Quarantine Diaries Day 439: Summer In The Suburbs

A few years ago, I started cataloging idyllic summer weekends with a little mental hashtag: #summerinthesuburbs. This last weekend was one of those. I walked to the farmers’ market with my daughter and a few of our neighbors. At first the kids sprinted up ahead of us until they got to big intersections or, in my daughter’s case, until her shoes fell off. We just bought her a pair of kiddie crocs to combat a permanent case of Mama, my feeeeeet are hooooootttt. Her feet are still hot and her shoes fall off, but they are bright blue, so she is obsessed with them. Then the kids got tired and slowed down to hold our hands. We weren’t halfway there when they stopped to inspect a Hercules beetle and held the whole group up for a solid ten minutes. They flipped the bug right-side up and were relieved to see it was still alive, but my daughter noticed it had a bum leg and worried about it for the rest of the day. Mama, do you think the beetle will be okay?

At the farmers’ market we bought cheese, asparagus, and scones the size of a child’s head, and took them to a patch of grass on the other side of the street where we could strip off our masks and feast. The grownups talked about books. I confessed my tendency to read books that are a huge bummer and then complain about being depressed. The kids ran around flapping their arms and pretended to be birds. A toddler watched from down the way and the toddler’s grandma told us this was the most exciting day of the child’s young life. She was a quarantine baby and had never seen kids at play.

I went to the garden center with my husband and daughter. The sign out front said “I’m so happy spring is here, I went my plants.” My husband pointed out that they missed the obvious joke about soiling yourself. My daughter asked Does soil mean poop, mama? but she was already dying laughing, so I didn’t answer. We got cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas, cilantro, sage, basil, mint, six little coleus plants, and, for the first time ever, a flower: impatiens. I’m a fairly utilitarian patio gardener; I like highly productive plants and growing things that I can eat. With the exception of a money tree I picked up at Ikea in college and kept alive through the end of law school, I’ve never bought a plant just because it looked pretty. We keep most of the plants on our back patio, but we planted the coleus out front and put the impatiens in a pot right next to the front door. I’m hoping it will distract the neighbors from the peeling paint and piles of rocks and sticks my daughter brings back from every walk.

I stayed up way late on Saturday night. Date night, you know.

My daughter and I rode our new long boards in the high school parking lot, which was littered with crushed red and yellow carnations from graduation a few days before. My daughter kept stopping to watch ants and chase squirrels. I rode in huge circles, around and around. I could go on like this forever, I thought, but we left pretty soon after that when my daughter’s feet got hot.

I went out to the lake for the first SUP of the year. It was hot when I left the house but the wind blew in and the temperature dropped twenty degrees in the ten minutes it took to inflate my board. People were streaming away from the beach while I made my way in. The waves were high and I didn’t want to fall off because I’d left my life jacket at home and am still healing the excision site on my leg, so I spent a lot of the ride on my knees. At one point, I went cross-legged on the board and was just paddling around with a stupid grin on my face. I saw a fuchsia petal floating next to my board and a little while later I saw another, and then another. I was far from shore and there were three other people on the water. A man on a SUP and two men on a catamaran. Where did the flowers come from? What do they mean?

I slathered my arms and legs and face with SPF 50 and went for my first run in a month. It was eighty degrees and steamy and my lungs gave out fast. I trotted by a man teetering on a bicycle, moving almost as slowly as I. Is this just what life is? Do I just get to decide how I want to fill my days? Was it always like this? My recollection of my days before the pandemic is getting hazy, but I don’t remember experiencing this kind of autonomy. I was always living according to someone else’s agenda. The law firm. The program. The group. The influencer. The church. Will it always be like this? Maybe it can be. I still work. I still parent. I still exist in community. But the minutes and the hours and the days are mine.

Quarantine Diary Day 417: Tangled Up In Blue

After waiting so long for COVID to abate and for winter conditions to end, I thought this spring would feel like waking up. Other people may be afraid or ill-equipped to venture outside of their pandemic routines, even when it’s safe, but I was convinced I would need no convincing, or time to acclimate. The tulips would open and the magnolia would unfurl and I would shed my layers (coat, mask) and step into the carefree life of which I’ve always dreamed. “All I ever wanted was to be someone in life that was just like ‘All I want is to just have fun, live my life like a son of a gun.'”

Maybe that sense of sweet freedom and relief is still in the cards for me, but I spent March and April tangling in the weeds, waiting for the world to turn green.

I waited to become eligible for a vaccine. I waited for appointments to open up. I waited four weeks between doses one and two. I waited for the side effects to show up and then I waited for them to subside. I waited two more weeks for immunity to take hold.

Within the eight-week intermission between becoming eligible for the vaccine and being fully protected, an entire other drama played out. I waited to call the doctor about that mole that was really growing at an alarming rate. I waited for an appointment. I waited two weeks for biopsy results on the “neoplasm of uncertain behavior” the dermatologist scraped off my thigh. I waited a week for surgery to excise the rest of the “the spitz nevus with moderate to severe atypia” from inside my skin. I waited a week for the lab results on the margins. The news was good: “A residual melanocytic lesion was not identified.” I got that email yesterday. Today marks two weeks since I received the second dose of Pfizer’s life-saving COVID vaccine. I’m still going to die, but these won’t be the things that kill me.

During the month of waiting to know what was happening with my skin, inchoate fear subsumed all the worries I once pinned to COVID. After I got the initial biopsy results, I channeled my fear into research, an instinct that’s served me well in my life as lawyer and a writer and a joiner and leaver of institutions of all kinds. I learned about atypical moles and melanoma diagnosis, staging, and treatment. I found my way to the skin cancer forums and picked up terminology for parsing pathology reports. Before I knew it, a week had passed, and I looked up from the screen red-eyed, shoulders around my ears, scared to death of shadows in my lymph nodes.

“Here’s the thing about worrying about things outside of your control. It feels productive, but it’s not. Not really.”

That’s what my therapist said when I told her how I’d spent the week between biopsy results and surgery looking for answers online.

I wanted to defend my obsessive trawling. It felt necessary, it really did–the research led to be questions I wouldn’t have known to ask, and the answers put my mind at ease–but I knew she was right. There’s a world of information and support out there for people with skin cancer, but that wasn’t my world yet, and there was no comfort there for me. I wasn’t going to find my pathology results in an archived thread of British melanoma patients chatting in 2013, and reading stories from people with advanced stages of the disease only made me more scared.

As an anxious person, I want to believe there’s value in my vigilance. I want to believe that worry is useful, that fear keeping me alive. Of course, I also want to banish my anxiety to hell for all the trouble it’s caused, and seeing how I’ve been feeding it like an obsequious host gives me some understanding as to why it’s not going away.

Is there anything more useless than anxiety over everything that ever happened and may never come to pass? Maybe depression. I’ve been babying that beast too, and it never did me a lick of good. Certainly, it never spurred anyone to to action the way anxiety can do. It almost pains me to admit that depression may serve no purpose. That it’s anything worse than a glamorous drag. That it’s neither vice nor virtue, but illness, and a common one at that. That there was never a point to all that pain. That there was nothing admirable in sinking so low. As a depressive, I want to believe there is some redeeming quality to my depth of feeling, but sadness never saved anyone.

I’m COVID-proof and cancer-free, but I’m still me. Maybe I’ll always feel the same, or maybe this time I’ll see it from a different point of view. March and April were for waiting, but there’s still time to wake up in May. It’s still spring. The tulips are still wide open.

Quarantine Diaries Day 375: Will There Really Be A Morning?

The snow that blanked the ground at the start of March melted suddenly this month. We had a few warm springy days in the sixties. I walked around without a coat, went running in shorts and a t-shirt. It was glorious, but I knew not to trust it. I warned everybody who dared to talk to me about the weather about the couple of big snows coming our way in April, guaranteed, and kept mentioning that meme about the many stages of winter and only being in fools’ spring. Sure enough, it got cold again the next week, but not as cold as it was in January and not cold enough to keep me from my first hike of the season. This last weekend it warmed up again, not really enough for my daughter to play in the mud without a coat on, but I let her do it anyway because there were other kids outside with their parents and we were both hungry for a little human interaction. We went for another hike and I warned my daughter not to expect much more than “dead leaves on the dirty ground” but an older couple stopped us in our tracks to point out a patch of purple crocuses blooming on the side of the trail. Not too long after that, we spotted a red-tailed hawk in flight. All weekend, I struggled to wrap my head around it. I was giddy, but also confused. I’d convinced myself we wouldn’t get a spring this year. Not that the world would stop turning, but that winter would be brutally long and then one day we’d slip into a disappointing summer, still miserable, still scared, still stuck at home. I really couldn’t see anything good on the other side of what we’d been through. Certainly not anything as earnestly hopeful as spring. I can admit when I’m wrong. All week, I’ve been cooking, playing, fucking, sleeping with the windows open wide.

The other thing that happened this weekend was that I snagged an appointment for a vaccine. I didn’t think that could be real either. Certainly I didn’t expect it to happen so easily or so soon. I didn’t even wake up early on Saturday, but when I checked the Walgreens website around eight o’clock in the morning, there were at least a dozen appointments only three days away. I tapped one and then it was gone. Damn. Too slow. I tried again and it went through. I slid through the screens filling in my information until I reached a confirmation page. Tuesday at 12:00 PM. All weekend, I struggled to wrap my head around it. I was giddy, but also confused. I’d convinced myself I wouldn’t be vaccinated for many months. I prepared myself to be turned away. I’d read about glitches in the enrollment system. I’d read that some pharmacies were declining to vaccinate people with appointments, notwithstanding their eligibility, to prioritize people over 65. I would understand if that happened. They need it more than me. I was doubly ashamed about the basis on which I’d qualified: former smoker. Usually, I’m proud of the fact that I quit a half pack a day habit, but realizing it made me eligible for a precious dose of the vaccine felt like sneaking in through a loophole. I think I would have felt more legitimate if I was still sneaking cigarettes on the sly like I did the first three years after I “quit.” I was prepared to be turned away, but I wasn’t about to count myself out. Nothing about the last year has been fair. It’s been a lot of short straws and shit luck, for others more than me. I don’t know how to draw a circle that leaves out my hatred of the fact that the system is rigged for people like me and captures my profound gratitude that the wheel spun in my favor for getting a vaccine. The best I can do is this: Getting the vaccine feels like welcoming another spring. I could never earn this embarrassment of life-giving, life saving riches, but I deserve it just the same.

When I went to get the vaccine on Tuesday, I quadruple checked for my state ID, insurance card, confirmation email, and eligibility documentation and doubled up on masks. Anticipating a long wait before and after the shot, I also packed a laptop (for my MEMWAAHS), my phone (for the ‘gram), and a slim volume of Emily Dickinson (for appearances). At the pharmacy I got in line behind a handful of people. I read a few pages before closing the book over my fingers and trying to strike up a conversation with the gentleman in front of me. “Hey. How far did you have to travel to get here today?” Once upon a time I was the kind of person who shit talked on small talk but after a year of isolation I can’t resist it. My line buddy was game and we chatted amiably about our respective neighborhoods until he made it to the front of the queue.

When it was my turn, the young man working as a pharmacy technician passed a thermometer over my head. I’ve been through this drill dozens of times in the last year and never clock over 99, but this time the pharm tech pulled back like he’d put his hand on the stove. “Okay, lady. I’m going to need you to take off your coat and hat. Sit down. Breathe.” He had a point. I was coming in hot in more ways than one. I stripped off as many layers as I could get away with in public. I fanned my armpits and willed my body to cool down. I snuck water under my mask. I filled out the forms and checked the boxes indicating my eligibility with zero guilt or qualms. After an interminable wait, the technician handed me a vaccine card and cleared me to advance to the next waiting area. After that, it was only a few minutes before he called me from behind the privacy screen set up in the corner of the room. As he was giving me my shot, I asked, “Do people ever cry back here? From, like, emotion?” “Yeah,” he said, as he smoothed the red Walgreen’s bandaid over my arm. “I’ve had a few people break down.” I stood up to leave. “Thank you. Just…thank you. Thank you so much.” When he saw the tears in my eyes, he “awwwed” at me like I was a cute puppy but the smile on his face was sincere.

I didn’t have time to process what had just happened or take a vaccine selfie before I saw my line buddy waiting for me on the other side of the screen. We were supposed to stick around under observation for 15 minutes in case of adverse reactions and we were glad to have each other’s company. As we talked, we discovered we work in the same industry. When he told me where he worked, I couldn’t believe it. His company had been my biggest client for over seven years at my last law firm. When he told me the name, I jerked my head around and said, “Are you fucking kidding me?” any shred of decorum I might once have maintained in a situation with a potential professional colleague destroyed by the last year of living like an emotional animal. The 15 minutes passed and then some. We stayed put, talking and talking. The only reaction we were experiencing was the thrill of human contact, but we couldn’t tear ourselves away. By the time I’d left, we’d exchanged emails and made plans to meet for drinks. We promised to look for each other in line for our second doses in three weeks. I didn’t crack the Dickinson in my bag again, and I don’t think there’s a more fitting image for coming out of quarantine than choosing an hour with a stranger over the vast interiority of myself.

Quarantine Diary Days 37, 44, and 51: Slippery Slopes

This post is the third in a series about church in the time of the pandemic. You can find the first and second posts here and here.

April 19: For the first month of shelter in place Sundays were the high point of every week, the mountain crest after last week’s long slog up, the top of the roller coaster before next week’s long slide down. With Easter, it felt like we were really building up to something. After that highest high point, this second Sunday in Easter is something of a let down. It is an effort to locate and name the good, but I do it anyway, because it’s good for me. D won’t walk with me before church, so she misses the crow cawing way up in a tall tree, the flash of robin red, the calico cat creeping in plain sight in front of a row of houses along church street, and the chance to wave at neighbors out walking with their dog. It’s hard to hear them behind their masks all the way across the street but the connection is there. I take many deep breaths. D does watch virtual church with me and she sees the bright side in the viewer count rising in the corner of the screen. People are logging in from all over the country and this is exciting. “People can watch church even when they’re out of town!” The church is trying something new, a virtual fellowship hour after the service is over. I make up my second coffee of the day and click the Zoom link eager to see some familiar faces, parched for conversation. The host lets me in and almost immediately kicks me into a breakout room. Hey, I know these people! There is a man from the parenting class I attended my second year with the church, the father of a hilarious little girl a few years younger than my D, who recently relocated to Colorado. There is also the pastor herself. We talk and talk even though the system is glitchy and our husbands and daughters keep wandering in and out of the frame. Actually, it’s hard to have this conversation in the middle of my living room. My daughter is annoyed that I am still staring at a screen and keeps asking questions about what we’re talking about. When we get kicked back into the main group I see my chance but it is with resignation that I drop out of the chat.

April 26: Pastor Grace says that God makes us family and today I feel agitated with mine. They are not doing what I want them to do. I want them to sit quietly and listen to the sermon or, if that’s too much to ask, I want them to quietly do the things I want them to do: read the paper, do the crossword, draw a picture, make sourdough. Instead my husband is sleeping on the couch and my daughter is hunched over on the floor, still in her sleep clothes, building with LEGO. I am annoyed, as though rest and play are not perfect Sabbath activities. I thought D wasn’t paying attention during Children’s Chapel before church but when Pastor Jane asked what water is for, D piped up, “Oh, I know!” and clambered over to the laptop to unmute herself. “Water is important because you get baptized in it.” I am surprised that baptism is on her radar, since she’s not baptized herself. I am surprised she’s been paying attention. Back to the sermon, Pastor Grace says that the church was born during shelter-in-place, that it found its voice during lockdown. She talks about Thomas like doubt is a good thing. D chimes in to chant “Hear our prayer” while I tune out. I am anxious because the day is unplanned. I have no Sunday School lesson for D, no art project, no family movie. I am running out of steam, patience, and ideas. At the end of my own rope it seems the only option is to observe Sabbath the way God intended and just let the day unfold.

May 3: I’m watching church alone today. My daughter finally opted out of church altogether and is up in her room listening to stories. My husband is on his bike. In spite of the silence, I can’t hear a word of the sermon because I am fixated on Pastor Grace’s stole. There was a time my mind associated grapes on the vine with kitchy kitchen decor your friend from high school or your coworker’s wife might pick up on a whim from TJ Maxx. My mom had a triptych of bottles and vines hanging over her last kitchen table, I guess because they look vaguely European. She doesn’t even drink wine. No one in my family does. The church is transforming the image, ruining it and then making it better, like it always does, I suppose. The church never knew how to let well enough alone, never let me leave my drinking alone anyway, and now it’s after the symbols too. Jesus labored in the vineyard. The grape is not God’s original fruit, but like all God’s gifts, it comes with a price, a dark side. The vines in the sanctuary aren’t closing around anyone’s neck, or least they aren’t closing around mine. In the church, the grape signifies abundance, fertility, celebration, joy. In the church, the grape is the fruit of my labor and yours. It’s been a long time since I found these things inside a wine bottle and two months since I went looking inside a communion cup. My teeth, my tongue, my sheets are still stained with the contents of both vessels.

May 4: I email a postcard from home for Mary to include in the week’s e-news.

Hello First Church Family. We are missing you and, along with looking for new life, we are looking for signs of you on our many long walks around town. Whenever we see a rainbow in a window or message of hope we wonder out loud if it is from one of you. This week, we noticed that the spiky red buds of a certain shrub near Mason park resemble the illustrated rendering of the coronavirus that’s dominated the visual news media for the last four months. This led daughter D to muse about how funny it would be to see a bush coughing, which led to a conversation about Moses and the burning bush, which led to me telling the story of the Israelites chasing a pillar of fire through the desert, which led to D recalling the tongues of fire flickering over the the heads of Jesus’ disciples, which led to us walking down the street hand-in-hand singing “Carry the Flame.” She didn’t know the words to that song before quarantine, but hearing it during virtual worship every week has seared it into our hearts. We are looking forward to the day we reach the promised land and sing with you in person. It will be a celebration.  

Quarantine Diary Day 69: The Upside

Spring in Chicago

Our daughter didn’t cry the day we gave our rescue dog back. We were expecting tears, had been bracing for them for over a month, since the day the dog bit a family friend and we knew that we might not be able to keep him. We only kept Study for six months, but that half year was huge to our four-year-old, almost as big as “forever” which is how long we thought we thought he’d be part of her family. Heartbreak doesn’t always look the way we expect it to, though. Our daughter was crushed, but she didn’t cry. Instead, she quickly constructed a vaguely dog-shaped structure using pieces from a magnetic building set and cradled it in her arms. I admired her creativity and complimented her skill and tried, urgently, to get her to put the “dog” down before her dad returned from delivering the dog back to the family that fostered him. Of course she refused, and I spent the next few hours trying to turn my own heartbreak into comedy. “It’s so weird,” I told anybody who would listen. “The dog is made of magnetic tiles. It’s not even soft, and it falls to pieces if you handle it wrong, but she won’t stop loving on it. We really fucked up.”

It’s been a few years now, and our daughter still adores critters and creatures don’t love her back, can’t even emote. She set up a sprawling “slug garden” on our back porch and begged us to let her spend her own money on a second basil plant intended exclusively to attract and feed slugs. Her goal this summer is to see a snail. She cradles rolly polly potato bugs and admires spiders. She even likes centipedes. We can’t take a walk in the rain without staging a worm rescue operation; it stresses her out to see them inching along in the wrong direction, away from mud, or toward a sewer, and she likes to pick them up and put them back in the dirt. And just last week, I walked in on a Zoom session with her class just in time to hear her announce, “I have a tamagotchi, which is kind of like a brother! And these are my stuffed dogs, which are kind of like pets!”

A month ago, we stopped to watch a worm work its way across the sidewalk for a solid fifteen minutes. It was raining hard and the worm looked pretty ordinary to me, but my daughter was smitten. She bent down low and cooed things like, “It’s such a cuuuuutttieeee” and “What a cutie lil’ adorable lil’ worm.” On the outside, I melt. She’s such an adorable little weirdo, and I love her. Inside I recoil, as I always do at shows of affection that put my failings on display, that make me relive the day with the Magformer dog and curse myself for not giving her something better to love.

Needing new eyes, I pull out my phone to take a video. At first I focus on my daughter, and then I zoom in close on the worm. The worm is taking me for a ride, too, and the journey is compelling. The longer we stand there, the closer I get to seeing what my daughter sees, which is, of course, a life. It occurs to me, for the first time, that maybe the trauma of loving a difficult pet and then having it taking away under even more difficult circumstances gave my daughter something good–a tremendous capacity for love and empathy.

I turn this over in my mind for a few weeks, meaning to write about it but not knowing how. I don’t know how to articulate my deepest fear in a way that’s respectful of my daughter, in a way that’s meaningful to others, in a way that’s more palatable than the truth: I’m afraid I will fuck it all up. I’m afraid I already did. I want to write about it, though, because the worm the depth of my daughter’s love for the worm gives me hope that she will be okay.

The worm gives me hope, too, that the trauma of COVID-19 will leave its own gifts behind. Perhaps, having had half a year or more of life as she knows it stolen away, being forced to shelter at home with her crazy parents, won’t fuck my daughter up. Maybe she will emerge into the world so ready to engage that she never knows my social anxiety, my reluctance to participate, my reliance on substances for connection. Maybe the looseness of schooling at home, of playing with Lego bricks for hours at a time, of staying up late dancing around the living room and hitting a balloon back and forth will free her to become the person she was meant to be. Maybe bearing witness to so much suffering at such a young age will buttress that tremendous capacity for love and empathy.

Please don’t take this as a long-winded way of saying everything happens for a reason, that other people died so we could thrive. If I could give my daughter back her dog I would. If I could go back in time and wipe out coronavirus I would. What I’m saying is that I’ve lived my whole life waiting for the other shoe to drop. Is that a Mormon thing? A religious thing? A human thing? What I’m saying is when I find myself with entire swaths of time with nothing to do but watch my girl tenderly care for creepy crawlies that make me want to run and hide I wonder if maybe it doesn’t have to be like that. Maybe we will be okay.

 

 

Breathing In The Spring

Today is one of those jaw-unhingingly gorgeous days. Seventy-five and sunny with a breeze blowing off the river, I want to suck it and let the juice run down my neck. Women in thigh-grazing dresses. Men in shorts. Scrappy dogs tugging at leashes. Tourists clogging up bridges. High-rise residents sprawled in muddy grass. Old men in khaki vests and fishing boats.

Usually, for me, season changes carry with them a whiff of oblivion. Spring was for getting stoned in the bushes, baking in the sun. Later, it was for summer wheats, Bell’s with a slice of orange. My family moved to Phoenix when I was six years old and my mom used to call me outside to smell the orange blossoms. I inhaled, barefoot on the concrete, taking in the trees and the sight of flowers brushing a cinder block wall, and went back inside with itchy, bloodshot eyes. I was allergic. 

I pass a dozen happy hours on the way to the train after work. Today, the windows are thrown open and I catch the sound of revelry and smell of hops. Some sober women are undone by the scent of red wine; for me, it is beer and belonging. My best drinking dream involves sipping an IPA on a porch full of friends drenched in the setting sun. It’s pure gold, and pure fantasy. I never sipped anything, and the day always turned dark. Also, I drank alone. 

Today, I walk by eleven bars before I think to breathe in, hard, like I’m after a second-hand high. The beer smells so good. Better then orange blossoms. I turn my head, chance a glance at a tabletop of half empty glasses, and I keep walking. I’m not itchy anymore, but I know I’m allergic.

The day is so beautiful that during the lunch hour the riverwalk outside my building is lined with office workers, kicking off their shoes, thumbing the pages of a book, picking at a salad. My feet know better than my head where serenity lives, though, and they march me into the loop, under the elevated train tracks, and into the non-descript building that houses the AA central office. You can’t even see the water, let alone feel the breeze on your skin. I walk inside and make a beeline for the elevator that will take me to the third floor and the windowless meeting room. I grin and wave at the doorman. 

“You know where you’re going, miss?”

“Yes. I really do.”