The First Days

The world was too much with us, late and soon. The air is a miasma, filling us with panic every time we step out the door, into the hallway, the elevator, the park. We don’t know where it comes from, how it’s spreading, only that it’s ruthless, and relentless. We can’t breathe. Every day we are alive we come closer to death, this is true. But now it seems death is sweeping through the city. Will our door be next? We know, people recover. We know, it’s like a bad cold, mostly. We know. But we also know they don’t know anything yet.

We flee. Is this brave? No. Is it right? We only know it is for our children. And they are all that matter.

When we arrive, it is one of the first beautiful, warm days of spring. Speeding out of New York City, we are jumpy and exhilarated. We are escaping, and we feel guilty leaving for our friends and loved ones behind. But not enough not to go.

Prior to having kids, we would have stuck it out. We’ve stuck it out before. But the tension and fear are compounded in the small space, and though we may be suffering, it is our children paying the price.

I was once in a car crash during a blizzard. We were in a taxi on Bleecker Street, heading up towards Jane Street. As we approached the light at Hudson, the car began to skid. “We’re going to crash!” we cried, as the car spun. “We’re going to crash!” And still, we didn’t. We kept saying it anyway. Finally, we did. In March, that’s what the city felt like. A slow motion car crash. The wave is coming. We can see it off in the distance; in Italy, in Spain, in China. It is just a matter of when the deluge arrives. Like a tsunami, it starts smaller than you think, before engulfing the world.

It is no punishment to be there either, on that first warm Friday. The car pulls to a stop, and we tumble out, the boys flying around the fields, beating their arms like wings, aiming into the sky, as we lay on our backs in the grass, and let the sun kiss our faces. It feels like life.

On the car ride up, I’d gotten a call, that two of my team have been furloughed. It is a warning bell that I hear clearly, but I put it to the side, because I can breathe again for a minute. If this is to be how we quarantine, ok. The lake is dappled with light, and we turn to it, watching the day draw to a close. The children fall into bed, and we do too. We are so lucky. We are so lucky. We are so lucky. For a minute, it’s ok to be lucky, right? We just have to keep saying so. Don’t get the wrong idea. We are lucky.

The weather doesn’t hold.

It turns cold and dark. A wind arrives that slams into the house and shakes it. We huddle in the warmest places, building fires, playing games, baking things. The weekdays are hard; endless video meetings, each of us wearing the strain of fear on our faces, frustration at even the idea of the word “balance.” Your family is your priority, but you need to do your job to support them, right? How is this going to work? There is joy but we work for it and it is hard won and fleeting. But we are still so lucky. We know it. We are so lucky. But we are not happy.

The days are long and dark and turn into nights. The ground is frozen. No one wants to venture outside. It is April.

Where there should be buds and softening breezes, there is driving wind and icy rain. Where there should be early sightings of warblers there are only blackbirds, hunkered down in the trees, chattering. There are no hyacinths. There are no tulips. There are bare black branches against a gray sky. Where there should be gentle days, there is only isolation, fear, and sadness. Each day passes in a blur. Who has a meeting? Where is William? At what time? Where is William? Who will teach kindergarten? Where is William? Did Edward finish his work? Where is William? Where is William.

The sun declines to come out. William is where he pleases to be. A two year old gone feral.

At six o’clock we gather together for dinner. It is either hamburgers or hamburgers and sometimes steak. It has to be easy and it has to be fast. We don’t have the energy for anything else. Rob and I sink into our chairs. One drink a week becomes one drink a night, or two, but who’s counting? We FaceTime family and friends as the sun sinks behind us. We open the doors when the sun comes out, and let the freezing air chill us to our bones.

The news from home is terrifying. Our beloved nanny’s husband is sick with every symptom; but not sick enough to get a test, they tell him. Does he have it? Will she get sick? Will we? We tick off every day that we don’t develop symptoms. A sneeze creates panic, a cough-a near delirium of fear. As we watch our screens, the numbers of infected crescendo upward and upward and upward. On April 7th, nearly 800 people die in a single day in NYC. We wait to hear if Gonzalo’s fever has broken. It has! But it’s back. And it’s worse. And he’s sick. And my Aunt, in her 80s, gets sick. And her daughter, my cousin gets sick. And one of my dearest friends, in Madrid, gets sick with her husband, in quarantine with her two small children. And another dear friend, in London, may have it. We don’t know the end of the story yet. We can’t feel relief that they- somehow- all will feel better. We don’t know how lucky we will be; only how lucky we are.

On April 10th, it snows.

On mornings, when it’s Rob’s turn to work, I take the kids for meandering rides in the car, to kill the time, when I should be working too. It’s too cold to play. They love it, and then they hate it, and then we sing songs and I try to make them laugh while not crashing. We don’t stop anywhere. We see bald eagles, and crows. The heat is up. The air is dry. Our hands are peeling.

Rob drives to the city once a week to feed the frogs, a birthday present to Edward last fall, a lifetime ago. We talk about letting them go. We decide we can’t do it. Who are we if we do? These creatures, so small, so sharp and bright… who are we to let them simply die? Who made us gods? It’s abhorrent. We’ve made a commitment to them. He makes the drive.

Going and coming, he worries about getting stopped. “You have New York plates, sir.” No one ever does. The traffic is light: two hours there, pizza, sleep, feed, and back again the next morning. He comes back with updates. The city is so quiet, an actual ghost town, filled with the shades of normalcy flitting hither and thither; people on the street, taxis, school buses, packed subway cars, Broadway shows, bustling restaurants, children on playgrounds, tourists clogging midtown, hot dog carts, groups of kids horsing around on the sidewalk, department stores, Bleecker Street. The ghosts of our past selves.

The nights he is gone feel like the longest ones. I set the alarm as the wind flies across the lake, knocking at the windows, peering in at us. The boys, warmly tucked in their beds, must look like delectable treats to the cold’s wolfish eyes. I remember the story of Owl, who lets winter in. Winter sweeps in the door, freezes Owl’s pea soup, runs up the stairs, and tumbles out the cozy fire. Winter is acomin’ in, let us sing goddamn. I curl into bed with my work computer and like an automaton, generate decks, endless decks, and drive my team crazy with emails, belated responses to urgent matters… do they matter though? What is the meaning of urgent when you are at the end of the world?

It snows again on April 16th.

I am in charge of groceries, once we are out of our two weeks of quarantine. Going to the supermarket is fraught. I wear gloves and a buff over my face as a mask. It’s a strange dance, giving strangers their distance, while racing through the store. The calculus is not hard; you have to get everything needed in one swoop, stocking up for as long as possible, in as short an amount as time as possible. The net result is that any desire to cook anything interesting leaches out of me. I grab, I run, I go. Hamburger, hamburger, hamburger, chicken, steak. Frozen French Fries. Don’t forget the wine.

On the drive home, I deflate as the adrenaline seeps out of my body. My hands crack with hand sanitizer. But I listen to the radio and in my car, and life feels like life. An old life I’d forgotten about, the life of driving in a car alone, singing loudly to yourself, full of cares yet careless. Of being 18, and not knowing what the future was going to look like. I let the nostalgia happen, and honestly? It feels so good. She’s a good girl. Loves her mama. Loves Jesus, and America too. Am I Jerry McGuire?

In the mornings now, and evenings too, a fresh start. If it’s not raining, icing, or snowing heavily, I take the kids outside, bundled in our boots and coats, and we “perambulate the property”. You can kill an hour doing this, though I don’t want to kill a thing, especially not time. At my back I always hear Time’s wing’d chariot hurrying near. We consider the blackbirds in their raucous glory. The frosty mornings give way to misty ones. One Friday, deep in the month, three bluebirds appear atop an apple tree, augurs of another season to come. I say it like a mantra: under the cold, it’s still an April sun. It has to get warm. I must. And then, the early warblers, flashes of yellow, a little more daylight. In the evenings, the sunset lengthens against us.

On April 18th, it snows. On the phone we talk about pants. How to tell people we have the best pants at the best price. How do it quickly, with feeling. We have pants! When I hang up at the end of the day, I want to laugh and weep and so I drink instead.

Something has to give. The world is ending. And the tension is ever higher. Should I quit my job? What is the point of any of this, if my family is tired, if I am doing too many things and none of them well? If we have no joy? Can we find a way to have joy? To seek solace in each other? Not to seek, but to find it? Otherwise, what is this life? All we have is us, after all.

In a fit of optimism, I buy clothes “for when I go back to the office.” In my mind, this will be June. Pretty spring dresses, “flirty tops” (just kidding, I never wear flirty tops) and interesting pants.

I start running. It’s a chore to go a mile.

We all start dragging. The adventure is no adventure. Edward throws tantrums. Where is William?

April is bleak.

And then, it is over.