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Ours is just one small story, but I will tell it anyway.
We moved our father into a memory unit two days before it closed its doors to visitors. In the book of our family, that was Day One. Today is Day 30. My aged mother has come to live with my husband and me after sleeping by my father’s side for nearly 63 years. My father, unable to grasp what has happened to him or to us, has been through four major falls, three ER visits and a stint in a rehab facility before returning back to the unit on more drugs than I can count.
None of us has seen him since March 10.
Yes, there is grief. So much grief I hesitate even to speak about it, as though words will somehow make it more real. In addition to my father there is also my husband, suffering anxiety attacks, and my sister in Brooklyn, trying to work from home but weeping at the sirens that never stop. Our three daughters, all with possible exposures and probable unemployment, teeter at their own personal breaking points, struggling to process something that even a mother cannot make better. And my brother, a physician in Boston, who titrates what he says to us and how he says it, knowing that he has become the unspoken head of the family. One wrong word might mean a sleepless night for all of us.
These are only our details. Look left, look right, and you will hear a different version of hell.
The interesting thing is that we are all managing. We are all doing what we need to do, living a new kind of life like everyone else. And despite the sadness that arrives in great rolling waves, I somehow feel more resilient and strong than I would have thought possible. Every day we wake up, the three of us, find our way to our own separate cups of caffeine. We sit at the table, chatter about what we have or do not have for breakfast. It is a luxury, in a way — the simple, small pleasure of sitting down to eat together, to take our time, to find what exquisite bits of fruit we still have in the fridge and the two-day-old pieces of bread. The next delivery will not come for days. We do our best not to squander the butter.
We are fortunate — so fortunate. We have enough space to spread ourselves around, and outside our house there are no sirens, yet. It is quiet, like time before time. Occasionally, the April sun makes an appearance, and the blackened branches glitter like diamonds after the rain. There is still a neighborhood full of streets to walk, gardens just beginning to give themselves over to green. Yesterday, I saw the first purple thumbs of a peony pressing up through the earth. I have already ordered my nasturtium seeds, insurance for a brighter future.
Not every day is a good one. My mother’s life has changed so fast she no longer knows what home means, and my heart breaks for her every day. She is 85 and frail. She’s living out her final chapter in my old den in a country she no longer recognizes during a horror she could never have imagined. But still, we get up. We drink our coffee, work on a puzzle, read the same novel on our Kindles. We marvel together at how much longer the days have grown. We light candles every night at dinner. And we laugh out loud at the videos that land almost daily in our inboxes, animated as they are by orange-haired bogey-men and f-bomb-dropping dogs.
[D]espite the sadness that arrives in great rolling waves, I somehow feel more resilient and strong than I would have thought possible.
For me, right now, grief is easier than anxiety. I am not worried that I will get sick. I have convinced myself that my family will survive this. I am not anxious because I cannot allow the anxiety: too many people depend on me not to be. But I can feel grief because the losses are real. My father may die without us, confused and alone. My daughters may not have jobs to go back to. Tears are appropriate and I shed them, daily. But I can also wipe them away and hug my husband and make lemon bars for dessert.
I am finding a different rhythm, and it does not feel like a bad thing. I haven’t watched television for weeks, and I don’t miss it. I can stay minimally, but sufficiently, informed by scanning the morning New York Times. I’ve been reading fiction voraciously, and even writing a little — something I haven’t done for years.
Most days I am only looking ahead as far as dinner (or the next grocery delivery), and I find that life is a whole lot calmer that way. In some bizarre way, I feel I was born to this task. A part of me has always willed the clocks back to a simpler time, a time more rooted in community and civility and compassion for others. We are figuring out a new way to be — alone, together.
When I walk the neighborhood these days, I look into my neighbors’ eyes and smile, ask them how they are managing. I think of my father on the memory unit, hope that someone is smiling at him, saying something kind.
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