Everyone in my family is a calm under pressure type person.
That is not to say we are stoic. My father and I are big babies when we’re sick, or even slightly incapacitated. Dad once passed a kidney stone and told me it was “worse than childbirth,” which I had a hard time imagining could ever be that bad for a man. And if I get so much as a paper cut, it’s as if I’ve lost a limb. Thankfully, I’ve never had to contend with any real illness or infirmity, but I always think if I did, my obituary might read, “She succumbed to her short cowardly battle with cancer,” or whatever.
Anyway, nor are we without our unhinged moments – both Dad and, more so, I have explosive tempers; Mom will allow resentments to simmer for decades before they reach a boil, and then she lets loose. Only my brother, a former Naval aviator, is truly cool as a cucumber. He’s flown in two extended wars. Once he explained to me the logistics of landing on an aircraft carrier, which he’s done hundreds of times, and that alone seemed like enough stress to last a lifetime.
Mom – although raised by an overprotective and chronic worrier single mother – somehow evolved into a spunky fierce little lady. When I was a kid, some guy tried to carjack her Dodge Dart by jumping into the passenger seat and commanding her to drive; my 4’ 10” mother turned to him and calmly said, “Get the hell out of my car.” And he did. Mom is in her late seventies and alone now in her home in Montgomery County, which has the most cases of COVID-19 in Maryland, and reported another death last night.
Mom is acting like a millennial. Two days ago, I called her home phone at 7 am. No answer. Tried her cell. No answer. I tried her again an hour later, and she answered. “Were you OUT?” I demanded. Mom sheepishly admitted she’d gone to Safeway for “senior shopping hour.” This, after my brother and his wife had had enough groceries delivered to her home to last an entire assisted living facility for the summer. I read Mom the riot act. She reluctantly acknowledged her wrongdoing; but in the next breath asked if she could have a friend over?!
As I berated my mother to think about her grandchildren, especially my younger son – thirteen and wrought with worry over the fate of Momo – it dawned on me how consummately our roles were reversed. (Also reminded me of when my then-alive-and-in-her-early-nineties Jewish grandmother beseeched my brother, about to deploy for Operation Desert Storm, “not to get involved.” As if.) Here am I fretting over whatever the hell my elderly mother is up to – sneaking out like a teenager – when really I have no control; just like she must have lost sleep when my brother was at war, or I was stationed overseas, undercover for the CIA.
Before, during and after my time at the CIA, I also have been relatively good in a crisis. When I think about – “who would I want to be stuck in a foxhole with” – my first thought is, myself. I may scream and curse over all the goddamn socks on the floor, but in the face of grave danger or impending doom, I maintain a tone of equanimity. I’ve been in a couple dicey situations in my life from which street smarts and quick-thinking have enabled me to emerge intact.
All that said, I am the first to admit – the coronavirus and its surrounding and, more so, expected consequences – have brought me to my emotional and psychological knees. I am trying to put on a brave face for the kids, but I feel myself like an egg whose shell is cracking.
Here is when I generally call my father – if I’ve accomplished something I think he will be proud of, or on the rare occasions when my shell has in fact completely cracked. This is what I did the other night – called 77-year-old Dad, who lives for the most part self-sufficiently on his farm in West Virginia – and let the yolk spill out.
When I was about 8 or 9, I went spelunking with Maryland Boy Scout Troop #295, for which my father was the Scout Leader. There was a segment in the far interior of the cave that, in order to traverse, you had to put your back against one side of the wall, and your feet against the other, and shimmy across a dark abysmal crevasse. I was too small for my feet to reach the other side, so I lay with my back on my father’s stomach and we slowly inched to “safety.”
At some later point, as we were all on our hands and knees, crawling single file through a small dank tunnel, there was some cautionary chatter about rain, which could cause the cave to flood. This was likely my first bout with claustrophobia that would persist throughout my life; suffice it to say, my heart seized with terror at the thought of the tiny crawl space suddenly filling with water. I remember keeping my eyes fixed on the fluorescent reflector patch of my father’s helmet, and thinking I cannot lose sight of Dad.
Dad doesn’t own a T.V., so all of his knowledge of COVID-19 comes from reading online. At the time of my call to him, West Virginia was the only state not to have reported a case; we both knew that would change in a matter of hours. I broke down to my father, told him that I was having a hard time keeping it all together for the kids. 15, like most teenagers, is taking coronavirus in stride, grateful for the break from school; indignant over and exasperated by my explanations of why he shouldn’t be anywhere near his girlfriend or friends.
Early last week, most local parents adopted a policy of you can go outside in nature, but you have to stay six feet away from everyone else, and you can’t enter stores or homes. This resulted in clusters of teenagers roving without direction through the streets and town like Night of the Living Dead.
At 9:30 PM on one of the first evenings of what I now call Quaran-teen, my 15 and 13 emerged from their now Zoom-based band rehearsal to say they’d made plans with the 17-year-old drummer who drives and owns a car in order to … drumroll please … “go check out some cool places to skateboard.” My response? WTF planet are you living on?! (Luckily the mother of the drummer quashed the idea before we had to get into it.)
We have since learned that the “wandering aimlessly amongst other potentially infected teenagers arrangement” is far from responsible social distancing. Meanwhile, my 13 has returned to my bed; every night, he tosses and turns and cannot fall asleep. We will watch and re-watch countless episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, as he struggles to ease his anxious mind. When he finally can no longer keep his eyes open, he’ll ask for my hand. Perhaps preposterously – since if either of us is already infected, the other surely is too – I give him not my hand but my elbow. Lest he touch his face in the night.
As a parent, you learn over time – what works with your kid. I have learned not to argue with 15; he will always get the last word, and if I leave him be, he will make the right decisions on his own. When he doesn’t, he will learn from his mistakes. I can set as good an example as possible, but I must never tell him what to do. With 13, I must distract; I must joke. Above all, I must not talk about the bogeyman. I must pretend the bogeyman does not exist.
Likewise, my father knows what works with me. Since my emotionally expulsive call, he’s sent me text messages every morning . . . upbeat in nature, but not dismissive of the doomsday reality. Glimpses of the comforting simplicity of his life. This week was sheep shearing on the farm so he sent me early morning pictures of that. I sent him a selfie from the supermarket. Dad is of the generation that doesn’t understand selfies, but in the age of coronavirus, he’s cutting me some slack.
Last night, I had a vivid dream – my father driving my brother and me across The Australian Outback in the beat-up yellow Volvo sedan of my youth. Across an expanse of barren cracked red clay land, Dad drove steady at the wheel, as I – in the front passenger’s seat – suddenly noticed an errant tidal wave, building to our right. An enormous dark wall of water, growing in size and strength, and now curling high above our heads. As the wave began to break, my father said Put your hand on my arm sport, and I did. And he drove, and we somehow miraculously stayed on the road, as the wave crashed and churning water surrounded the car. Dad’s eyes remained fixed forward, and I fixed mine on his profile, and neither of us faltered, and we carried on that way, until I woke, with a start.
In the morning there was this text, “Yesterday was World Poetry Day. It’s not too late to compete with Dad on a two or four line poem relevant to the current state of the earth. Let me know if and when ready to swap. Get the kids to play. D”
And here was my haiku response:
Go to sleep anxious
I wake up in the morning
We are still in hell
I think that will make Dad laugh.
As I sit now in the morning sun, waiting for 13 to rise, so we may go on a bike ride while we still can, I am forced to consider the power and responsibility of parenting. Even when you’ve long since passed the age where you should be caring for your children, as my mother and father have, and really they should be caring for you, you are still and always – a parent. And even when you have children of your own, as long as your parents live, you are still a child.
That is, for me, the underlying and distressing dichotomy this crisis. On the surface, I am a parent; but scrape away the veneer, I am still very much a child. And a frightened one at that.
The (younger) son has risen; it is time to make breakfast and face the day. Whereas every night feels a little closer to dystopia, every morning I wake to the inevitable chirping of the birds. In this new and changing reality, we all – mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, humanity – will carry on.