So there was this one time that there was a Pandemic. You remember. No, not the Bird one. The other one. No, not the Swine one either. It was the COVID-19 one. The one that went after the elderly and the immuno-compromised and those with pre-existing conditions.
It was basically the American health care system, in viral form.
It swept into the U.S. after Super Tuesday, just as the yellow daffodils were popping up on the side of the highway near our house, signaling the end of a very long and wet winter. Our middle son Archie had just returned to school after a week-long bout with the flu and the warmer spring air was suggesting that we might be on the other side of an extremely blah winter full of illness. In total with our three kids, we’d spent at least three weeks homebound with varying ailments and had lost just under 10,000 brain cells watching YouTube Kids on our family’s “sick and traveling” tablet. By my count, we had about 16 more chances to play Baby Shark before we’d need to start thinking very seriously about watching a TED Talk on Neurogensis, as a family.
It’s not that I didn’t want to stay home and take care of my family while they were ailing. I’m not a monster. But when backed into a corner and kept from participating in what I would consider my “normal life activities,” for too long, I do have a certain knack for becoming a Momster.
A Momster, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, is a mother who is about two seconds away from her breaking point. She does all of her Motherly duties through gritted teeth. She says, “Wow, that’s cool Honey,” with dead eyes and colors pictures using only broken black and brown crayons. Her heart is still in the right place of course, it’s just that it’s gone into “sleep” mode after too many consecutive hours of hard core, in-the-trenches parenting.
As COVID-19 threatened to and then began shutting down the world around us – first school, then sports, then our beloved spring break trip to St. Simon’s Island, I could feel my insides curdling into a bile-filled roux of contempt over all the panicking, germ-infested people around me, the first sure-fire sign of a slow decent into the realm of Momsterhood. Was I foolish to have believed we’d all collectively agreed to the basic social construct of fastidious hand washing during cold and flu season? Especially after my children had been so sick recently? Hadn’t they seen on social media? Didn’t they know how much I needed this boil of a winter to be over?
Despite my efforts to keep things business-as-usual around our house, it was impossible to flip open my computer without an incessant barrage of red CNN notifications popping up in the right-hand corner, alerting me to an “IMMENENT INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL BAN” or a “TOILET PAPER-FUELD COSTCO MELEE.” It was becoming apparent that people were more concerned about scoring dirt-cheap travel deals and being able to maintain their “devil may care” wiping style, than the actual pandemic itself. “Screw the population of Earth; I need my Charmin 2-ply.”
But what was worse than reading about all the Doomsday-ers hoarding paper products and looting every last Kroger for hand sanitizer and frozen meats was the fact that I was, secretly – one of them. Only instead of joining in the chaos in the midst of “strongly suggested social distancing” period, I’d done my stockpiling in secret, weeks before. Back when COVID-19 was merely the “coronavirus” far, far, FAR away in China.
Like a deranged suburban squirrel, I’d hoarded rice, beans, a bunch of those giant milk cartons of Goldfish and a literal gross of granola bars into every nook and cranny of our family’s kitchen pantry. We had enough Jif peanut butter to last through at least two apocalypses and sufficient frozen, pre-cut veggies to feed a small Norwegian village. If somehow the germs made the 7,500-mile trek all the way to Franklin, Tennessee – we’d be ready. Or at least, we’d have enough to be able to “bored eat” during a nation-wide lockdown.
It pains me to say it now, but I was proud of my emergency preparedness, especially because I’d done it ahead of the curve. While others were mentally throwing elbows at each other from six feet away at the grocery store, I was laying on my couch in fuzzy slipper socks, taking a mental inventory of our rations:
4 bags long grain brown rice
18 jars black beans
18 jars pinto beans
4 loaves of whole wheat bread
4 family-sized jars of peanut butter
15 cans of tuna
…the list went on and every time I reviewed it in my mind, I would get a twisted little Hoarder’s High that said, “My family has enough. My family is okay. I am a genius and a saint for taking care of us like this.”
And I would stretch out a little more on the couch and congratulate myself by eating a celebratory cup of not-part-of-the-rations Veggie Straws and surfing Netflix. Though strangely, soon after my Hoarder’s High gloating would send a wave of dopamine to reward my little suburban squirrel brain with feelings of happiness, and safety, a tsunami of cortisol would wash right over my little self-congratulating soiree and send me cascading into a pit of total anxiety and despair:
“The protein content of peanut butter is 8g per serving. But what it we run out of bread? Did someone just cough? I hope we have enough beans. Is it wrong that I only bought supplies for a pescatarian diet? Should I check on our neighbors? DID SOMEONE JUST COUGH?”
No amount of preparedness, canned-food or otherwise could have equipped me for the worry spirals my brain could concoct during a pandemic. And oh boy, there were some doozies, usually around 11pm, after I’d given myself permission to “check the news,” which actually meant scrolling through the chum bucket of my Facebook news feed to click on the scariest headlines I could find. And I knew better. I’d been living with the oft-crippling fear of disease since my oldest Oliver was born. Every bump, every cough, every “oh-weird-what’s-that” would instantly conjure images of our family sitting in an oncologist’s office or rushing to the emergency room. It got so bad at one point that I was having our sons’ checked for strep throat monthly, even when they weren’t showing symptoms (because as every good hypochondriac knows – latent strep bacteria = Rheumatic fever) and they’d tested positive so often we were on our way to an appointment with an ENT to discuss potentially having all four of their tonsils removed – a conversation I was in knots over, because I’d heard so many horror stories about potential tonsillectomy complications.
Waiting in the ENT’s office, my husband Brian and I blew up surgical gloves for our two oldest children, while we waited for the doctor to come in for our appointment. We’d heard over and over again that Dr. W was “the best”, which could’ve accounted for why we’d been waiting for over 45 minutes, but four people can only be expected to bat makeshift balloons back and forth to each other in the small space for so long before they flipping the “balloons” upside down and pretending to milk them like cow udders becomes a necessity. The boys were convulsing in giggles when Dr. W finally walked in looking a lot more like one of my favorite characters from Mad Men (not Don Draper) than an angel of death. He examined each of our boys separately, pausing only to listen to my dutifully collected case histories of each boy and type them into his laptop. His fingers danced across the keyboard as if each fingertip had been outfitted with a tiny tap shoe. The noise was oddly soothing; like the aural equivalent of one of those spidery-looking scalp massager things that everybody loves, but nobody owns.
When his fingers finished their last shuffle-ball-change across the keys, Dr. W looked up from the screen and adjusted his square-rimmed glasses back up onto the bridge of his nose. Maybe it was just because it was what I wanted to hear, but as he was explaining the ins-and-outs of the tonsillectomy process, I started to feel like he wasn’t at all interested in yanking out pieces of our children’s anatomy without a little more “wait and see.” When he’d finished his cost benefit analysis of choosing to move forward with surgery, he leaned back to crisscross his arms over a very not haute dark brown tie and said, “I think you need to decide what illness looks like for your family.”
I can decide? I have a choice? I don’t have to swan dive into a pit of despair at the first sign of a sniffle or scratchy throat?
When we got home that afternoon, Brian and I took out a pad of paper and wrote down four different things that would raise the alarm of “SICK” in our house.
1. A sore throat that prevents eating and drinking.
2. Vomiting or diarrhea for more than 48 hours
3. Fever of 100+ for more than 3 days
4. Difficulty breathing
I took the list and stuck it to our family calendar and there it stayed - my North Star.
And then the pandemic happened. This invisible, devil virus that had us all “sheltering in place,” after weeks and weeks of being told “not to panic.” And in the months since our ENT visit, I had been making really great progress towards not panicking. In fact, I’d gotten pretty good at it. I needed to rely on my list less and less and in a mad dash to remember a macaroni and cheese recipe one night, I had even used the back of it to write down ingredients and then had inadvertently thrown it away.
But then as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases began to climb, I found myself longing to look at my list again – to have something true to set my eyes on. I was constantly on the verge of tears; keeping it together in front of the kids, but falling apart against the inside of my closed bedroom door.
One March night, as I lay wide awake simultaneously planning a homeschooling lesson and repeatedly breathing in deeply for 10 seconds to confirm that my lungs were still functioning properly, I considered re-writing the “Sick in Our Family” list and sticking it to our now-blank family calendar. Maybe it would help me remember not to lunge for the Lysol with every little cough and to stop scrubbing my hands until the skin on the back of my thumbs bled – I mean for God’s sake, I hadn’t even left the house in over a week! But just as I’d convinced myself that the list was what I needed, and that it would solve all my worrying and fretting over the global pandemic that was breathing down my neck, I realized that it was never about the list at all.
It was about deciding what something meant for our family.
I had to power to decide if this time would be a time of fear. Of stockpiling and worrying and consuming cable news or I could decide that whatever happened, it would be a time of healing. Of growing and playing and consuming way too many shows on Netflix. And maybe we would get sick. And maybe we wouldn’t. Maybe friends and family and neighbors would get sick – and that would all just be the worst, but I wasn’t going to let the possibility of that happening win. And it wasn’t about manifesting my own destiny or the power of positive thinking or any of that sparkly bullshit, it was about making a decision that no matter what happened, fear was not allowed in my 6’ bubble.
So we hunkered down and we social distanced. But we did not fear. As I type this, our kids still have T-128 days until they are even allowed back inside their elementary school and our days are full of many things – snacks, makeshift scavenger hunts, forts, snacks, walks, FaceTime calls with our 2-D friends, and more snacks – we keep pretty busy.
We don’t have any time for fear.