The Bearable Lightness of Being

December 22, 2020 at 7:25 pm (Uncategorized)

For years I’ve dragged my feet on sorting through all the toys, games, and books Andrew outgrew. They’ve piled up in the spare rooms in our basement, in the garage, and in every closet.

I don’t usually cling to things. I much prefer experiences like travel over possessions. So why have I been hanging on so tightly to old dinosaur floor puzzles, science kits for pre-schoolers, and a matchbox car collection?

For years I thought it was because I still hadn’t let go of the concept of having another child. The chance of this ever happening physically vanished in 2008, when I got the first of many rounds of Cytoxan, a chemotherapy that causes infertility. For a while after that, Jay and I talked about adoption. We even got the paperwork from the state adoption agency. But Jay and I both realized that the level of exhaustion we felt just looking at all that paperwork was a good indicator that we weren’t truly capable of raising another child then. A few months after I put the papers in the recycling bin, I spent several months in the hospital. Jay and Andrew (and everyone helping us) had more than enough to deal with. Bringing a new baby into our lives would have been catastrophic.

I spent many years telling myself to be grateful. I gave birth to a gorgeous and healthy baby. That is more than many couples have. Wanting another felt greedy. Still, my heart hurt a little as friends and family brought home their second or third kids. I never once begrudged them this joy. My heart just ached quietly.

About a year ago, I had the opportunity to help out new parents with their newborn daughter. The Mom was having some health issues and I was feeling well enough to lend a hand. It was a nice change for me to be able to offer help, instead of needing it. Since I am by nature a night owl, I took the night shifts with the baby girl. One night, torrential rain and wind storms shook the house. The baby woke. My dormant juggling skills got re-activated. I warmed the bottle, tested the milk on my wrist, changed her diaper, and sung a quiet song. Then I settled down with her in the dim living room, nestling her in my arms as she drank from her bottle. There is no gaze like that of a newborn contemplating you. Her dark eyes looked all-knowing and completely non-judgmental. In that gloomy 3 AM room, I stared back at her as the rain threw itself against the windows. Something in me released. Maybe the wisdom the baby brought with her from the place of creation is what did it. Maybe it was just time. But suddenly, I knew—not in my mind, but deep inside my body—that this was not to be my life again. I was ready for new experiences, for spending as much time as I could with Andrew, for launching him into the world, for learning how to live again in a house without a child, for (God willing) holding his child some day (but, as I tell Andrew, only when he is “emotionally and financially able to have a child—say when you’re 30.”) I love babies and children, and if I’d gotten a different playbook from the universe, I’m sure Jay and I would have had a larger family. But in that room, with that dark-eyed bundle of a baby in my arms, I let it all go.

The global pandemic stymied my plans to focus on spending as much time with Andrew as he’d tolerate before he leaves for college. As I’ve written before, I made the wrenching decision in July to live separately from Jay and Andrew. This allows me to stay safe from Covid and for Andrew to go to school two days a week. He’s an only child, and a social one at that. Locking him down for over a year would not be fair to him. But it’s been lonely living on my own. Jay and I decided to take on a significant remodel project to create a safe and separate apartment for me in the basement of our home. It won’t allow me to eat dinner inside with them or hang out without wearing masks. But I will be just a flight of stairs away from them. I can hear them and see them more easily. I need that.

Suddenly my full-time job has become emptying the basement, so it can be gutted and remade. I have no choice but to confront all of the physical manifestations of stages and ages Andrew left behind that have piled up down there. It didn’t take long for me to start crying, as I opened up shelves and found games I have clear memories of playing with my boy when he was two or three. We were blessed with many generous family and friends, so Andrew had a lot of toys. I also kept most of his artwork and school work.

It has become my new routine to descend into the basement, pull things out, and sort and pack them. Every time I cry. I truly have let go of the concept of another child. I am not sad because Andrew will never have siblings to play with these things. Now I am grieving all the time with Andrew that I did not have. I lost a lot to illness—months in the hospital, years of being too sick to get out of bed. I didn’t get to me the Mom I had planned to be. That’s been the hardest and most bitter part of living separately now. Ironically, just when I’m having the longest run of better health since Andrew was born, I am absent again.

I’m also staring down time in the basement with my boxes. I think most mothers feel it pulling at us from within. It seems that just a minute ago Andrew drew those dragons I am boxing up, or a week ago that he started kindergarten and wrote a poem about the color gold. Doesn’t every mother mourn the minutes she didn’t have with her child? I think being a parent is the hardest job ever. If you do it right, you are constantly letting go of the person you most care for, the one you want to hold onto the tightest. And still, we let go, and it sure hurts.

It’s not all gloom and doom in the basement. I’ve discovered great joy that comes with my daily tears. I love giving these things away. I keep the toys, drawings, books and games that I have visceral memories of using with Andrew, or those that I would love to play with his child (some day when he is emotionally and financially capable, you know, when he’s approximately 30.) Then Andrew masks up, and he sets aside the things he wants to keep. All of this I box up for storage until I can unpack it in our new space. The rest, I let go. The joy that comes with letting go has surprised me. I’ve single-handedly given the domestic violence shelter in town a new game room. Even better has been putting photos of stuff on Facebook for free. The memories I was afraid to face, that were crammed into closets and spilling out of drawers, are now easing a tiny bit of this year’s pain in others’ lives. A few of the parents who have come by to pick up Andrew’s microscope, collection of toy construction equipment, and other stuff have told me that I’ve made it possible for their little ones to open gifts on Christmas. Now that makes me cry again.

I’ve said this before, so pardon my repetition. But during my 16 years in Chronic Town, I keep learning the same lessons over and over. One is that what matters most is the capacity to participate in your own daily life. Cooking and eating dinner with your family, folding your kid’s wash, having tea with a friend, talking to your Mom on the phone. This is your life. This is the scaffolding of your heart. The other lesson is to let go. There are no guarantees. None of us got a notarized document from God promising us anything. It’s hard to let go of health, wealth, a sense of what should be, could be. In this year of incalculable loss and pain, it’s easy for us all to cling more tenaciously to what we think is ours. I sure do. I wanted more time. I wanted to know Andrew a little more and for him to know this healthier me. I wanted it so badly that some nights when I drove back to my solo apartment after an evening with Jay and Andrew, I screamed as loudly as I could inside the car for the whole way back. I wanted it so badly that half the time I am ready to throw in the towel and just move back home and pretend there is no Covid. Give me the hands of time, and I would have pushed their sharp edges back to my advantage.

The more I let things go, the easier the letting go becomes. I’m sure I’ll cry when I’m down in the basement back to my sorting again. It seems to be part of my process of letting go. So does the feeling of lightness that comes later. I’d been holding onto what I thought I had lost so tightly that my hands hurt. I didn’t know how to open them. For now, I do.

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It’s the Economy, Stupid

December 17, 2020 at 7:27 pm (Uncategorized) (, )

One of my favorite writers about all things Covid-related, Zeynep Tufekci, has an article on Substack that stopped me in my tracks.

It’s about the order in which Americans will likely be vaccinated.  Once again, it looks like we will as a nation do things very differently than the rest of the world.  Because we’re likely to have limited vaccines for many more months, we must make difficult choices.  It’s too bad we’re in this situation caused by yet another unforced error—this one by making our vaccine scarcity worse than it had to be. But that’s another post in itself.

We are first vaccinating health care workers and nursing home residents and workers.  This is completely logical and I think every country is doing the same.  What happens next is where things get tricky. As Tufekci argues quite convincingly in her latest piece, age and underlying health conditions account for an overwhelmingly percentage of Covid deaths.  90 percent of Covid deaths in the US are from people aged 55 and over.  If the US were interested in saving the most lives, it would be a no-brainer to next vaccinate the elderly living outside of nursing homes and those like me with risk factors.  But it looks like this is not going to be the CDC’s recommendation.  Instead, the vaccine will likely be offered next to essential workers (an ill-defined and potentially huge portion of the country.)  There is some logic to this, if our country’s goal is to limit the spread of Covid and thus get life back to normal more quickly.  Vaccinating workers could help our stuttering economy.  The CDC has also noted that prioritizing essential workers would address inequalities since many are people of color.  

Obviously, I’ve got (white) skin in this game.  I’ve been told by every healthcare professional I’ve talked to since March not to get Covid because I probably wouldn’t fare too well if I did.  This is why I am living apart from my family.  I’d like to return to my home.  I also don’t want to die. I feel very alone and anxious. Last night I slept for just a couple of hours.

I am angry at how the US has handled nearly every aspect of this pandemic since the beginning.  I feel strongly that this country has chosen economic well-being and the stock market over the lives of its citizens.  I’ve read and heard elected officials and policy makers at all levels argue that economic health trumps physical health.  Some have said outright that the elderly should sacrifice themselves for the good of the economy. Twitter trolls have told me to stop complaining because “I’m just going to die anyway.”  This expected new decision on how to vaccinate Americans feels to me like yet another prioritization of the economy over human life and health.  Certainly vaccinated essential workers can keep stores open, poultry processed, and packages delivered. But even the CDC panel making this recommendation is explicit that more lives will be lost with this choice.  I understand that this is terribly complicated. I know that economic hardship is awful, that the ranks of those in poverty grow every day, and that too many small businesses have shut down.  I know that people are hungry and food banks are struggling to meet the demand.  I know that kids who are out of school aren’t learning.  I know that mental health issues are on the rise.  From my perspective, though, you can re-open a business; you can’t bring back a dead person.  We could choose to pump more money into our economy.  Billionaires have gotten even wealthier during the pandemic.  We make choices not to tax those billionaires and instead let families go hungry.  There is one choice we can’t ever undo, though.  And that is to raise the multitude of the dead.  Many have died without family or friends with them.  If they were lucky, a masked and goggled nurse held their hand at the end.  The current prediction is that 500,000 Americans will die of Covid by March, 2021.

Prioritizing essential workers over the elderly and the at-risk will kill even more.  It’s hard for me to imagine that we would make this choice.  As Tufekci wrote today, “[I]n Utah, a 30-year-old teacher may be vaccinated long before someone over 70 or even 80—even though the latter are at so much greater risk if infected. In fact, it looks like teachers, police and food and agriculture workers will all precede adults over 65 and people with high-risk medical conditions.”

Once again, the US is charting its own course with Covid.  You can add this vaccination protocol to our rabid anti-masking sentiments and lackluster public policy for what separates the US from countries that have managed Covid much more successfully (Vietnam, Taiwan, New Zealand, Norway, Denmark, Canada, etc.) Tufekci points out that prioritizing essential workers is  “not what other countries rolling out the same vaccine are doing. For comparison…the UK-wide vaccination prioritization…sensibly ranks by risk, which corresponds to age.”

In theory every state is free to establish its own vaccination priorities.  But states have always used CDC guidelines in the past. 

I know this probably isn’t what any of you want to read.  It’s noteworthy that hardly anyone besides Tufekci is writing about this.  (She has been eerily prescient about almost everything Covid-related, from the CDC’s early nonsense policy against masking to restaurants and bars being the most significant vectors for transmission.) The pandemic was so 2020, and 2020 is almost over, right?  We have hopeful headlines about nurses getting vaccinated, with photos showing their relief.  Having the vaccine promised to us—“soon”— is supposed to soothe our Covid-fatigued souls.  It’s time to get our holly jolly on and go shopping!  Play some Christmas music, and do your civic duty by buying stuff (preferably with a mask on, but don’t get too strident about that or you’ll be accused of hating freedom.) If we crank the holiday music loudly enough, we can drown out snarks like me who are pointing out that we are woefully short of vaccines for the near and mid-term.  We can focus on 2021 like it’s some magical line fairies have drawn in the sands of time.  Coronavirus cannot cross that line.  Right? 

But here’s the thing.  I’m hurting.  I’m lonely.  I’m scared.  I’m confused why my country seems to value retail more than my life, my parents’ lives, and so many other lives.  And I don’t understand why this doesn’t feel important enough for people to talk about and worry over as a national community.  Don’t we all have someone like me—a grandparent, a friend with cancer, a cousin with diabetes?  Someone who has been following the rules and hunkering down because she believes her life has meaning.  I can’t live under a rock forever because my country doesn’t want to see me.  But I’m here, marking time until the rest of the country cares enough to put on a mask, stay out of restaurants, not have a Christmas party…and give me a vaccine. 

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20 Miles to Go in Hill Country

December 1, 2020 at 1:23 am (Uncategorized)

Andrew says I am too pessimistic about Covid-19.  I told him that I feel like I am realistic and at least 50 percent of this country is living in la-la land.   “You have to let the present unfold in good ways,” he said tonight as we ate dinner—in separate rooms with air filters making conversation difficult.  “You have to prepare yourself for what is coming,” I said.  And then we dug into the excellent mashed potatoes that are part of his cooking repertoire now.  

Andrew has a luxury a lot of the folks I accuse of being in Covid la-la land have.  He is young and fit without know risk factors.  Should he contract Covid, he will likely have a mild or even asymptotic case. The prognosis for me and the tens of millions of other American with risk factors is more grim. 

Everything I’ve read from Dr. Ashish Jha about this pandemic has been accurate.  Formerly of Harvard, Dr. Jha is one of our nation’s leading epidemiologists and public health officials and now heads up a team at Brown University.   

Andrew would definitely find Dr. Jha even more depressing than I am.  In today’s New York Times, Dr. Jha predicts 250,000 additional Covid deaths in the US by March.  Pause.  Re-read.  Yes, that’s the prediction and it is backed up with solid data. We could double the number of our Covid deaths in four months.  This assumes vaccines will be arriving, starting at the end of this month, and still half a million of us could be gone.  “The next three months are going to be just horrible,” Dr. Jha added.  He wasn’t talking only about the deaths, but also our nation’s overflowing ICU units and shortage of nurses and doctors.  He said this in the context of infections surging (on top of a surge) because of Thanksgiving and a Christmas gatherings.  In Wisconsin, one hospital is stashing Covid patients in its ambulance bay.  In El Paso, Covid wards are called pits.  Intensive care units there are now enormous open rooms.  Once a day, a Catholic priest comes and stands behind some plexiglass and administers a stripped down version of last rites to those in need.  And this is before the holiday surge of infections catches us.

I keep myself as educated as possible about Covid not because I want to wallow in gloom, though Andrew might think otherwise. I feel like my life depends on it.  Without much leadership at all levels of government, I’ve got to understand the benefits of air filtration systems or the likelihood one of the new vaccines will be effective in someone immunocompromised like me.  Without the healthy’s luxury of banking on a good outcome, I must be prepared. But even with my extra stake in all things Covid, I am so sick of it.  We’re all tired of Covid.  I sure am.  I want to set my masks on fire, never think about viruses in HVAC systems or living quietly in my son’s upper respiratory tract.  I want to run home NOW and fling myself into Jay’s arms. I want to wake up next to him, with the light casting shadows through the blinds in a pattern I memorized years ago. I want to fall asleep to the sound of Andrew listening to music.  And in between, I want to be unafraid around the people I love best, in the home we once shared.  I want to see their faces without masks.  I want to hug them both long and hard.   

As tired as we all are, it feels like we should be done.  Surely we’ve parsed 6 feet enough, done enough “digital learning” with our kids, worried enough over every cough to have earned finality.  Right? But we’re not there yet.  These next few months will define who we are, what our values are, and what we will do to protect others.  

For me, this feels like the psychological equivalent  of the Team USA Cycling Trials back in 1988.  It was a stage race consisting of 3 individual races: a  solo hill climb time trial, a fast and furious criterium around city streets in a giant pack, and a 65 mile road race through “rolling” hills in rural Wisconsin.  I did terribly in the hill climb, good in the criterium, and had a shot of making the national team if I performed well in the road race.  It was hot and humid.  “Rolling hills” felt like Tibet to this Louisiana girl.  I somehow missed 2 water bottle exchanges in a row, so had the last 20 miles with only half a bottle of plastic-tasting warm water to get me through.  I was with a small lead pack, but I got dropped by them on a climb about 20 miles from the finish. For the rest of the race, I had my warm water to ration, more hills than seemed reasonable to climb, silence cut only when I changed gears.  And myself.  I had to try and catch the front pack, but could definitely not get subsumed by the peloton behind me.  I hated every pedal stroke. I hated the sun shining on the green countryside.  I hated the cows everywhere.  I hated the sound of my breath rasping. I hated the pain in my legs and my mouth that felt like sand.   I hated standing out of the saddle to get more power,  and I hated sitting back down and just turning my legs over.  But that is what I did, half-heartedly hoping my chain would snap or my tire would explode or a horde of locusts would descend…that something would let me legitimately stop turning those pedals over and yet not be a quitter.  

I finished 5th in that road race.  It’s one of the races I am most proud of.  I didn’t get caught by the peloton behind me.  Nor did I catch the faster women ahead of me.  I even sprinted on my own up the last “rolling” hill to the finish line (and then promptly passed out from dehydration and exhaustion).  Most of all, I didn’t quit. Pedal over pedal over pedal. 

I didn’t win a shiny gold medal.  I didn’t get chosen to wear the Stars and Stripes jersey as part of the official Team USA.  But I dug deep and found a place within me that wouldn’t let me quit, even though part of me really wanted to.

With the excellent news from Pfizer and Moderna on vaccines, it feels like we are (hopefully) in the last 20 miles of a road race.  We are tired. We don’t have enough of what keeps us feeling vibrant and alive on hand. Every cell within us can feel like it’s whispering to forget about restrictions or that just this once it will be OK.  But we’re on a road with stakes much higher than who gets on what team.  We are defining who we are —who we strive to be, who we want to grow into being—in these winter months. 

Mental toughness transcends pessimism or optimism.  Mental toughness centers you in the here and now, focused solely on what it is you must do in that endless-seeming present.  It’s not about glory or accolades.  Mental toughness is reticent and fierce. 

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good in this long, dark winter.  If you make a mistake, just refocus on being the kind of person you know you are: the one who saves lives, not through heroics, but by quietly taking this long, final leg one step at a time.  Imagine the quiet pride you will feel when you know you dug deep, stepped up and did what was needed.  

Keep on turning those pedals over.  The 250,000 of your fellow human beings Dr. Jha referred to are as yet uninfected.  We hold their fates.  We hold their lives and the pain of loss their loved ones will feel.

We know what to do.  We know we can do it.  I hope that we will.  

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