A day in the life: My back feels like it is made of old winter ice, rotted and black, still hard and so cold. I want to lie on my stomach and have someone take a rolling pin to my spine, up and down, side to side, so I can hear the ice crack and shatter, so I can take in breaths that don’t shudder in the exhale, so my shoulders will come down from beneath my ears, if only for a few minutes, before everything freezes again.
An unbroken night’s sleep is a dim memory of a paradise I failed to fully appreciate when last I was there, a priceless gift taken for granted by a spoiled child. All my dreams are frustration dreams, lost in a maze, lost in a vast building without beginning or end, lost in a strange and menacing cityscape, lost in the dark. I snap awake and sit on the edge of my bed with the blanket wrapped over me like my own personal oxygen tent and try to shake the dream off, but it is always waiting for me beneath my pillow when I return, coiled like an asp sent to do murder in the night. Perhaps you can relate.
I have it easy; at least I had a childhood, replete and complete. My 8-year-old daughter is not so fortunate. Someone will coin a glib nickname for her generation — Generation Rona, or something — that will comprehensively fail to encompass the damage she and her peers are absorbing as we speak. Hemingway said the world breaks everyone, and some grow strong at the broken places. I hope to Christ this is true for my daughter, even as I writhe upon bearing witness to the breaking. So begins another COVID school year.
The pandemic exploded the last four months of my daughter’s first-grade year, routed and ravaged the entire term of her second grade, and now waits like some infinitely patient vampire to suck the life out of her third grade. Indifference to the spread of the virus opened the door for the emergence of variants, one of which is proving to be far more menacing to our children. No vaccine is available for those younger than 12.
It is so rotten, so foul, so unfathomably unfair.
It was better for a while. Late spring and early summer actually hedged toward normal. She was back in the school building, masked and distanced but there, and not trying to navigate at-home education via Zoom. She stopped being alone all the time, and her mother and I could see the strain lines lift from her face like a magic trick after the first day she was back.
The beginning of summer camp at the close of June should have been glory, but was instead another false dawn. Just as my daughter was reuniting with camp friends, running through sprinklers and doing crafts with beads after the long gloom, I found myself required to write this:
The inescapable truth emerging from this ongoing crisis is that very little of it is, in fact, under control. Half the U.S. population remains unvaccinated, including children under 12, and a certain segment of that unvaccinated population disdains even the most unobtrusive protections as an affront to freedom, because Trump. Many areas of the world beyond our borders are struggling to contend with the pandemic, allowing the virus to replicate variants that will continue to test our progress, if not subsume it altogether.
I hate that paragraph. I hated it when I wrote it, and I hate it now, because it did not have to be this way. That “certain segment, because Trump” cohort has directly caused an absolutely horrific infection spike in several of the states Trump carried in 2020, a spike that has spread its shadow over the whole country, just in time for school. Governors like DeSantis in Florida, Abbott in Texas and Lee in Tennessee are pitchforking their constituents into the pandemic’s maw because each seeks Trump’s mantle, full in the knowledge that even attempting to do so is a boon to their fundraising efforts.
I find that I am able to function only if I shove the feral scream of rage in my head into a vault with a heavy lock, and even then, my hands shake. It is one thing to say, “A portion of the country no longer believes in the common good.” It is another to watch that unbelief devour my daughter’s happiness like a glutton at the cafeteria.
More than once over the last few weeks, she has asked me, “Daddy, why are you holding your breath?” I realized I was, exhaled slowly, and told her I was thinking of something to write about. This was not a lie: I was thinking of the people who conflate masks and vaccines with fascism, and my fury rose, and I forgot to breathe, again. I am so worried about my daughter that she has begun to worry about me. My calm, soothing, don’t-worry-be-happy façade — held now for 19 months entirely for her sake — has begun to crack.
I had a run-in some days ago at the playground with a member of the Trump brigades. Our daughters played happily on the monkey bars while she and I chatted about nothing in particular. Like a cloud passing over the sun, a portion of our conversation touched upon something that had been touched by the pandemic, and her entire demeanor changed before my eyes.
“I don’t mean to talk politics, but,” she began, and I immediately prepared myself, because I knew full well that whatever came after “but” was going to boil me if I didn’t lock it all down like a ship confronting a gale. I was not disappointed, which is to say I got exactly what I expected. Everything after “but” was a strangled retinue of fiction, false patriotism, un-science and paranoia. She may as well have had a “Q” seared into the middle of her forehead like a Medieval monk emerged from some crumbling splinter abbey on the bleak side of the river.
When my turn to speak came — it turns out she did need to breathe, and so had to stop the ramble for a tick — I kept it as simple as I could: “My grandmother stole sugar packets from restaurants to her dying day because of what she experienced during the Great Depression. I can’t imagine what she went through. To equate wearing a mask for the common good to tyranny and real hardship makes me want to climb a tree and live with the squirrels.”
Verbatim. You can guess I’d been honing that line for such a confrontation, and it did not let me down. She became very still, eyes wide, looking at me like I was a spider she’d found hiding between the pages of her favorite book. “My daughter needs a bottled water,” she muttered, almost to herself. She collected her daughter — dear God, that poor kid — and was gone, leaving me there on the bench to wonder if I’d done any good at all.
Maybe? Doubtful. The poison has been injected deep, as I suspect will be evidenced by Monday’s FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine. Many vax-hesitant people claimed they were waiting for that approval before getting the shot, and now that it’s here, I imagine the next verse will be, “But that approval was too fast.” You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it give a shit about its community.
Remember that great Staples commercial with the dad exuberantly picking out school supplies in front of his two sullen children to the tune of, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”? That was a quarter century ago, and the role reversal now is unsettlingly stark.
Today, most of the kids are champing at the bit to get back to school because it’s normal, Normal, NORMAL! to be in a classroom with children their own age, and not hotboxed at home with doom spilling out of the television like a bilge tide and a tablet standing in for a friend if the kid’s family is able to afford one. The parents, on the other hand, are sullen with worry that the Delta variant will plow through the coming year like a bulldozer with blade down and engine bellowing. Today is the Bizarro World version of that ad.
This is not the aftermath of a meteor strike or a massive earthquake. Actual people are responsible for this slow slide toward another harrowing COVID winter, because they refuse to be responsible for the rest of us, as we have chosen to be responsible for them by masking up, getting the shot and following basic scientific guidance.
Meanwhile, for many parents of young children, autumn threatens to be a season of holding our collective breath. Again.