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My 8-year-old taught me to 'just keep swimming'03:29
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When COVID-19 caught up to Cloe Axelson’s family in the final weeks of school -- with second grade field day at stake -- one of her twin daughters reminded her how, even after the past two years, plenty of things are worth fighting for. (Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)
When COVID-19 caught up to Cloe Axelson’s family in the final weeks of school -- with second grade field day at stake -- one of her twin daughters reminded her how, even after the past two years, plenty of things are worth fighting for. (Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)

The last two years have given all of us occasion to get curious about the human condition. How we deal with adversity and isolation. Whether or not we believe in science. I’m lucky — I haven’t lost anyone to COVID — but I’m finding that lingering sadness and anxiety can be hard to outrun these days.

Megan Devine, a grief expert, asked recently: “Do we stay in grief or celebrate our survival?”

The question presents a challenge as old as time: How do we carry two things at once? How do we honor what’s been lost and go on living? How do we love our people and maintain fidelity to ourselves?

When COVID finally came to my house at the end of May, after two years of bobbing and weaving and masking and vaxxing, we felt lucky that it was 2022 and not 2020. A 2020 COVID diagnosis, before vaccines and treatment, was very scary. Our 4-year old daughter was patient zero; she brought it home from pre-school. One of our 8-year old twins got it next. My husband was the third and final person to test positive, and he did fine — he took Paxlovid and was fortunate not to rebound.

Somehow, the other twin and I never got sick. The New York Times ran an insightful piece on this phenomenon of family members remaining COVID-negative in COVID-positive households, but I maintain that we probably have tiger blood.

How do we carry two things at once? How do we honor what’s been lost and go on living?

I know so many people who caught the virus this spring, and so, maybe I should have expected that my little crew would too, and moved on. It’s just that everybody in my house got sick at a particularly uncertain time for our family.

The world keeps spinning — pandemic be damned — so we’ve been navigating some notable life changes lately. Our 13-year-old dog died a few weeks ago. The marriage resulting from a family wedding last year is dissolving. My father-in-law is very ill, and recently moved into a skilled nursing facility. I’ve been navigating some big changes at work. (Far less important yet supremely irritating: our refrigerator and washing machine went kaput in May.) If the last two years have taught me anything, it’s that we have control over very little, and I’ve mostly found peace in this idea. When I think of how much our lives have changed in the last two-plus years, it’s remarkable how we’ve adapted to the once unimaginable.

But amidst all this acceptance I’ve been diligently trying to cultivate, stood one ferociously determined 8-year-old — the one kid who didn’t get COVID. She
immediately declared her own personal war against the coronavirus. She was not getting it — and definitely not getting it during the last 12 days of school. There were parties to attend, softball games to play, and most importantly to her second-grade social calendar: field day.

My husband and I doubted she’d be able to avoid it, but the pandemic had already stolen so much from her eight years (she spent all of first grade on an iPad, for example), so we opted not to force her into our own state of resignation. We decided to let her go down fighting.

The author's daughter's temporary bed set up, on the floor of the guest room. (Courtesy Cloe Axelson)
The author's daughter's temporary bed set up, on the floor of the guest room. (Courtesy Cloe Axelson)

She didn’t mess around. She double-masked around the house. Moved her bed sheets onto a sleeping pad in our guest room (where I’d holed up to avoid my husband’s COVID germs). She avoided getting too close to her sisters — a real feat, considering they typically spend most of their waking hours on top of each other — and insisted we eat dinner outside.

When the twins were younger, if one was sick, the other begged and pleaded to stay home too. They couldn’t bear to face the world without the other by their side. On the Tuesday morning after Memorial Day Weekend — after she’d goosed COVID so far, and it was time to head back to school — I saw that familiar instinct start to creep in: I don’t want to go without her; It’s scary. But she swallowed hard and pushed it back. Nothing, not COVID, not her own fear, not her love for her sister, was getting in the way of field day. She chose herself. And it did my heart good to watch her grow up in that moment. It also made me wonder if the last two years of uncertainty and hardship made her realize she could adapt to this, too.

It did my heart good to watch her grow up in that moment. It also made me wonder if the last two years of uncertainty and hardship made her realize she could adapt to this, too.

That morning, it was still t-minus two days until field day. I plied her with blueberry waffles and we blasted Taylor Swift in the car on the way to school. In the parking lot, when she got nervous, we repeated one of our favorite lines from “Cinderella”: “Have courage and be kind.”

Off she went. I teared up as she sprinted for the front of the building, her gigantic L.L. Bean backpack practically tipping her over as it swayed from side to side. I considered she might be onto something with all this relentless fight and positivity; I could feel my own doldrums receding.

By Tuesday night, friends were texting: “Field day update? Is she gonna make it?” On Wednesday morning, we did the “no COVID” dance. (That’s a made-up thing: think running-man-meets-silly-mom bop.)

And by Thursday, when field day arrived, she got to play tug-of-war and get soaked by water balloons. You know that old adage, “joy is an act of resistance?” That was her.

Maybe it seems unfair that amidst all the hardness of this world, I’m turning to my 8-year-old for inspiration. But a former colleague reminded me recently that change gets harder as we get older. The allure of stability can keep us stuck, especially after the tumult of the last two years. Meanwhile, kids are always moving, always in transition, more able to stay grounded in the moment.

My daughter helped me remember that as much as we have to accept the many things simply beyond our influence, we still have agency. And that there’s fun to be found in forging ahead. She reminded me to just keep swimming.

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Related:

Cloe Axelson Twitter Editor, Cognoscenti
Cloe Axelson is an editor of WBUR’s opinion page, Cognoscenti.

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