Everything moved so fast in March. On a Monday we were saying, “You know, this has the potential to get really bad.” By the end of the week, we were all working from home and preparing to home school indefinitely, all while eyeing the paper on the roll in the bathroom, trying to guess just how far it would go.
Two weeks later the stark reality came close to home with pay cuts and hearing about some of our favorite musicians dying of this unrelenting virus — but thankfully, our health and our loved ones’ health remains. Everything that seemed certain just a few months ago has now been replaced with question marks. And through all of this, almost like a cruel joke to me because I cannot fully participate in these things, spring is happening, and you two are having the time of your lives. While my eyes are glued to my screen, watching this dystopian story roll out in front of us in real time, little buds and blossoms have appeared, and your love for one another has blossomed as well.
To my youngest: you’ve grown up so fast in the last two months. Maybe you always have grown this fast, but now I am able to see it because I’m with you more now than ever. No longer do you take naps in the afternoon, even though it’s so obvious you could still use one. I used to leave the house every morning for my long commute before you were even awake. I would only see you when I got home in the evening for a couple of hours.
Now, every morning, you seek me out for cuddles while the rest of the house is asleep. Sometimes you fall asleep, too, while cuddling, and I’m magically taken back to a fleeting time when I held you as a sleeping infant. I keep hitting the snooze button, pushing it to the very last possible minute before I have to get us up.
For some reason, the uncertainty of whether or not you really will be starting preschool this fall set me over the edge. I hate to think of your life being put on hold for anything. Then I have to remind myself that this isn’t about me or my family. This is about taking care of all of us. It’s a duty we have to each other to keep us all safe, and preschool starting later or not starting at all is really just a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things.
To my older daughter: you are thriving in this time. Your creativity has really taken over. You made a paper doll for your sister and clothes to go with it. We have stopped going to piano lessons while all of this is going on, and now you and your father are working together on how to play “All My Lovin’” in the Beatles piano book he gave you as a present last Christmas.
There has been a lot of talk on social media about how we are all just surviving right now and to not feel guilty about not creating that masterpiece. But you, my older daughter, wrote an eight-chapter book about a girl who learns to ride a horse.
Me? I’ve successfully lain in bed while eating Tootsie Rolls that I’ve hidden from you, while quietly staring at the ceiling, all to stop the constant worry in my head over something as serious as what will happen if one of us or your grandparents get the virus, to what if all of my favorite small businesses that I’ve watched slowly multiply over the years in our small town are going to close?
We both cried when I told you that you wouldn’t be going back to second grade this year. It feels as if you’ve been robbed of a part of your childhood, but I can’t let you see that I feel that way. I can sympathize with you, but I then need to pretend that everything is going to be fine. A lot of being a parent is a lot of pretending.
I’ve taken to doing jigsaw puzzles, and it has helped me. You can only accomplish the end goal of the puzzle by putting one piece together at a time, and that’s how I’m trying to remind myself to think about these days that feel so much like one long, endless, rainy day — to face them one at a time, not as a whole.
I am constantly learning how to work from home while you are also at home. I’ve always wanted to work at home and to spend more time with you, just not like this. I feel like I am constantly ignoring you. You are so caught up in your own imaginations that you go to the other end of the house together for an hour, and I can hear your shrieks of laughter that make me smile, but I also wish I could join in. When I check on you, you whisper to each other a secret you don’t want your mother to know. Or you’ll come down the hallway later with the younger’s hair in 30 different barrettes, while the older informs me that her name is now “Chloe,” and she is the princess’ (the one with the 30 barrettes, obviously) house servant.
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I am constantly distracted when I am around you, and you deserve better. While I’m working, the younger gives me a play-by-play of how she’s playing with the dollhouse, to which I mumble “uh-huh,” while trying to concentrate. My older will run up to me and ask me to braid her hair, and I have to make myself take a breath and say “sure” instead of “can’t you see I’m working?” When I’m not working, and I’m staring at a smaller screen in my hand, scanning the latest article of terrible things happening in the world, I mumble “uh-huh” to your constant “watch this” and endless questions. I need to do better.
My own mother tells me that you won’t remember the bad times of this pandemic. You will remember lots of family time, long walks in the woods, some of the new independence you have gained and the bond of sisterhood you have growing daily. That is most likely true, but I also cannot allow myself to romanticize this time. What is happening in our country right now is truly horrible. When I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back to sleep, I see nightmarish visions of your future that I have constructed in my mind. Something like scenes out of “Mad Max: Fury Road” — a movie I haven’t even seen. But all the dystopian novels I’ve read and movies I’ve seen in the past now star the two of you as the main characters at three o’clock in the morning when I can’t sleep. You wearing masks, searching for water in a desert landscape, on the run from something, all because we, your elders, couldn’t get it together for your generation.
But one thing remains the same when I picture your dystopian future — you are always together. You are always there for each other. I worry, as the country begins to open again, about forgetting what any of this was like. It’s my duty to make sure you don’t forget what this pandemic has taught us about our government and our health care system and our obsession with materialism over humanity. All of us need to do better for your future. I used to joke about it, but now I think I finally understand why my grandmother would give us small rations of food. She would ask you if you wanted something to drink, and then only fill your glass halfway and walk away.
Your great-grandparents’ generation lived through the Depression and several major wars — things that were only history lessons in my life. They were constantly learning to bend themselves to learn how to be resilient and how to make it through the toughest of times, which might have included learning to only pour half a glass of milk instead of a full one, because they never knew what tomorrow would bring. As my friend Leslie said, “History looks really weird when you’re living through it.”
Right now, we are being forced to do things we have never had to do before, and for some, the privileged lives they have lived only for themselves up to this point are keeping them from understanding what it is to do for others. Overall, we seem to be failing at this new challenge. We are a country that prides itself on trampling over each other for material things on a designated day every year right after we supposedly give thanks for all that we already have.
So it’s not that much of a surprise that we are now hoarding toilet paper and thinking being told to stay home and wearing a mask in public is a personal insult rather than a plea to help others — I have to teach the two of you to understand the difference.
While I’m doing the dishes or giving the younger a bath, the phrase “All My Lovin’’ is played over and over slowly, with building confidence, by my older’s little talented hands while practicing the piano. I find myself humming along or singing it in a goofy voice to my younger to make her laugh, and even she joins in at the chorus.
We’re all walking around singing “All My Lovin’” out loud or in our heads at our house in the evenings, and it occurred to me that is truly the only constant thing I can give you in this life. There is always going to be some unknown challenge to face. There will always be some version of a pandemic in our lives. All I can do is give you all my loving through it all, one piece at a time, one day at a time.
•Kelly Strautmann lives out in the country of Cameron, West Virginia, and proofreads in the city of Wheeling. She has a supportive and talented husband and two ridiculous daughters who keep her busy and full of love.