Around and around, no exit yet

Every Friday morning on our call, my therapist W. asks me, “Have you tried to do any writing?” We are speaking, of course, about the pandemic.

“Not really,” I say. “Some lists.”

This week I went to the old Sears location at the Natick Mall.

I had an appointment. Though I read the instructions three times before I went, and I looked at the map, as I got closer to the mall I saw that my efforts had been unnecessary.

The signage was profuse and helpful. Sandwich boards with arrows directed me to parking, even when I was still on the main access road. More of them told me to wait in my car until no more than 10 minutes before my appointed time. Other signs directed me from parking and funneled me into the main entrance.

I went from designated person to designated person, a chain of steps leaving nothing to user (mis)interpretation.

Finally, at my station, I rolled up my left sleeve (short, nothing confining); I answered a few questions; I winced at the sudden stinging pain in my shoulder cap. I breathed out.

As I sat in the post-waiting area for my allotted 15 minutes, I marveled at the calm order and the comfort of a protocol that’s going exactly as it was planned. I looked around at people, trying to gauge ages and co-morbidities. Blank.

“This is about not dying,” I suddenly thought. Usually, when I get my annual flu shot, I think about my contribution to public health along with protections to my own health. I had never before dwelled on dying or not dying.

It occurred to me that this is what the entire last year has been: trying not to sink down into thoughts about dying and not dying.

Two nights later, when my left arm hurt like hell and I had an unprecedented headache as well as fatigue and a very low mood, I texted my youngest sibling, who had preceded me in the vaccine quest. “How did you feel?”

His symptoms had been similar. He added, “Low mood/fatigue sure but I get that lately anyways so hard to tell if it was from vaccine.”

Have you also been embarrassed lately by your lack of happiness? Really, I am fine, and this should be enough in the pandemic context. I have a job with benefits and a place to live. My workplace (though virtual) is positive or at least benign. I have food and love, and no one whom I love has died in the last year. Almost every day I get exercise. I try to salute the sun when I am outside.

Yet the facts of my life cannot overcome tedium, worry, and an empty tank.

In our weekly meeting, I check in with my boss, B., how’s it going. He asks me the same. Last Tuesday I sang a little, “The long and winding road….” Every week we look for metaphors and cultural references to capture this hell that’s not really hell for us. He asked, “Did you ever see European Vacation? He can’t get used to driving on the opposite side of the road, and there’s a long scene where they spend eight hours driving around and around inside a rotary, not able to get out.”

Here we are, in a rotary, around and around. No exit yet.

I don’t even know if I have the desire in me anymore to miss anything. The hunger has become deadened. If you forced me, though, in some icebreaker activity to say what I miss I could come up with something: sitting at a bar having a drink and a snack, my family the Kokes, going to a live show with my three adult children.

I feel as though we’ve crossed an ocean in a boat and can’t go back. We can write letters and send them, and who knows how long it will take for the letters to reach their destination or if a letter will come back. We are like travelers to a new land, forced out of the old one.

We left home, and yet here we are, in the same place.

There have been birthdays. Two weeks ago my youngest child, Grace, celebrated her 21st birthday. Though I also have a 28 year old and 25 year old, suddenly I am the parent of three adult children. My life is in a new stage. If you are a parent, you’ll know when you get there. This is the end of the innocence (theirs and yours), which has been a long time coming.

How will we get out of this period we are all going through? For a long long time I’ve been feeling as though we’re living through the End of Days, but now I’m imagining it as just a winter period, a hibernation, or an Ice Age of sorts. Life is coming back, for those of us who are still alive.

I am so so sorry for people who have lost a loved one or dear colleague or dear student to the coronavirus. You are like civilians on the front lines of a battle, and you were made vulnerable. There was nothing you could do. I imagine you are looking back all the time and wondering, “What could we have done?” You wish desperately that you could have saved your loved one by some personal intervention or action of your own.

It’s very hard to realize and accept we are not that powerful. I offer you compassion and I hope you will forgive yourself.

Looking through my phone for any pictures I’ve taken that could illustrate this time (and this blog post), I see I’ve hardly taken any photos beyond ones of my dog. I have taken screenshots of clothing in online catalogs that I haven’t bought. Aspirational? “Oh, I’ll wear this someday.”

Meanwhile, I have my uniform. And I sit at my desk that overlooks the neighbors’ yard. There is also the shed and the woods. Over my desk I’ve hung a calendar to cross off days as they pass. It helps me orient myself to the actual day and date as it’s happening.

I have so much work to do, and I’m doing it. Every day I wonder: What is it for?

There is this photo of Grace, taking a turn driving on January 29 on our way to Bronxville to bring her back to college. In the fall, she lived in a solitary room in an Airbnb run by retired faculty members. She wanted to be as close to campus as possible, though campus wasn’t really open and there wasn’t a room for her there. This semester, she got a dorm room. (Long, side story: she moved out a couple of weeks later, into a rooming house, when infections on campus surged.)

I am proud that all three of my children are safe, competent drivers. The feeling, honestly, is akin to the one I felt when all three of them could read, as though they were junior citizens in a world they could now participate in. (I mean, reading is SO MUCH.) Actors, with agency.

Here’s Grace, driving herself and me into some piercing, late afternoon winter sun. She was also the DJ, and a song by Ida Maria seemed fitting at the moment.

We went in the direction of the place that Grace wanted to be, though she understood that only in small ways would it be what she wanted, and what she had first hoped when she planned her college journey. It’s also not what I had envisioned for my child, when I saw the future opening up in front of her, as I did for Lydia and Eli too.

Life always intervenes. It thwarts and blinds us. If we can, we adjust. We drive on. Eventually, we get to a place. We stay there for a while and look for our people, our comforts.

This has been a narrow year, with experiences winnowed to their smallest amounts: one visit, one friend, one meal, one walk, one book, one day or one week. It has also been a year of lessons, the biggest one maybe something you come to understand when you’re past the middle of your life: there is no big destination, no place where you have it all or come to understand you’ve made it.

In our family chat, my sister Emily recently texted something like this: “Hey, we all made it through a day. And we’ll wake up tomorrow and have another one.”

You too, everyone. You too.

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