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.
The first thing I wrote yesterday morning was “Today the rain is falling, as it did all night and as it promises to do all day.” The rain did come down all day yesterday, in buckets, dumping all over everything. I didn’t mind it so much in the morning, waking up to the sound of it splattering against my bedroom window, feeling safe from the gray of it around the kitchen table with my family and a stack of waffles and the crossword. I got out once for a walk during a lull in the early afternoon, but I stayed out too long and came back drenched. “Why did you go so far?” my husband asked? “I read you the minutecast.” It’s true, he did tell me that the rain would be back in precisely twenty-three minutes, and I’d chirped, “Perfect!” like that was all I needed. It’s true, too, that twenty-three minutes is enough time for a walk. But what’s truer than true is that I needed more time. I wanted to stay out longer, walk farther, and feel freer, and I thought that the wanting and the acting on the waniting would be enough to hold the rain at bay until I made it back home. It wasn’t, and I got wet. It was a warm rain, though, and I arrived home to a warm home and dry clothes and my family already snuggled on the couch waiting for me with snack bowls and blankets and Toy Story all cued up. These were the high points of a hilly day.
Down in the valleys, I did battle with my character defects. In a low moment, I gave voice to my shrieking insecurity in the presence of my daughter and then desperately tried to claw it back, because there’s nothing I want more than for her baggage to be all her own. In another low moment, I gave airtime to my selfishness, begging everybody to just be quiet so that I could sit on the couch for an hour and read. The things I do in the valleys make me feel like a bad mom, and that’s a feeling that I drag with me all day. It doesn’t matter how high I get. I could be walking on clouds and I’d still hate the mom from down the hill.
Bedtime rolled around and I cracked. I cried and cried, buckets dumping all over everything. I saw my daughter’s lower lip shake because there’s nothing sadder than watching mama cry, and then I cried some more because there’s nothing sadder than watching your kid watching her mama cry. I pulled myself together, pulled her into my lap, and rubbed her arms and told what I’ve told her hundreds of times, “It’s going to be okay. Everything’s going to be okay.” When it felt like she might be starting to believe me, I asked her what she wanted for a bedtime story, and she told me that tonight she would read to me. We settled on the floor, her with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in her lap, and me curled up on my side, arms wrapped around myself, willing myself to believe the promises I keep making.
This is the time of year my husband runs the holiday gauntlet: Easter, daughter’s birthday, mother’s day, and my birthday all crammed into a three week period, each special day involving gifts and elaborate meals and tender feelings. This year, husband was a little nervous about mother’s day. He apologized preemptively. “I’m sorry,” he said, “we can’t do any of the things you like the most.” He was right. Illinois is still under lockdown until May 30 and mother’s day was slated to be 40 degrees and rainy. I told him it didn’t matter, I didn’t care, I understand the logistical and emotional challenges of making a day feel special when every day is the same.
On Sunday, husband and daughter let me sleep in before waking me up with breakfast in bed–a smashed cinnamon roll concoction with macerated strawberries, bacon, and coffee–flowers, homemade cards, and gifts. You know, the usual. Okay, maybe not quite the usual. Daughter drew me a picture of my favorite things: us taking a walk, chatting up a stranger, while it rained cheetos, beets roasted in a mysterious outdoor oven, and two narwhals (mama and baby) hovered in the sky. She also gave me a double-sided paper cutout of a whippet (inexplicably her favorite dog, not mine, never mine) and a polaroid picture of a plastic dog house from the animated series Puppy Dog Pals (a recent birthday present and her new favorite toy). Husband gave me a jar of melatonin gummies, a tin of sardines with lemon, a bright yellow cotton dress, and a polaroid of me and daughter he’d snapped a moment earlier. I ate in bed and red The Times and read a book to daughter and when I finally got up I thanked them profusely for my gifts, an embarrassment of riches. I had no idea the real gifts were yet to come.
The first of these gifts arrived the moment I stepped out of bed, when husband informed me that he had planned the day so I could “watch” virtual church services or not, whichever I preferred. I come from a world where the security and stability hinge on religious sameness. Religious differences block whole families from being formed, and changed beliefs upend families ties that have stood for generations. God forbid you lose your belief; you might just lose your whole family. The gift that made my family possible, that saves my family every day, is probably the gift I most often overlook: the freedom to believe what I want, and the freedom to change my mind. I opted to go to church, if you’re curious. My weekends need the structure these days.
The next gift came when church services wrapped up, and husband asked if I wanted to go for a walk or a drive. It was drizzling pretty hard, so I chose drive. When I climbed into the passenger seat, I saw two bags of David’s sunflower seeds in the middle console and, at my feet, two cases of CDs, 96 sleeves each, the same two cases I hauled around for for all of high school, college, and law school as I drove thousands and thousands of miles on Arizona highways and cross-country road trips. We popped in the first mix that husband ever made me fifteen years ago in 2005. We popped shells in our mouths. We wound our way up the north shore and tried to explain to daughter what it was like to live in a time when you had to work to hear the music that you loved. This is the most thoughtful gift of quarantine: the gift of being known.
The next gift came the moment we got home, when husband handed me a bag of cheetos and a bottle of sparkling craft tea and told me I had an hour to do whatever I wanted, because he and daughter were leaving. He didn’t tell me where they were going and I didn’t ask. I haven’t been home alone in over eight weeks. I read. I called my mom. I ate half the bag. Later, I found out that husband and daughter spent the hour sitting in the car in the parking lot of Home Depot watching episodes of Puppy Dog Pals on husband’s phone. This is the most precious gift of quarantine: the gift of being alone.
I won’t bore you with the details from the rest of my day except to say that it continued to be beautiful and delicious and relaxing in every way. Did daughter start to lose her mind from the boredom of being cooped up with her parents and the pressure of having to be on her best behavior for mother’s day and the struggle of missing her routine and the emotional turmoil of being seven years old? Obviously. But that’s when I got the greatest gift of all, the one husband doesn’t even know he gave me because he does it every day, and that is the gift of being an infinitely loving and incredibly capable co-parent in the best and worst of times.
The last gift was a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food, which we ate after the tarts we shared with our daughter earlier in the night and after she went to bed, while binge-watching Fleabag. This is the gift of second dessert.
My daughter has always been a kid that preferred the company of adults, or at least the company of me, to that of other kids. Typical oldest daughter, maybe. Maybe a typical only child. Of course, nothing about our own children ever feels typical. Most days, our bond feels special. I love how clearly she prefers me when it looks the way I want love to feel: sweet and easy. I’m talking mama-daughter dates at the museum, sushi dinners, and endless walks around the neighborhood. I worry and chafe when her attachment demands what love actually requires, which is to say, patience and sacrifice. When the neighborhood kids graduated from their parents’ arms to side-by-side play to careening around outside in a big, bonded pack, I longed to send her off with them so I could talk freely with the other moms. All through preschool, my girl stayed glued to my side, whined when I paid more attention to other adults than her, and cried when other kids came too close, touched her toys, or asked me a question.
When she started kindergarten, her world exploded. I was still her sun, but now she was crossing paths with dozens of other little planets. The planets were other kids, and she resisted their pull. She puzzled over their varied atmospheres, their rings, their moons, always too many or too few, their very existence. By the time she realized she might actually like the other planets, they were all spinning in time and she didn’t know how to sync up. We spent a lot of time at parks, her surreptitiously watching other kids play, me gently encouraging her to join, and both of us pretending we didn’t care when it didn’t happen.
Last summer, in the grassy common area between our houses, one of my more brutally honest friends put me on the spot: “Why doesn’t D play with the other kids?” Inside, I jerked at the pain of being found out. Outside, I answered honestly, nonchalantly: “She has a hard time working up the courage to join them. She is waiting for them to invite her in.” My friend dropped her chin and looked at me in disbelief, like I was asking for the moon. “But…kids don’t do that. They just…play.” “I know,” I shrugged. “She’ll figure it out.”
In the fall, my daughter started first grade in a new classroom, at a new school, and her world blew open again, and this time the pieces landed just right. After just a few weeks of trepidation about being the new kid, she settled into her new orbit, and she thrived. She ran around with a pack of kids on the playground, led a friendly war against the boys in her classroom, and came home everyday bubbling over with stories about her day. When she told me her favorite subject at school was recess I about died with pride and relief at the normalcy of it all. Kids without friends never like recess.
By the time winter rolled around, she was planning her own playdates and I breathed another sigh of relief. My only child would not be lonely. The playdates did not go perfectly smoothly. She would have a terrific time for two, three, even four hour stretches, but when it was time to go home, she would break down, devastated that the fun had to end. It was like preschool social interactions in reverse: she cried when I came too close, touched her arm, or asked a question. If I tried to grab her hand, or nudge her toward the door, she’d go alternately boneless or stiff as a board. Eventually we’d make it out the front door, but she’d be inconsolable the whole way home.
After a few of these scenes, I figured out what was going on. Having friends was still so new to her, she didn’t know if she could count on it to last. On our way home from a classmates’ house one evening, I tried to reassure her: “Honey, this is just the beginning. You’re going to get to play with M again.” She wasn’t so sure. She sniffed and tearfully asked, “Do you promise?” I take promises seriously, so I took my time before responding. When I felt sure, I said, “Of course. You’re going to have lots of playdates with lots of friends. I cannot think of any reason in the world you wouldn’t play with M again. We’ll invite her over next week. I promise.”
That was Monday, March 9. By Thursday, school was cancelled through April 12. On March 31, the district announced that schools were closed through April 30. On April 17, we got notice that schools are closed through the end of the year.
We hung D’s class picture on the wall next to the kitchen table where she does her schoolwork now. The first week of quarantine, I’d catch her staring at it throughout the day. Sometimes she’d climb up on her knees in the middle of a meal and start reading her classmates names out loud. Sometimes she’d touch their faces. Six weeks in, she’s hardened. She’s still willing to admit that she misses school and church and choir and swim, but when I ask her who she misses, she says “No one.”
Pastor Grace says 40 is no ordinary number. In the Bible, 40 is less a measure of time than it is a clue that God is up to something. 40 years in the wilderness before the Jews reached the promised land. Nothing but manna to eat. 40 days on Mount Sinai for Moses to come down with the Law. 40 days and 40 nights in the Judean desert before Jesus began his public ministry. Temptation under every rock. No food at all. 40 days with his disciples after throwing open the doors of death. 40 days before being restored to God.
40 days is a really long time. It is time enough to be lost and found, time enough to be tested and tried, time enough to come to an understanding, time enough to prepare and come out the other side.
When the men who wrote the Bible tell us something lasted 40 minutes, days, or years, they are telling us that God is behind whatever happened next.
And so it is that 40 days into quarantine, we are celebrating a birth. Seven years ago, I pulled my daughter into the world. Seven is a God number, too, it turns out. I didn’t learn that from Pastor Grace, or the Bible, but from Frank Black singing This monkey’s gone to heaven.
My daughter is my promised land but my waiting was not 40 years of wilderness. In the most literal of ways, I didn’t have to wait at all. I had her at 27. She was conceived the first month we tried. Still, her coming to us was not as easy as all that. The idea of a daughter was seven years in the making, conceived in New Orleans as her dad and I sheltered-in-place during a hurricane. “What if I get pregnant?” I whispered. We were children ourselves, only 20 years old. “We’ll have a baby and we’ll name her Dylan.” We did wander after that. We had to. We crossed religious differences that spread like a chasm to find a land hospitable to us both, to the believer and the skeptic alike, a place that would be safe for our interfaith family. Eventually, we found a way.
Dylan turns seven today.
The second wandering came after Dylan was born. We waited two years after she was born and then tried for four more to have another that never came. This makes people sad. “I’m so sorry,” they say. “I know you wanted another baby. At one point that might have been the case, but I am so far removed from that wanting it’s hard to know if it was really mine. What I know now: every passing month and year shined a light on the gold I already had. Dylan is everything I could ever want in a kid. Any heartbreak I have is for not being able to give her a sibling. Luckily for all of us, she never wanted one, and still doesn’t, even after a 40 days of being the only kid in quarantine.
Every year, but especially this year, I’ve been anticipating Dylan’s birthday like it was my own. The anticipation is ingrained. I didn’t wait to have Dylan but she made me wait to have her, through 30 hours of labor, eight days after she was due. That long week before she decided to join us on this plane of existence was its own kind of probationary period. We were prepared for an April 15 delivery. I’d had my hospital bag packed since Braxton Hicks kicked in around week 35. I’d taken the week off of work. My husband had checked our little dog into a very fancy overnight kennel. There was nothing left to do except wait and walk and wonder what life would be like on the other side.
I’m not waiting anymore, not for a miracle, not for a sign. For me, the miracle happened seven years ago, after 30 hours of labor, eight days after she was due. The miracle is every day I’ve spent with her since.
Last night I had the most fraught dream about mother-daughter relationships. My 6yo daughter was buckling herself into the booster seat in the back of a car. My grandma bent over to help her (not a thing I imagine my 86yo grandma could actually do, physically) and I guess my kid was giving lip because my grandma told my kid to shut up (also not a thing she would do, probably). It was not terribly cruel, just casually unkind. I was standing with my mom outside the car and we exchanged looks, like, did that just happen? My mom leaned in the car and told my kid not to worry, that grandma was going to be put in a time out for talking like that. I barged in to correct the record and explained that we had no authority put grandma in a time out, that she could use whatever words she wanted. She’d earned the right, in my mind. My mom got pissed at me for undermining her in front of D, I got pissed at my mom for being overstepping her bounds, and we all stormed off leaving D in the car and grandma I don’t where. Then I woke up.