Sorry or Safe or Both


Soon I’m to have an essay published in a magazine, the first time in about 4 years, and it’s peculiar because the essay was written before COVID-19 became a global concern. I remember the first round of editing in a coffeeshop R and I like in Golden. My partner is one who becomes interested in a subject and reads everything he can about it. He has a true gift for absorbing information and then synthesizing it for others without losing the nuance or conflating it. I remember in the coffeeshop he told me about what was going on in China. He kept updating me. I kept editing. The contagiousness of this virus struck me as being significant, compared to, say, the flu, but no one else appeared to be worried, so I assumed there must be something I don’t understand. Which is true. And not true.

Then it’s like everything changed overnight. As we did our last in person grocery shopping trip, I thought about the drive to behave as though everything is normal. I thought about not wanting to appear irrational, to the extent of going along with others when it doesn’t seem right. Two of Lyra’s teachers were out sick the last day we brought her to school and I felt myself go cold with the question, “Do they know if it’s the flu? Is it COVID-19?” I didn’t ask. I just added that I hoped they would feel better soon and looked at my daughter. Love makes your eyes desperate to build a protective layer around the subject of their gaze. My eyes lit a candle and it burned so brightly that I can feel the prickly heat on my retinas. Later, we found they had the flu and I was relieved that I didn’t express any concern that would’ve probably been read as ridiculous.

When you’re accustomed to being sorry for feeling, it’s hard to lean into the idea of safety. It simply doesn’t seem real.

Not that I would have behaved much differently. But would I have been able to write that essay? I don’t think so. Does that mean anything? Not sure.

There’s a border between before and after, as though the thinking itself could be contagious, could spread in all directions. Someone set off fireworks one night outside our apartment building and the explosions immediately turned me into a protective, hunched creature, gripping my daughter tightly and shielding her head with my arms. It took some time to ease my breathing. She was alarmed. I tried to explain the noise, my response. I overreacted. I thought we were in danger, but we weren’t. She’s confused, issuing question after question.

Several friends have commented that it’s surreal for so much normalcy to exist alongside staggering changes. In the town we used to live in, the city had to remove basketball hoops from parks so that people would stop meeting up to play. Last week my Instagram feed was littered with photos of caution-taped playgrounds. My friends who are stay-at-home parents to children under 5 or those with chronic illness report not much change in their day to day lives, aside from where there is increased risk.

Children my daughter’s age are already navigating risk assessment, mostly through the actions they perform with their bodies. I admit to feeling sorry for kids with parents who don’t let them climb anything at the playground. I am not surprised when they are much older than my daughter and yet have significantly lower physical intelligence, as well as an inability to cope when dealing with a sudden fall. They seem so devastated, so betrayed. They stop playing.

I haven’t yet successfully explained risk assessment for a pandemic. I am not sure how to explain it to myself. The other night I was strongly considering the risk involved to acquire brownie ingredients and ice cream, which seems like the most idiotic and relatable plot point for an apocalyptic movie. In a wry voice, I could make the joke, I always knew carbs would kill me. Yet I find myself deeply annoyed by people who won’t social distance (not can’t, but won’t). I’m angry and afraid for people with higher risk of death, for anyone who literally can’t afford to be sick. And I didn’t go anywhere. I wonder what I would do if I was dying and wanted to tell my daughter goodbye. If she was dying, I know that I would be willing to risk my own sickness and death to be with her until the end. I would fight anyone who tried to stop me. Actually fight them.

Risk evaluation fluctuates so much from moment to moment. Given that I was already at home for years and that R could work from home prior, some days feel obscenely “normal”. There are people walking their dogs alone in the spring evenings. Cars whoosh by, though less of them. Still, I don’t think I could write what I wrote three months ago.