Mothering In the Time of Corona

Alena Dillon

The land of the free is home being brave. Until when? Until further notice.

My body wants to sleep and wake up when this is all over. I want to be told how it turned out in retrospect, with the pacing and drama of not having lived it: The scientists were brilliant and the medical workers were valiant and the people were vigilant and when they came together again they were stronger and more appreciative and loved better than ever.

But my son is fourteen months old. His little piston arms pump as he sprints around the house. My instinct is to hibernate, but his consciousness is coming alive more and more each day. Gears turn behind his eyes as he furrows his brow and assembles small epiphanies: There’s the tree that housed all those chirping sparrows yesterday, so where are they today? There used to be a flower in a vase on the table for me to sniff. Where did it go? Everybody else who loves him—oh so fiercely, oh so desperately—has to keep their distance and miss this precious time. I can’t. I won’t. I force my eyes open and pay attention to every object he points to, every word he repeats and pats into his memory.

Still, I feel like a battery drained to, what? Seventy percent? Forty? Am I sick, or is this exhaustion because I had to tell my parents they couldn’t visit their grandson?

My son peers into our guest room.

No Baby, Nonna isn’t here.

My friends make a virtual game of the crisis. We place bets on when we can have a drink in a bar. Loser buys. But will we ever share a pitcher again or a plate of onion rings?

I have fifteen family members in New York City, the pandemic epicenter of the world. What’s five percent of that?

Baby doesn’t wonder such things. He presses the button on his music box and stomps along to “Rockin’ Robin.” He smiles with a little mountain range of teeth.

Yes, Baby. Papa is downstairs. He’s home. He’s working.

During my shift, I stare at the laptop and my words stare back, self-conscious, inert, bored. They are flatter than the curve. It’s as if they know they don’t matter. Nothing matters but the virus.

My son pounds on my bedroom door. I let him in, relieved to be interrupted. He sticks a flower in my face and wrinkles his own nose, prompting me. The flower is artificial. I smell anyway.

So pretty, Baby. Thank you for that sniff.

New articles are published about the coronavirus every day. It’s impossible to read them all, but I try. I learn there will likely be outbreaks after this one. The second wave of the Spanish flu was worse than the first. Even if a vaccine is developed, the virus could mutate enough to be invulnerable to it. Those who have been sick may be sick again.

Baby gazes out the window, his eyes so blue and bright. He isn’t tired of his surroundings. The world outside is wondrous, ever-changing. His forehead falls against mine.

Yes, Baby. That car is driving so fast. Where is it going?

We walk our dog three times a day to get out of the house. When we pass someone on the sidewalk, our choices are walking into traffic or holding our breath. Others emerge from their separate universes and squint against the sunshine. When our eyes adjust, we smile at each other.

Yes, Baby. It’s nice to wave to that lady. Say bye-bye.

We check in on each other the only way we can: we text, we call, we Zoom. My younger brother says he got out of bed at one p.m. today, showered, cried, and went back to bed. My other brother lives alone. How can someone be alone through this? “How are you?” I ask. “Existing,” he says.

We aren’t sick, but we aren’t well.

Baby needs to eat. At least that’s something to do.

Sorry, Baby. We’re out of bananas.

He waves at me from his high chair. I’m sitting directly in front of him, but I must have seemed far away. He brings me back.

Hello, Baby. Hello.

He offers me one of his puffs, and delights when I nibble it from his chubby hands. Feeding us brings him joy.

I go grocery shopping. They restrict the number of people allowed inside, so eleven shoppers wait outside in a staggered line. A store employee stands at the entrance and yells, “Six feet apart. Starbucks is closed. Six feet apart.”

I’m looking at two packages of chicken breasts in an otherwise empty case. The entire section is refrigerated and illuminated for eight chicken breasts. From behind a hand-sewn mask, a woman says, “They have meat. Isn’t it wonderful?”

There is one jug of milk and its sell-by date is today. Or yesterday. Or tomorrow. I feel lucky to have gotten anything and guilty for taking the last one, but Baby has to drink. I’ll separate the milk into small containers (carefully, so carefully, because now there is use crying over spilt milk) and freeze them so it’ll keep longer, the way my mother does because she can’t get through a gallon on her own and buying quarts is more expensive. It’s a practice I said I’d never do. Now is never.

As I climb into the car, I keep track of everything I touch and retrace my steps with an alcohol wipe: keys, purse, door handle. Then I rip off my mask and take my first unrestricted breath in forty minutes.

When I get home, my heart is racing from the expedition, and I expect a hero’s welcome. I am Hunter and Gatherer. I am exhilarated. I am exhausted. I am getting a migraine. My husband disinfects the cereal boxes. They say we don’t have to, but they used to tell us not to wear masks, and now there are bandana tutorials all over social media and a mandatory mask order in town.

My head still throbs, but Baby needs a new diaper. He smiles at me from the changing table.

Yes, Baby. It is.

His bowel movement is abnormal. He doesn’t feel warm, but I check for fever anyway.

The next week, I go for a bike ride. It’s hardly an innovative idea. There are more bikers out than ever before. You cover more distance biking than jogging, and we want to see as much as possible before returning to our own four walls. Or maybe it’s because biking is faster, and we hope, on wheels, the virus won’t catch us.

It’s Easter Sunday and church parking lots are empty. New York City averaged seven hundred deaths a day this week. I wonder if the family of the deceased and the medical workers who fought so hard to keep them alive are envious of Mary and the disciples. Jesus laid down his life but got to rise again.

The beach is closed. Concrete barriers block the parking lot, the entrance is cordoned off with yellow caution tape, and a policeman patrols. A flashing traffic sign reads: Covid-19 Outbreak. No parking, stopping, or standing. A line of cars crawls up the hill and circles the roundabout just to catch a glimpse of the most beautiful place we have.

I glide around the loop for my dose. Maybe I linger too long. A man shouts at me from his car, “It’s spiritual, isn’t it?”

I’d normally laugh at such a notion, but it is, it is. I’m not supposed to, but the sand stretches like a yawn and the waves lap gently and the coast is rugged and untouched, so I take another turn.

A woman calls, “Where’s your mask?”

A few miles from my house, I pull my bike to the side of the road to jot a note on my phone.

“Are you all right?” a walker yells from across the street.

I assure her yes, but I think, if I wasn’t, how could she help? What could she do?

Later, a fellow biker lifts a full face shield to wipe tears from her eyes. It’s sixty degrees and sunny, the first real day of spring. She’s biking with an acrylic face shield and crying. But how can I help? What can I do?

I arrive home sweaty and red-faced, but Baby throws his arms around my knees, and although this is the place I’ve been for four weeks straight, I’m happy to be back. I tickle his neck and he laughs like wind chimes. We play in the yard. We are fortunate to have our own bit of green space when playgrounds, parks, trails, and beaches are off limits. It’s a type of currency, a richness of the new world, like toilet paper and antibodies.

Baby snaps off a piece of grass and presses it against his nose. We are so fragile. We are so worried. He extends it to me, but just as I lean in to mime a sniff, he drops the blade and points up to the sky. A seagull soars overhead. I don’t remember seagulls coming inland this far, but maybe it’s the kind of scenery I’m only noticing when my son brings it to my attention. Or maybe the absence of people is changing the natural order of things, and when we finally emerge from our houses, it will be to an altered landscape. My son’s finger follows the shadow as it glides with grace, seemingly weightless.

Yes, Baby. That’s a bird. Isn’t it something?

Alena Dillon headshot

Alena Dillon is the author of Mercy House, a LibraryReads and Amazon book of February 2020 which was optioned as a television series for CBS All Access, produced by Amy Schumer, as well as The Happiest Girl in the World, forthcoming April 2021. Alena’s work has appeared in publications including LitHub, River Teeth, Slice Magazine, The Rumpus, The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review, and Bustle. She teaches creative writing and lives on the beautiful north shore of Boston with her husband, son, and little black lab.