Yesterday, I took my dog, Toby, for a walk. We have two dogs, but our girl dog, Kona, is older and arthritic and can’t do longer walks anymore. Toby could go for miles, so we sometimes have to walk them separately. Since we’re all home, that’s not a big deal.
It was sunny, and lots of other people were out walking. I never used to see that when I’d walk the dogs. People were at work. If they were home and walking the dogs, they’d go on the Cross Kirkland Corridor, or down to Marina Park. Now, because of coronavirus, leaving the house seems like a dangerous act. You can’t control the environment beyond your house, or your neighborhood. So I stalk the streets of Norkirk, along with everyone else in the neighborhood. We’re like mice in a scientific experiment – roaming the streets, going in circles, staying six feet from each other.
Anyway. I was walking Toby up a hill, and as we crested it, I noticed two women walking toward me, about a block away. We made brief eye contact – no one looks at each other anymore – and without breaking stride or pausing conversation, they stepped off the curb to cross the street. That’s what we do now. We cross the street so we can’t infect each other.
Change is hard. Change takes time. I’ve always heard those things, and I’ve said those things in response to upheavals in my own life. But in the past six weeks, our reality has changed rapidly. And I’m constantly surprised by how quickly the strange has become commonplace, how our new habits have become routine. How I can look back on my attitude from just six weeks past and realize how wrong I was. How arrogant we all were, assuming that a virus could be kept behind invisible borders.
When the school district closed schools for two weeks, I panicked. What was I going to do with an argumentative sixth grader and a super-needy second grader all day? When would I have time for me – for the podcast, for my zillions of errands, for my volunteering, for my exercise? It was the first knife cut in my sense of normalcy, but I’m covered in cuts now. I feel nostalgic for the time when I stressed out over a mere two-week school closure, now that they’re closed until fall.
I’ve started making a list of all the things that felt like a gut punch the first time they occurred. Things that, at first impact, evoked intense feelings of fear, paranoia, and grief. It was hard to believe what you were seeing with your own eyes — masked people standing quietly outside stores, spaced six feet apart. An ambulance showing up at the neighbors, paramedics gowned and gloved as they entered the house. Now, I just observe these things, put my head down, and get on with it.
- Empty store shelves. This still breaks my heart a little bit. The first time I went to a store and saw empty shelves was the Fred Meyer in Totem Lake. Aisle after aisle – toilet paper, peanut butter, beans, rice, flour – wiped out. Seeing those shelves actually took my breath away. I’d seen photos on social media, of course, and on TV. But until I saw it in person, I didn’t register that it could be real.
- Empty highways. I was taking a load of donations over to Seattle on a Friday. It was 3:30 in the afternoon, and typically, the 520 freeway would be bumper-to-bumper. But when I came up the onramp and onto the highway, I was the only car. I felt panic rise in my throat like bile, and I had to do a deep breathing exercise to calm down. It felt like a zombie movie. It felt lonely.
- Erasing things from the schedule. Our March was jam-packed – birthday parties, and charity events, date nights, a trip to California. One by one, as the restrictions tightened, I would erase things off our refrigerator calendar. Evan’s eye appointment? Nope. Haircut appointment? Nope. Karate classes? Nope. I kept the first week of March intact — the last week of school carpool, eyelash extensions, Evan’s art class. I kept it to remind me how busy and different our lives once were. The rest of March was blank.
- Birthdays. Evan’s birthday was March 20, a week after schools were closed, and just a few days before Governor Inslee ordered Washingtonians to “stay home, and stay safe.” I was determined that he have a great birthday, even though we had to cancel his party. I ordered him a cake from Ben and Jerry’s – they assured me they’d
still be open, and if not, they’d call me. I bought all manner of streamers, and a Pokémon banner that said “Happy Birthday.” Steve and I decorated the downstairs, and hung streamers in his doorway to surprise him when he woke up. I badgered his friends’ parents to get their kids to make birthday videos. Some of his friends came by to drop off gifts, and they’d linger over the fence and jabber away, wanting to get it all out in case this was the last visit for a while. Steve went to pick up the cake at Ben and Jerry’s, and they were closed. He hightailed it to Metropolitan Market and grabbed a chocolate mousse cake. We had cake and presents, and Face Timed with the grandparents. And the next day, I fell into a deep funk and could not stop crying.
- Seeing family. I had planned to go to the Bay Area with the boys on March 9. They had a day off from school (before they had ALL the days off from school), and I wanted them to see my parents, and my brothers’ family. My dad has been in frail health for the past year – open-heart surgery, near-kidney failure, and a multiple myeloma diagnosis. I still wanted to come down, but since we were, at the time, at the epicenter of the virus, my dad’s oncologist recommended against it. When my mom told me that, I had a pain in my chest that drained right into my toes. This feeling didn’t go away. I talked to my parents a few days later, when the news from Northern Italy was too horrific to comprehend, and the virus felt like a sinister fog threatening to envelop everyone. “I’m worried I’ll never see you again,” I wept into the phone. And my dad didn’t scoff or tell me I was being dramatic (a common accusation when I was a teen). He and my mom just wept along with me. Actually, this shouldn’t be on the list. Remembering that conversation from a month ago still brings tears to my eyes. It’s not normal for me not to hop on a plane and hug my parents, and it never will be.
- Playgrounds with caution tape. Evan and I went for a walk this morning, between the stupid phonics worksheet and the bullshit time-telling worksheet. We walked past a tot lot that we call “Turtle Park,” because of a turtle statue that this kids climb all over. “I wish I could play there,” Evan said. I hadn’t seen it in awhile, and was sad to see the now-familiar caution tape draped around the swings, the play structure, and the slide. The first time I saw a closed playground, it gutted me. Now, I just pretend not to see the empty playgrounds, the silent sandboxes, the forlorn tennis courts. I just keep going.
When I sit down to think about it, though, I can’t help but wonder: All of this normalizing the abnormal — how is this changing us? What is happening to me when I’m not shocked to see a store full of people wearing masks? Or sneeze-guards at the checkout counter? How are we deteriorating with lack of community contact, and face-to-face interaction? What is happening to my kids’ developing brains when they can’t be near people, and see friends? Is it possible to just spring back to normal once this all over? When so many people have lost their jobs, their nest eggs, and their loved ones to this virus?
During our walk this morning, the world felt very still. The sun was out, the birds were singing, and it was a beautiful, clear day. It’s moments like this where I feel a modicum of hope. That maybe the upside of all this suffering is that our Earth is healing. There are definitely some advantages to living slower, spending time with immediate family. But that’s a post for a different day.