up at food pantries. Thousands of people are still dying every day. If the worst thing I can say about the final month of this year that rocked the world is that it was boring, or depressing, I’ll take it.
It has been depressing, though. Last Thursday, we got some disappointing news right before our daughter’s school closed for winter break. The principal emailed to tell us that the school doesn’t have the capacity for all the families that opted into in-person learning when if they start bringing kids back next semester, and our daughter wasn’t included in the first priority group. I understand and don’t dispute the choice and don’t want to get into the equities of getting back to school in this post. I only want to give you the context so you understand that I went to bed feeling like my family was slipping through the cracks.
The next day started off with a win, albeit a small one: for the first time in a week, my daughter willingly changed into clothes that she hadn’t slept in. Technically, she just put on a different pair of pajamas, but they were clean. Her class was having a winter “party” and she was so excited to play games and watch a movie “with” the rest of her class in the iPad. Her mood put the rest of the household in a festive frame of mind, and the day went up from there.
I put out a call for support re: the social isolation my family is facing and half a dozen good friends responded with kind messages and texts. A few kind people offered to set up video hangouts with my daughter. A good friend invited us over for an outdoor playdate.
A neighbor dropped off a big box of LEGO and books that her kids had outgrown and she thought my daughter might like.
A friend brought donuts.
A package from Harry & David, care of my boss, showed up our doorstep: a gourmet dinner, packed in dry ice, which my husband promptly dumped in a bowl for a good hour’s worth of entertainment.
I saw neighbors on my afternoon walk and stopped to chat.
My husband checked the mail and brought in a stack of cards from friends and family across the country.
I directed money to people who needed it, and started talking to my husband about the charities we’re going to support this year.
We ordered takeout for dinner and watched Bad Santa.
After all that, at the very end of the day, I got another email from the principal. The school will have room for my daughter after all when if they start bringing kids back next semester.
I didn’t need to get that email to feel seen and supported. I came by that feeling over the course of the day, when I looked around me and realized I wasn’t alone. Somehow, my world felt festive. I puzzled and puzzled, how could it be so? It came without parties. It came without flashy clothes. It came without bonuses, airplanes, shopping, or shows. I puzzled and puzzled for how long I’m not sure. Then I thought of one thing more. What if friendship, perhaps, doesn’t look like before?
This is the post I haven’t wanted to write. I couldn’t stop it, though. It’s been leaking out of me in dribs and drabs–the offhand comment here, the sad self-reflective Instagram caption there–for so long that it’s no secret, but I haven’t been ready to put the words on bones. I thought I’d wait until I could make it into something beautiful–an essay, a whole book of essays–but I haven’t known how to think about it in narrative form and, in the meantime, it’s making me into something ugly.
This is a post about infertility in which I will not use the word infertility because that’s a journey I did not take. This is a post about family that will not make you feel good because I am not grateful for mine and I resent you for yours. This is a post in which I refuse make meaning for you or for me. My only aim is to expel the disease. What I don’t want is to create a record for my beloved only child to find of me wanting any family other than the family we have, of me wanting any child who was not her, but that’s exactly what I have to do.
I come from a big family that didn’t feel big. There were seven of us, two parents, five kids, and it was us against the world. Our extended family was huge–I stopped trying to count cousins when the number hit the forties–but they were scattered and we mostly weren’t close, and our nuclear family felt like it had been blown out to sea. At church, our family didn’t even fill up a pew. I’m talking about the short ones on the side of the chapel. The most righteous families spread their seed end to end across the long benches in the middle of the room, sometimes spilling over into a second row. The most righteous families had big baptismal blowouts with grandparents on grandparents on cousins on uncles on on aunts. We always just had each other.
I was not a girl who dreamed of being a mother. Babysitting anybody who wasn’t directly related to me was annoying and hardly worth the cash. My parents didn’t pay for watching my siblings, so the only thing I got out of it was high on the power trip. I loved my siblings, though, fiercely. My brother and sister, two and four years younger than me, were my main playmates. When my other brother was born, eight years after me, he was the cutest baby I’d ever seen, and the only living thing besides various plants and precious few dogs and my own eventual daughter to ever trip a nurturing instinct in me. He was four when I was twelve and I used to come home from the ego-destroying shitshow that was middle school and entertain him for hours with my own versions of the silly mysteries Steve Burns solved in his green rugby shirt on Blue’s Clues. When my other brother was born, two years after that, I was like what? and why? and okay, I guess but he was a weirdly cute kid too and I liked having him around.
My mom always wanted a sixth baby, a girl named Hannah. It was like she’d already met her.
I only wanted four kids. Four was an even number, an easy number. Four filled two rows of a minivan and left the middle seats open. Four gave everybody someone to sit with on the roller-coaster. Two parents and four kids spaced perfectly around the dining room table without having to jam in a janky plastic school chair that you straight up took from the church. (Actually, I think my parents paid for those chairs). Four kids is enough to feel like a crowd, a party, an accomplishment, but not so many that you look like fundamentalists.
In college I met and fell in love with a man who poked fun at the size my big fat Mormon family even though he had more siblings than I did. There were six of them in total, for a family of eight. His dad had nine sisters and a brother. Catholic, of course. (Lapsed, even more of course.) My love was the baby of his big family so he had a different view on the chaos and only wanted two. It was easy for us to adjust our numbers up and down before we got married and land on three.
Three wasn’t perfect. People said three was the most stressful number of kids to have, enough to outnumber the parents, enough to lose hold of one in a parking lot, enough to need a bigger house and a bigger car, but not enough that you stop counting and start letting them keep tabs on each other. Three seemed like just a little too many in the city we’d decided to make our home, and like not quite enough enough in the western suburbs we fled. Three is odd. We were an unconventional couple, though. We can debate about anything. We never had to argue our way to three, though, so it felt like a good compromise. Three won’t hold up a tabletop, but it can be a stool.
People also said that three is just for spacing out kids. Three years is long enough to get the older one of diapers but not so long that the kid feels like a king kicked off the throne when the new baby comes. That settled it. Three kids, three years apart. I figured I should have the first by the time I turned thirty.
From the beginning, I sensed that it wouldn’t be easy for me to have kids. I don’t really know why. Maybe it was the infertility blogs I inhaled back then because they were sharper and darker and funnier and more interesting than their shiny sisters, the mommy blogs. There had been a few physical signs that gave me concern–a stabbing pain here, a cycle that ticked off its clockwork course there–but mostly it was just a feeling. “It could take up to two years to get pregnant,” I told my husband when I turned twenty-seven. I was knocked up a month later. I couldn’t believe it. It’s not that I didn’t know getting pregnant could be easy. I’d be stupid not to look around at my big family and all the bigger Mormon families around us and all the human families growing up over and over again all over the world and not realize that some women having been falling into pregnancy since the beginning of time. It’s just that I didn’t think it was possible that anything I wanted so badly would come easy to me.
Labor was not easy. I had group strep b so I was tethered to an IV. The doctors used three different methods to induce labor, after stripping the membranes and before breaking the bag of waters with a knitting needle. My daughter’s heartbeat kept dropping. There was meconium in the fluid. I labored for thirty hours and pushed for three and the doctors still had to cut me open. At least four different doctors laid hands on my daughter before I laid eyes and my husband held her while they stitched me up. When a nurse finally put her in my arms I puked from the drugs and they tried to take her back but I wouldn’t let go.
New motherhood was not easy but my daughter was. She screamed like a beast but she also slept like a dream and ate like a champion. Infants are not easy, and babies are not easy, and toddlers are not easy, and preschoolers are not easy, but the first years of my daughter’s life were some of the best of mine.
When the time came to grow our family, I was still in the thick of it with my first, but I was ready. My body was ready anyway, still not sleeping, still packing pregnancy weight, and still making milk months after my daughter weaned. There was never a question about doing it all over again. Having another baby was the plan, and I wanted to stick to the plan, but I also wanted that baby. I wanted a baby inside me and I wanted her in my arms and I wanted her in a bassinet next to my bed and I wanted her strapped in a wrap to my chest and I wanted her in the back of a double stroller and I wanted her playing on the floor with my daughter and I wanted her in the backseat of the car on family road trips.
I wanted another badly.
We couldn’t settle on a name, but I was partial to Taylor, after my dad’s guitar, not Swift. For a boy, we leaned toward West, but was pretty sure our second would be a girl. My assumption was more lack of imagination than a preternatural mother’s knowing. The girl I had was all I knew of parenthood. Surely, if we tried again it would turn out the same.
That was six years ago. We adjusted our plans up from a three year gap to four then five. We adjusted our plans down from three kids to two, but the second baby never came. We could have gone to the doctor earlier than we did, but life came at us hard and I’m weird about doctors, so we put it off, and by the time I had a clear vision of the next steps toward growing our family, I wasn’t so sure I wanted I wanted to take them. I’m not entirely sure why. Part of my resistance was physical. The battery of tests had been a lot. I wanted a baby, but not the interventions, not even the easy ones. “Clomid is not without its side effects,” the nurse-midwife mentioned when she sent me out the door with an order in my chart. There was also a spiritual component. I’d was deep into a twelve step program rooted in acceptance. I’d thought I was running the show when it came to family planning and it was a relief to admit that maybe I didn’t have to jackhammer my body into making a baby just because I wanted one. Mostly, though, it was a knowing, on par with the inkling I’d had years back that getting pregnant would not be easy. I knew fertility treatments worked miracles in the lives of people who got their babies. I knew they could wreak havoc in the lives of people who didn’t. I knew, regardless of the outcome, it wasn’t a journey I was meant to take. Call it mother’s intuition.
Life went on and my ache for a baby subsided. The gut punch of not getting pregnant turned into a slap and then into a pinch and eventually into cramps and a headache–typical symptoms of PMS. I’d started to see the benefits of a family that looked like mine. After my daughter gave up naps, weekends were for all-day jaunts around the city. We haunted museums and parks and coffee shops and stores and I gave up my pricey jogging stroller because my kid could walk for miles. We never used a babysitter for special occasions because, living with two adults who indulged her palate, she developed a taste for fine food and learned how to sit still in a nice restaurant. She outgrew car seats and cribs but we never outgrew our little red hatchback or our two bedroom townhouse. With only three plane tickets to buy, we could afford to travel. We flew across the country to see grandparents and cousins and road-tripped everywhere we could and started planning our first trip out of the country. With only three schedules to juggle, we put her in every activity she wanted to try. When she started first grade, my husband and I looked at each other and high fived. We’d gotten our baby into full-day school and the world looked like our oyster.
The farther away I got from pregnancy and nursing and diaper bags and nap schedules, the less I wanted to do it all over again. And then there was this: my daughter’s friends and neighbors and classmates all had little siblings by this point and she had figured out that she wanted no part of that. She actively campaigned against a baby. Eventually the pain of not getting pregnant became a relief.
Then COVID hit and the world shut down and all the advantages of having one kid seemed to slip away. The weekend adventures. The family travel. The after-school activities.The free time for the parents. Even worse, we lost our ability to offset the drawbacks of being an only child with playdates and visits with extended family. Confined at home for months on end, our family started to feel really small. Daily, I saw little groups of kids–siblings–playing in their front yards while my daughter sat alone in her bedroom. I saw other families out walking or riding bikes or going on hikes and noticed brothers and sisters laughing or pestering or pointedly ignoring each other while my daughter tried her hardest to match my pace and get me to act more like a kid. I resented the families who stretched across the whole sidewalk for daring to take up so much space. I envied the families who could throw birthday parties while sheltering in place and have more than three people to celebrate. I mentally went off on the people who shamed parents for using the playground or planning outdoor playdates. I hated everybody who told me to just stay home and enjoy my family, like that was so easy, everything about life in the pandemic wasn’t dredging up my deepest insecurities, like they hadn’t just stuck a finger in my oldest wound.
For years, I couldn’t stomach the sight of pregnant women and infants. This year, I found myself turning away from any family bigger than my own. I couldn’t stand to look at school- and teenaged siblings: relationships my daughter would not have. Intellectually, I sympathized with people who had to deal with family planning in a pandemic. Emotionally, I went back to hating pregnant women and their babies, too. I hated anybody who could give their already-existing children what I couldn’t give mine: siblings; family; more people to love and to be loved by.
I keep talking about how lonely I’m afraid my daughter is and I know it confuses people because she has me and she has has her dad and we’re trying to give her everything she needs and shouldn’t that be enough? And the thing is, I am trying. I am trying to give her everything I never had: a hometown; a house she remembers growing up in; a faith community that will accept her for who she is; a community that is wider than her immediate family. It kills me, though, that I can’t give her the thing that sustains me: a small army of people who love her unconditionally, the kind who of people who will risk infection to bubble up during a pandemic or at least make an effort to keep in touch, the kind who will still be around when this thing is through.
It’s the Sunday after the election and I am walking downtown. I live in a small city next to a big city and downtown usually means in Chicago, but these days a trip to downtown Evanston is a big adventure. It may be ill-advised–cases have been climbing for weeks–but I need to get out of the house and see some some people. I plan to sit outside the coffee shop and futz around on my laptop, maybe do some writing or listen to a lecture for that poetry course I signed up for and then never accessed. I am more after the illusion of work than work itself, just like I am engaging in the illusion of being with people when actually being with people is off limits. The coffee shop is packed, or what passes for packed in a pandemic. The patrons waiting for their orders indoors are less like sardines in a tin than fish loose in a barrel and I wait for fifteen minutes for my Americano trying not to breathe. There are no tables left on the patio so I walk one street over to the community plaza where I know I will find a smattering of rickety metal tables spaced way more than six feet apart.
I turn the corner into the square and the sounds of a street singer strumming on a guitar carry me to a table between a pretty young couple with a baby on one side and a pretty young couple with a baby and a grandma on the other side. The troubadour is playing the chorus of “American Pie Part 2,” which would have been enough to pull me into a seat even if I didn’t have nowhere else to go. That’s the song, after all, played five days earlier when the election results were trickling in, seemingly in Trump’s favor. The red wave turned out to be an illusion, too, but I didn’t know that yet, and music was the only way I knew how to move through that night.
Oh and while the king was looking down The jester stole his thorny crown The courtroom was adjourned No verdict was returned
I played some other songs too. “White Man’s World” by Jason Isbell:
I’m a white man living in a white man’s world Under our roof is a baby girl I thought this world could be hers one day But her mama knew better
“Society” by Eddie Vedder:
Society, you’re a crazy breed I hope you’re not lonely without me
Today we have a verdict. God, today is such a good day. Seventy degrees, cotton ball clouds blowing across a brilliant blue sky. The promise of a new administration. A rational, national science-based COVID response. A generous refugee policy. No more babies in cages. Reinstitution of protections for transgender people in healthcare. I still cry behind my mask and sunglasses awhile. It’s been too long since I listened to live music, since I sat with strangers, since I existed in my city. I open my wallet looking for a one or a five to drop in the singer’s tip jar and zip it back up when I see I only have a $20. I zip it back open when I remember I found that $20 on the ground earlier in the week. It wasn’t mine to begin with. None of this was ever mine.
I haven’t been sitting long when a person without a mask slow-charges me, coming within a foot of my table. “Too close, sir!” I call out, too late to stop the panic from rising up but before before I see the silver earrings hanging from her lobes. No response, and she wobbles when she passes my table. I don’t even know if she saw me. I try to dredge up some anger but find I’ve been scraped clean. I don’t have anything left for anyone who’s worse off than me. Besides, it’s not like I need to be out here in public, trying to figure if there’s any benefit left to living in a city. There is, by the way. The live music is worth the risk, as is the privilege of being with dozens of people who don’t look at the world like I do.
The singer sets down his guitar and lays hands on the keyboard spread out in front of him. “Piano Man.” Of course. Somebody I can’t see lights a cigar. A young dad eats ice cream with his little son. A hipster couple goes off on their bikes. Three university students eat Chinese food. Is it racist to go out of my way to describe food and family makeup and ignore everybody’s race and ethnicity? The singer is Asian. The couple with the baby are white. The couple with the baby and the grandma are Middle Eastern. The dad and the little boy are white. The hipster couple is white. The students are Asian. I look around and found the man with the cigar across the street and confirm he is white. There are also in the plaza two girls, Asian, a young man, Asian, a couple, white and maybe Latinx, a young man, white. Earlier there was a Black man with a slouchy hat, listening intently to the music and writing in a notebook, like me. There are three Latinx girls. There is a Black family. A white lady with a bike helmet walks up to the singer. An older Black man with a cane walks by. The lady who came at me was white, old, and unwell. I’m white. Supposedly, there is COVID everywhere. I mean, there definitely is COVID everywhere, but it is windy out and people are moving in and out of my peripheral vision faster than I can write them down.
Last week I realized I won’t see my family for the rest of this year. When winter was still on the horizon, when cases were dropping, a quick trip at the end of the year seemed feasible. People went on vacations this summer, didn’t they? People saw their families for birthdays and backyard visits? I know they did because I saw the proof on Facebook. The mayor asked us to cancel Thanksgiving, but people are going home for that, too, aren’t they? I know they are because they told me. I know they exist but I don’t know anyone else who hasn’t seen their parents, siblings, nieces, and nephews in as long as I have, their grandparents and cousins in as long as my daughter has. People keep telling me to just get on a plane and go already. Flying is reasonably safe. I could quarantine before and after and take a test before I go. I put the decision off until after the election. “If Arizona goes for Trump, I won’t want to be anywhere near the state,” I joked. Of course, Arizona went blue and and I cried when I realized I still couldn’t go home.
Another young couple walks by. The boy is Asian and the girl is white. The girl is holding a stuffed shark. All the couples I’ve seen today have been straight. Two teenage boys tear through the square on a skateboard and a BMX bike. A pair of scruffy white college students sit down with food. A group of Black men and women walk by with Target bags dangling from their wrists. A white lady holds a big toddler on her hip. I pull a sweater on against the breeze. It’s warmer than it should be, but the sun is setting already. The lady drops the toddler on top of a concrete block and lets him dance. He bounces extravagantly and clutches a yellow sucker in his hand. The mom grins and him and holds one arm out to stop him falling off. Of course I’m crying again. But why am I crying? The beautiful thing is happening right in front of me, right now, still. The beautiful thing is almost too much to bear.
The pianist starts banging out “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” and now I’m tapping my feet like the toddler and bopping my head and grinning like the mom behind my mask. I’m thinking of the time my friend Caitlin crooned this song to a pretty waitress in the Ozarks on our long drive across the country to see our families out west. Is the lost year worth this moment in time?
Are 200,000+ American lives lost worth ousting Trump from the White House?
Are Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Daniel Prude in 2020 alone worth Kamala Harris as Vice President?
The questions are stunning because the answer is an obvious, resounding no.
If it was always going to play out like this, would I give up my part? Would I do any of it differently?
These are questions I can only answer by carrying on. I’m not fighting on the front lines, but I’m not sitting on the sidelines, either. I’m fucking in it, just like you.
Well the year that was last week is over and done. Where were you when the interminable, uncomfortably close race was called? I was on the couch with my family watching TV. We never watch TV on weekend mornings because my daughter’s childhood couldn’t be more different from my own, except when there’s an early football game or, as happened last week, we find ourselves hooked on watching ballots trickle in from Allegheny County and Maricopa, which, it so happens, is where I grew up. For four nights I stayed up late knowing the results weren’t likely to come in but waiting just the same. I wasn’t prepared for the sun to be shining when I got the news. I wasn’t prepared to be sitting next to my daughter. I wasn’t prepared to have nothing to do but react. Pennsylvania went blue on the map we’d been staring at with horror, disbelief, skepticism, and stupid, impossible hope all week and CNN called the race for Biden. My husband pulled out his phone to make a video and caught my face crumpling when Wolf Blitzer declared Harris the first woman and the first woman of color elected to the office of Vice President. I wasn’t prepared for how much that would mean to me. I couldn’t even touch the possibility with my mind after what happened to Clinton in 2016 and, to a far lesser extent but painful nonetheless, to Warren in the primaries. I don’t know everything women can do, but I know exactly what we can’t do in America in 2020. My husband sent the video to my family on the Marco Polo app. Only my sister responded, eyes and mouth wide with happy screams. We’d been texting all week, morning to night and riding out the anxiety together, sisters in arms on the same side, willing Arizona to flip and then watching it happen, was the second best thing to happen all week, maybe all year.
I was still laughing and crying and cheering when I heard a buzzing rumble, long and low and slow. I thought my phone was going off but it was the neighbors blowing some type of horn. We threw our windows open, too, and cued up Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen–all the victory songs the Trump campaign tried and failed to co-opt. We heard voices–a few neighbors had spilled out into front yards–and I ran out to join them in pajamas and sneakers and a mask. One neighbor explained the horn–a Shofar, or ram’s horn, blasted in ancient and modern Jewish religious rituals, and, in this case, to signal victory and celebration–before heading back inside to call his parents. Another neighbor laughed bitterly and said she wouldn’t be calling hers; her mom loves Trump, and I think her in-laws do, too. She laughed but I know this fact causes pain. I wondered where my parents were, in senses both literal and less so. I’d called my dad on Wednesday but he didn’t call back. I’d called my mom on Friday but it had been tense. She won’t share her political views, which means I never know where I stand. My parents don’t want to take sides. I get it. They have five kids who all vote differently. But not knowing means I’ll never know if they care or even understand how much this means to their daughters or how much it means for their granddaughters. I am close with my brothers but haven’t heard from any of them in a few weeks. It’s normal not to talk to my family on weekends but their silence on Saturday was strange on a day when people were dancing in the streets.
Still needing to be outside, I took my daughter on a hike in the afternoon. We sat on a log in the woods and sang The Star-Spangled Banner, start to finish. We belted it, really, bold and unembarrassed. Nobody walked by, but we wouldn’t have minded if they did; my daughter and I both enjoy an audience. The leaves were mostly gone from the trees so we could see everything coming up the trail, ahead and behind. The woods were filled with golden light and the sun dropped into the side of the sky early because it’s been a long year and the party’s starting late. When we got back into the car, I didn’t want to go back home. I wanted to drive downtown. I wanted to go into the bars so I could pour out of them. I wanted to be with people, popping bottles and hopping around and never sitting down. The streets were open but everything else was closed and it was just me and the seven-year-old, so we went back home. I fell asleep on the couch, a week of late nights and four years of watching my back, watching over my people, waiting for the other foot to drop catching up at last. I woke up to dinner on the table. My husband cracked the Martinelli’s. All three of us made toasts and clinked. We raised our glasses to what we’ve been through, personally and as a nation. We raised nodded our heads to how much we still have to do. We drank to starting this next leg of the race newly inspired and refreshed.
We let our daughter stay up past bedtime to watch Harris and Biden deliver victory speeches. She was giddy from the bubbles and good feeling and couldn’t stop bouncing on the couch and babbling over the TV. She practically bubbled over herself when the Biden and Harris families walked into the stage and started in with the hugging. I watched my daughter watch these families watching the fireworks exploding in the sky, all of us with shiny eyes.
I am not inclined to put Harris or Biden on a pedestal. They were imperfect candidates who disappointed me before they ran and whose administration will surely disappointment me going forward. We the people will need to hold them accountable. In the meantime, I am heaving with relief. I rest easier knowing there is no doubt that the President and Vice President Elect are decent people who love this country and care about the welfare of families other than their own. I trust that they understand the seriousness of the task that lies before them. I believe that they will restore honor to the offices from which they serve. I am confident that they will work on behalf of the people they serve. I pray that the next four years will be better than the last for every single one of my fellow Americans, but especially for the ones who have suffered the most.
The night before the election my daughter had a hard time going to bed. “What happens if Trump wins?” she worried. “Oh girlie,” I reassured her, as she climbed into my lap. “We’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing. We’ll keep taking care of each other and working to make the world a safer, more loving place.” Since then, I wondered if I was wrong to let her in on so much of what’s happening in the world. Maybe I should have done more to shield her from the damage the Trump administration inflicted on so many, and the danger he still poses. Maybe I should have taken a page from my mom’s book and shielded her from the bias of my own beliefs.
Celebrating together this weekend, I tasted the first fruits of raising my child to be politically engaged. I try to teach her respect for her uncles and grandparents that vote differently than we do, mostly because I want her to know that I won’t love her any less if she grows up to believe differently than me. She will never wonder where I stand or where she stands with me. Today, I got another hint that we’re headed in a good direction. My daughter came downstairs and asked me if she could read a page from the book she’s writing for her non-fiction unit at school. It’s called “The 2020 Election!” and the first chapter starts like this: “2020 has been a crazy year. And I’m not making that up.” She dedicated her book to “all the people in the United States.”
God I’m sick of talking about sickness and school and death and depression and safety and sorrow and transmission and testing and masks and mental health and fake news and fear. I’m sick of having to dig so deep to root up feelings that are at best bittersweet. I’m sick of flaying my emotional body and laying myself bare to get a moment of human connection. I want more than pockets; I want whole sack-fulls of joy. I want more than silver; I want all my linings to be gold.
Today my mom told me that my dad wants to go on a vacation when this is all over. I figured he was anxious to reschedule the family reunion we had planned for this summer and scrapped at the last minute. She figured he wanted to go to the resort in their city they’ve been to a bunch of times when they want a weekend in a room with a view they don’t have to clean. We were both wrong. Apparently my dad wants to go to Europe. My father is no Ron Swanson. He’s not a U.S.A.-chanting xenophobe. He’s not unrefined. It’s just that I always figured his ideal vacation involved more time on the open road than hurtling through the air, more time relaxing in a hotel than getting lost in a new city or standing around in a museum, and more time with his family than in a foreign land. If my dad were the type to have been to Europe, I imagine he would come back like Guy Clark, singing that verse from Dublin Blues:
I have seen the David
I've seen the Mona Lisa too
I have heard Doc Watson
Play Columbus Stockade Blues
And I guess that’s one thing about the pandemic. Those of us who survive this thing might come out a little clearer on what what we want to do before we die, the places we still need to go, the people we can’t live without.
When this thing is all over I want to go out and dance to house music pressing up against hundreds of sweaty bodies.
When this thing is all over I want to drive across the country in a rented RV and stop at every roadside tourist attraction I see.
When this thing is over I want to eat breakfast at every fancy brunch place and stay up all night drinking coffee and eating pie at every hole in the wall diner in Chicago.
When this thing is over I want to hire babysitters with abandon and buy tickets to every concert in which I have an even passing interest.
When this thing is over I want to spent twelve hours at Six Flags Great America.
When this thing is over I want to take myself on dates to the Art Institute and the MCA and the National Museum of Mexican Art and LUMA and the Driehaus and the American Writers Museum and invite absolutely no one to join me.
When this thing is over I want to monopolize the mic at karaoke.
When this thing is over I want to see the Durkins in Massillon and Mesa.
When this thing is over I want to see the Fords in Houston and Tucson.
When this thing is over I want to see the Potters in Albuquerque.
When this thing is over I want to see the Bakers in Snoqualmie.
When this thing is over I want to see Dan in Leverett.
When this thing is over I want to see Ferrial in Annapolis.
When this thing is I want to see Rachel and Matt in Plymouth.
When this thing is over I want to see Elizabeth in Detroit.
When this thing is over I want to see Dan and Caitlin in San Francisco.
When this thing is over I want to see in Rebecca in Mesa.
When this thing is over I want to see Safia in Seattle.
When this thing is over I want to see Sean in Howell.
When this thing is over I want to take my daughter to London and look for Platform Nine and Three-Quarters.
When this thing is over I want my husband to take me to South America for two weeks and show me Chile and Argentina and Peru.
When this thing is over I want to fly to Europe and meet my dad and when we’ve seen it all I want fly back home and play guitar on the back porch. We’ll run through every song we ever played together over the last twenty-five years and I’ll make him teach me every song we haven’t. We’ll stay up all night. We’ll play the rest of our lives.