“I can’t breathe.”
This was the third time my soldier-sturdy husband had gasped, looking like a fish at the end of a line, fighting for air. He had been sick for over a week — listless, coughing, at times, completely out of breath, and all the while fixated: It might be the coronavirus. Do you think I have it? If I got it, how did I get it? What if I don’t have it? If it’s not the coronavirus, then what it is? Do you think I have it?
My friend masks up and leaves her two sons with their dad for a drugstore run. Within minutes, she’s pitching 10 bags of honey-lemon cough drops onto the front porch, along with Mucinex — the only over-the-counter remedy that helps my husband breathe easier, a sheet mask for me and some red, white and blue glitter star-shaped stickers for the kid. I pull on blue rubber dishwashing gloves and wipe it all down with three passes of a Clorox wipe. I know that in the future, the sunny overlay of lemon scent mixed with bleach will catapult me back to this time.
The go-bag for the hospital sits on the bedroom chair. Just in case.
At the military medical treatment facility, in the storage room turned into an isolated examination area, a sergeant has my husband stick two long swabs deep into his nasal cavity. The test for influenza comes back negative, after my husband is sent to the parking lot for thirty minutes to wait in the car for the result.
Four days later, the COVID-19 test comes back negative. In 20 years, I have never seen my husband so ill. When he asks, the nurse who phoned with the result tells him the type of test he was given has a 30% false negative rate.
* * *
I’m angry all the time now. I’m unemployed, as are many, and punted into the role of homeschooling housewife while my husband works full-time from home. My husband is helpful, but I am out of my depth with our energetic five-year-old daughter. My cultivated maternal Here, let me help you has become Stop, let me do it! Chewing sounds set me off. Loud sneezes. I find myself muttering, Who’s the fuckhead who forgot to plug in the iPad charger? (The fuckhead is me.) The anger moves outward in concentric circles, like lake water rippled around a tossed stone, from my personal sphere to the world outside. The racist undergirding of the governmental response to the pandemic is overwhelming; I cannot watch Trump’s press conferences without getting chest pains.
In the news, from Governor Cuomo‘s daily briefing, he says he has had to hire 3,000 people in New York state to manage the spike in unemployment claims.
* * *
I had a highly medicalized birth, with an epidural and Pitocin and then, when that didn’t work, an emergency C-section followed by a hemorrhage that required shots of oxytocin and a sizable transfusion. Even before all that medical intervention saved my life and my baby’s, I curled a lip at hippie moms with their pages-long birth plans and birthing pools and refusals of pharmaceutical pain management. To me, it all seemed like the workings of a dirt-scented flavor of control freak. But these days, there’s a knot in my heart and an ache in my arms, as if they stretch for something they cannot reach—certainty. Social contact with my mother friends is now limited to standing on each other’s lawns, yelling from a safe distance. The benefits of pain management by screaming into the void have become so obvious.
Earth Mama domesticity has seduced me further. I brew my husband a tea of honey, cayenne, cinnamon, apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, ginger. Downed by the steaming mugful, it seems to help. The loaf pan is getting a workout. One-bowl poundcake. Banana bread. I’m drawn by the slowness, the ritual. The precision. (Who’s the control freak now?) But it’s more than that. Baking is a protective chalk circle drawn around my family: home. Soon I am saving foil to reuse and storing Cool-Whip in the freezer like my grandmothers did. I pick the moldy blueberries out of the plastic pint carton and turn the rest into a lemon-blueberry bread. One grandmother raised six children on her own as a widow; the other was a single mother of two as a teenager. Thrift is in my DNA.
Soon that economy nudges up against sloth. Baking a poundcake turns into an opportunity to sneak tablespoonfuls of raw batter and eat thick slices of inexpensive Freedom’s Choice brand cream cheese right off the knife. I teach my daughter how to zest an orange and call that “school” for the day.
* * *
In the pandemic, and the liminal shelter-in-place state, time has become fungible. I mark the passage of days by the changes to my body. So much has changed already — the slash-like scar on my forearm from reaching into the oven to check on all those stunt-breads. The reptilian crepe on my hands from the constant washing. The spray of gray hairs sprouting wild in all directions. The click in my knee when I go upstairs, which appeared after the bright sunlight on one of my rare solitary walks beckoned me into a jog. I didn’t stretch before I accelerated my pace. The knee started clicking that night.
I know how this sounds: Aw, Quarantine Karen has a sad. Sheltering in place is a privilege; how many mothers would bake away the hours if they only could? Well into adulthood, I finally read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the classic feminist-gothic story about the domestic confinement of mothers. No stranger to mental illness myself, I remember thinking, as the protagonist loses her sanity to months of bourgeois homebound isolation, I’m sorry she’s suffering, but who’s cleaning the house?
(I know it’s not the husband).
In the news, from The New York Times: “Nearly Half of Men Say They Do Most of the Home Schooling. 3 Percent of Women Agree.”
Mommy. Mommy. Mommy. Mommy. Mommy? I need you. Mommy, I want to show you something. Mommy, shut your computer and look over here. Mommy, look over here and don’t look away. The minute I hear her talking to herself in the monitor, at six thirty in the blessed morning, the countdown clock to bedtime begins. The days drag. April lasted a year. How can it already be May?
* * *
My uncle, birthdate 9-6-1933, was born under the sign of Virgo. Characteristics: Modesty. Devotion. Industriousness.
* * *
On the first beautiful spring weekend, I want to hack people off at the knees. People crowd the parks and walkways, getting too close. I can’t help but notice that even in a life-or-death situation, the men will not move. Your aerosolized huffing and puffing could infect dozens of people, who could then, themselves, infect hundreds of people, but thank God you’re getting that jog in, Brendan.
One of my single friends, living alone, points out that most of the mask-less people in the recently reopened city park near her apartment are white yuppie moms pushing kids in UPPAbaby strollers.
In the news, from The Atlantic: “Models show that if 80 percent of people wear masks that are 60 percent effective, easily achievable with cloth, we can get to an effective R0 of less than one. That’s enough to halt the spread of the disease.”
* * *
I worry about my friends. J., after a week on a ventilator because of the virus, now home and battling the dysphoria that comes after being on life support, wondering when she’ll be able see her grandson in Japan, while her partner takes in meals left on their stoop. The nurses, always working overtime, posting photos of mask indentations pressed into their cheeks, their surgical caps sewn by another mother friend who wonders how she’s able to do back-to-back Zoom meetings for work, sew up PPE to donate, and homeschool her three kids, while her husband disappears into the bathroom for 35 minutes at a time. Still another friend, left stranded without child support, starts sewing masks to sell. She used to be a toymaker, so all her masks have novelty prints. Polka dots. Cat faces. She makes them in kid’s sizes upon request. One mom covers another, and another.
Within my own immediate constellation of maternal figures, my 75-year-old mother-in-law got a haircut at her friend’s house, alarming my husband. (“But we were both wearing masks!” she says.) Another matriarch responds to a family group text about the federal mismanagement of the health crisis with “TRUMP 2020.” Letting rage overtake love this year, I withhold my usual Mother’s Day flower delivery to her. I just can’t. I’m relieved that my own mother, dead four years, three months and ten days, isn’t around. I know she’d take her walker to the QuickChek for cigarettes.
The line of cars waiting for free groceries, visible from the kitchen window, winds out of the parking lot and stretches a mile long. There’s a lesson in this, too, a teachable moment about charity and community. As I point out how in times of hardship, people come together to help one another, and by the way, if you have four potatoes and take away two, how many do you have left, my daughter grabs onto my arm and says, “Mommy, do you have to make this school?”
* * *
My uncle never had children. When he became ill, his younger brother and oldest nephew leapt in to shepherd his move into a care facility, took over his affairs, and looked after his small stretch of land. A bucket brigade of nurturance spanning the heartland — Wisconsin to Ohio to his home in Kentucky. Men can mother, too.
* * *
I never really cared about Mother’s Day, and, as usual, this year I don’t want anything for myself. But I do want this: For every mother, starting this Mother’s Day and continuing into infinity, to give herself the gift of not saying “I’m sorry” or in any way expressing that she wished she could be doing better during this time. Not even once. If you’re not lapsing into abuse or actionable neglect and you find yourself feeling that rising urge to say “sorry,” take a deep breath instead.
I bridle when I come across articles about “looking for meaning in a pandemic” or “shelter-in-place is an opportunity for gratitude.” Or, worse yet, calling it “A Great Pause.” This is not a great anything but a great shitshow, and I am not grateful. Sure, my family is OK now, because we drew the long straw of luck and privilege. But this is bigger than my little family, my quiet house, and I can’t let go of that. This call to gratitude feels like passing the work back to us — an issued challenge of wrenching good moments out of a devastating crisis. Somehow, that lands as yet another thing to do when we already feel like we can’t put one more chore atop this precarious Jenga stack of unanticipated duties.
Here’s what we can do: Take a deep fucking breath. Maybe lean forward a bit, so you can feel your ribs spread open across your back on the inhale. Breathe for the suffering. Breathe for the dying, and the already dead. Let yourself grieve, for whomever, and whatever, is lost. Honor your feelings—every one. Breath is beauty; breath is life. More than anything else, breath is respect.
Mama, take a damn deep breath. Congratulate yourself. Amid loss, amid fear, amid incredible disquiet and federal incompetence, you are doing this.
* * *
In the news: In Tennessee, a state that neighbors Kentucky, angry citizens rally to demand an end to the shelter-in-place orders. A female protester holds up a handmade sign that reads, “Sacrifice the Weak.”
* * *
My daughter and I take a daily walk. Rain or shine. Warm or unseasonably cold. Today is gusting and grey. We spot wild violets growing in great number on a slope and she runs over, drops to her knees and starts picking. Deep indigo, lavender-pale, and white with fine purple veins. I squat down to help her gather. On the windy hillside, I’m gripped by avarice. When I shop for groceries, layered in mask and glasses, nitrile gloves and ballcap, I don’t take the last bag of flour, the last jar of the good marinara, the last can of anything. But these violets. I let her gorge.
“Pick as many as you want,” I call to her. “We’ll go home when you say you’re done.”
In the language of flowers, the wild violet (viola odorata) means love, modesty, faith, devotion. Herbalists believe they are anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, and a blood cleanser. They are good for coughs and colds, and can be made into a violet leaf and honey cough syrup. Our hands bursting with violets, I walk home with my daughter and I think about how I could teach her to craft a healing tincture from the blossoms, make some violet honey that can be drizzled into hot tea and ship it to my uncle in the nursing home, but it’s too late.
The heirloom quilt of my uncle’s 14 nieces and nephews is threaded with clergy, yet none of them will be able to gather us to eulogize him in a church service. There will be no funeral. The robes and liturgical stoles stay on their hangers, but their prayers are ascendant on invisible wings. In Christianity, violets represent the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, who has welcomed my uncle home.
* * *
On one of our walks, my daughter finds a bright blue bird’s egg, completely intact. I google, “will a mother bird reject an egg if it fell from a nest” then “will human touch make a mother bird abandon an egg” and finally, encouraged by the search results, I type in “blue bird’s eggs.” Because of the egg’s slight size and matte shell, we decide it has to be either a starling or an Eastern bluebird. There’s a robin’s nest in the arbor vitae next to the house, with three larger, shinier blue eggs inside, and we take our chances. My husband gently places the found egg on top. The next morning, he takes our daughter to the tree for a look. The mother robin, who flies off with an angry twitter when my husband stands on tiptoe to peek into the nest, has shuffled the arrangement of the eggs. Telling the outlier from the others is difficult. The mama bird sits on the chain link fence nearby, tweeting a fuss until we all back off from the tree and she can return to her appointed nurturing duty.
A mother finds a way.