March 27, 2020
By Ekta R. Garg
As I sit here writing this, my kids are in school.
No, not that kind of school. The kind where they get to wear regular shirts but pajama bottoms. The kind where they see their teachers’ homes, because everyone’s in a different location but in the same place online.
The kind that separates the majority of the population due to COVID-19.
Last week Thirteen and Eleven were on spring break, but it was a vacation out of the Twilight Zone. On the Friday before their break started, the school had announced it would go exclusively online once we came back from our days off. By then the governor of Illinois, too, had asked everyone to shelter in place.
So that’s what we did last week. And this week. And, now, for the foreseeable future.
Now, mind you, we didn’t have grand spring break plans before all this even started. Our family had no travel plans. I was supposed to go to Louisiana for a wedding, but other than that were going to stay home. Catch up on our sleep. Watch movies. The girls both need hair trims, so I’d earmarked that for vacation. The middle school dance was supposed to be in April, and we’d discussed dress shopping.
We did catch up on sleep and watch movies, but that was the only thing that felt normal.
We didn’t leave the house. On the second or third day, Thirteen received word from some of her classmates of an online chat in Google Hangouts. She spent hours every day talking to her friends, all of them teasing one another and comparing notes on their experiences at home.
Eleven moped a bit when she heard her big sister’s voice ring through the house with excitement. I encouraged her several times to email her friends and video chat with them. They’d all be home, I reasoned, so she had a pretty good chance of catching someone.
Although she did talk to some of them, by the end of the week she’d hit her limit for the whole situation. I think we all breathed a sigh of relief when school started Monday online. Sure, it was weird not making the short drive to the school building, but it was closer to “normal” than last week.
On Monday, at the end of the school day, Eleven came downstairs sparkling with energy. She and Thirteen talked about how organized everything was. Her face exuded relief and gratitude to see her teachers and to follow the same routine she does during the normal school day.
That’s due solely to our amazing administration and teachers; they worked hard all during spring break to make this transition as smooth as possible.
By last night, however, the energy and optimism had diminished. Like the rest of us—like the rest of the world—Eleven is not just tired but weary. She wants to do normal things, and here the definition of normal, as all of you know, is incredibly basic.
Last night during dinner, without even thinking about it, I said, “I was supposed to be in Madison today.”
Madison as in Wisconsin where I go every year for my favorite writers’ conference; I was supposed to be there this week.
And just like that, like a series of blocks tumbling to the ground, we started mentioning in short bursts all the things we were supposed to be doing this week. Eleven took it the hardest. I suppose that’s my fault; I shouldn’t have made the comment about Madison or that Eleven was supposed to be starting her soccer season this week or that both she and Thirteen were supposed to have their school’s quarterly arts showcase last night.
Yeah, now that I’m thinking about it, it definitely was not my finest parenting moment.
“Coach was going to start me as forward,” she said, disappointment in her face and voice. “We were going to send off [all the senior players]. This was going to be their last season.”
The more she let all these things out, the more stunned she looked. It was as if she hadn’t gotten around to counting exactly how many life events had skewed to “abnormal” during this time. I tried to salvage the situation at one point.
“Just yesterday…or was it the day before?” I interrupted myself. “Anyway, I filled out a survey from the park district in which they asked if you could play in May or June or, if they made the season longer in the fall, if you could play. I said yes to everything.”
She seemed a little mollified by that, but not by much, and even as I said the words I knew how hollow the promise sounded.
Thirteen has her share of disappointments too. For the school’s Maker Faire (in which kids learn a new skill or improve an existing one and then do something creative with it,) she was building a dragon. Originally all Maker Faire projects were being completed at school, but when the shelter-in-place order ramped up I brought the dragon’s head home.
But this was no ordinary dragon. He was going to be a major prop in the eighth grade play that the school produces every single year. And Thirteen, our improv-loving actress, was committing her lines and the music to memory as if she were premiering on Broadway.
There was also the middle school dance, her last at this school before she moved on to high school, and the talent show. Not to mention her dance recital has now been postponed indefinitely. In some ways she, should have been more dejected.
Last night, though, she didn’t speak up, and she didn’t seem overly upset by anything. Instead it was Eleven who needed an encouraging word, and we offered many. I could see in my younger child’s face the same questions we’ve all been asking: how long is this going to last? Are we ever going to be able to see our friends face to face again?
When does life go back to being “normal”?
None of us know, of course, but my husband and I reassured Eleven as best we could. He’s got his entire medical career to back him up. I’m a mom, and a former cheerleader to boot, so I have optimism and encouragement in spades. Acknowledging for Eleven that we’re just as worried and anxious as she is for life to go back to normal made her steel herself against what she knew might happen next: the dreaded parent hug.
She finished sweeping the kitchen, which is her chore every night after dinner, and escaped to the solitude of her room. Thirteen finished wiping down the counters and strolled upstairs after her. I washed the dishes and went up to say good night to them both.
Eleven had already fallen asleep, but Thirteen was still awake and I asked her how she was doing.
“Fine,” she said.
“We talked a lot about how [Eleven] is feeling about all this, but we didn’t really talk about what you’re thinking. If you need someone to talk to, you can always come to me.”
“I know,” she said in that quick way teens use to get their parents to stop bugging them.
“Hey, it’s either Daddy or me,” I joked, “and you know what you’re going to get there.”
“Yeah,” she said with a chuckle, “I know.”
This time I heard the sincerity in her voice. She and both Eleven know they can talk to us at any time, about anything. After all, in this time of shelter-in-place, that’s what we have, right? Each other. Time. And, within the confines of our homes, space to talk.
All of us, I know, are eager for this to pass, to get back to life at its regular speed. I’ve had a few moments this week where it’s all overwhelmed me, like it did Eleven. But I’ve also gained a lot of comfort from the fact that when we say “we’re all in this together,” this is one of the few times in history that the “all” is literal.
So let’s stay strong. For each other. For the kids. For the everyone.