Grief Kids Memories Suffering

Coronavirus, Quarantine, and Cancer

Kate turned four yesterday.

I love that kid. And she loves so many things. She loves her brother: anything he does is cool. She loves dressing and undressing dolls. She loves to put on her dress-up dresses (mostly from Frozen and Frozen II) and run around the house, creating stories in her mind. (I try to piece together the plot by listening to the sporadic dialogue.) She loves chapstick. She loves Band-Aids. She loves puzzles, and her little fingers are so long, so I love to watch her hands work when she puts puzzles together. Her fingers are the first thing I noticed about her when she was born: Kate had these beautiful long fingers, and beautiful long fingernails. I have always loved her hands.

As with most families, we made a major birthday pivot. We didn’t have a big party; instead, Trish, Scott, and the kids came over — the only people part of our stay-at-home protocol. Elsa didn’t come to the party; instead, we FaceTimed with her. And instead of a house packed with family, we had a computer screen packed with those familiar faces. We made the best of it. Kate was thrilled. And that’s all that matters.

Kate’s birthday will always be a macabre milestone as well: her second birthday was a few days before we found out Jeff had cancer. This year, because Kate is four, it reminds me how Jeff barely made it to Jake’s fourth birthday. Jeff had another infection, and had several nurses in tears as he told them that they had to do “whatever they had to,” because he was not going to miss his son’s fourth birthday party. Add those memories to the bizarre and chilling reality of the novel coronavirus, and I feel the same dread and despair that I felt two years ago.

Quarantine has scraped raw a wound that was still holding tight to its scab.

I haven’t written because on a practical level, I’ve been too busy; and on an emotional level, the scab is fresh off, and the wound is still bleeding. Being a widow in quarantine reinforces all of the things that – when things are normal – I can almost convince myself are okay. Things like being alone at night; making dinner and cleaning it up myself; and being entirely responsible for two human beings.

But when my whole world shrank to Trish, Scott, and the kids, I was faced with the reality that I have always known but haven’t said out loud because it seemed like an affront to everyone who has helped me. But it’s true. I really am alone.

I said this to my aunt a few weeks ago. I had strep throat, and I sent the kids over to Trish and Scott’s (bless them!) because I was in no condition to take care of them. I was home alone, shivering under blankets, and I said those words to my aunt. She did the kindest thing – and the thing I needed – she said, “I know.”

And here I’m going to acknowledge the thing I’ve also been telling my students: that it’s possible to know two realities at once. I realize that my life could be far different than it is: I could have had to sell my house after my husband died; I could have lost my job at any point, or even because of recent events; I could have been hospitalized or intubated because of the novel coronavirus. None of those things are true. And I realize that those things are true for many, many people.

But I can know that and also know that quarantine has been immensely difficult. In many ways, I feel catapulted back to the days after Jeff’s diagnosis two years ago. In many ways, I feel like the whole world is experiencing – at the same time – what it feels like after a cancer diagnosis.

After a cancer diagnosis, time kinda stops. Time feels weird altogether. Everything feels important. Information is coming from everywhere, and it all seems important – and sometimes conflicting – and impossible to filter. The information seems absolutely necessary, but also too much. Planning more than a day or two in advance is laughable, and it feels foreboding. Life from a few days ago seems like a utopia — a time that may never return… and, if it does, it will be lived in a way it wasn’t before. Vacations are cancelled. Celebrations are adjusted. Above all is the realization that life will never be quite the same. Something fundamental has shifted.

I’m not proud to say that I felt vaguely smug about this a few weeks ago — now everyone could know what this felt like. I also felt resentful — my world had imploded again. I’ve heard more than one person describe our transition to social distancing and stay-at-home using the stages of grief. Yes. I feel that.

Doing my full-time job; taking care of a home; and home-schooling two children is impossible. Impossible. And I don’t mean that in a defeated kind of way; I mean that in an accepted kind of way. I had the best intentions to hold everyone to a schedule; have themed weeks with multi-modal learning; maybe even do some Spanish tutorials like I’ve always wanted to with the kids. I have since accepted that I cannot do everything. I scaled back ‘learning time’ to one page from each of the kids’ school workbooks. I let my kids play on their tablets when I have work Zoom calls. I don’t make them get out of their pajamas until 8:30, which is after breakfast and after learning time. None of us is melting… yet.

But the weeks leading up to the acceptance of not being able to do it all… I drowned in my own anger and sadness.

Not going to church has complicated the issue. And I haven’t been good about watching masses on TV or seeking out spiritual connection otherwise. I need to go back to my devotionals. I feel so disconnected from so many important things that I’m suffocating.

And writing has been one of them. I knew I would come back to writing. It feels good to write. And not just in a self-satisfying way… writing feels like I am doing good.

Very rarely in life are things only good or only bad. Just when it seems that there is something that is only bad, a silver lining shows up. I remember sitting across from a liver surgeon in October – after a symposium about cholangiocarcinomoa – and he said, “Well, if there is anything good to come out of this opioid epidemic, it’s that there are more organs available.” That silver lining is unthinkable for the families and communities affected by addiction… but there are many people alive now because of it. That paradox is almost too much to comprehend.

I can think of very few things that aren’t in tension with something else. Life is a series of tensions, and how we navigate them is what makes us human.

Quarantine’s silver linings showed up. While I was making dinner tonight, I looked at Jake and Kate. I thought about how, eventually, they won’t live here anymore — they will (hopefully!) have their own lives and maybe start their own families. Most of their lives will be spent in a different home, with different people. But right now, I get them. I get a window of about 10 years to really be a parent. For Jake, half of that time is over. They are becoming their own people now… and I think they’re turning into some pretty cool people, as a matter of fact. I like them. I want to be around them. And right now, I get to spend precious moments with them. We get an opportunity every day to be together; to learn; to read books; to make dinner; to play outside.

This time spent together doesn’t have to be anything magnificent. The fact that it isn’t makes it so. So tomorrow, the kids and I will eat breakfast in our pajamas. Jake will fight me tooth and nail about doing one page from his workbook. Kate will happily pick up a crayon or pencil and get to work. The rest of the day will loosely adhere to the schedule I had intended. And just like the days before a cancer diagnosis, this time – this quarantine – will eventually seem like a strange utopia when it’s over… something I will long for even though I wished it was easier.

1 comment on “Coronavirus, Quarantine, and Cancer

  1. Rebecca Walker

    You articulate life’s tension really beautifully in this post–“absolutely necessary, but also too much.” Yes, that’s it, exactly. Wishing I could hug you right now.


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